Did I Say That was OK with Me? Understanding Consent and Boundaries
Content warning: This article mentions instances of abuse and sexual assault. If you are a victim or survivor of sexual assault and are in need of support, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline provided by RAINN at 800.656.HOPE (4673).
I’m standing at an intersection, listening and analyzing the flow of traffic and waiting for the safest moment to cross. I hear the parallel traffic and, with my cane out in front of me, I confidently begin to cross the street. Out of nowhere, a “concerned citizen” grabs my arm and says, “This way. Let me help you.” I feel the familiar flush of anger and shame, the tightening of my throat, and the clenching of my stomach. My muscles tense as I wonder what gives this stranger the right to not only assume that I am incapable of crossing this street without their help, but to touch me without even asking first? Do I pull my arm free? Do I say “No thanks, I’ve got this”? Do I just go along with it because I’m already so exhausted from the ongoing onslaught of microaggressions, constant accessibility barriers, and daily harmful assumptions that non-disabled people know what I need more than I do? In this moment in the middle of the street, unwittingly entangled with someone I don’t even know, I feel powerless. No response feels completely right, and I don’t know the best way to reclaim my power and confidence.
As blind people, we are all-too-familiar with this scenario. It might be when we encounter construction, new barriers in a familiar environment, or when we are in a store, bank, or restaurant. We have the shared experience of unwelcome interference by strangers, acquaintances, and even friends and family members.
Imagine a recent incident when you may have experienced some of the sensations, emotions, or thoughts that I mentioned above. These are all signs that someone has neglected to ask for your consent and has violated your boundaries. In order to understand consent, we need to talk about boundaries.
What are boundaries?
- Limits that express respect for our own needs and the needs of others.
- Unique to each person
- Invisible lines that separate your physical space, feelings, needs, values, goals, and responsibilities from those of others.
- Physical, mental, emotional, social, sexual, spiritual, relational, and material.
Understanding and defining your boundaries helps you to know where you end and others begin, and enable you to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable treatment from anyone you encounter.
We all have boundaries, whether we are aware of them and are able to articulate them or not. Setting healthy boundaries requires self-awareness, empathy, and respect for our own needs and the needs of others. When we do not learn about boundaries as children, we move through the world without an understanding of our own limits and the ability to set them and are at a greater risk of experiencing emotional or physical harm.
Why does consent matter?
Consent is not just the absence of a “no”; it is a freely given, enthusiastic “yes.” As people with disabilities, our boundaries—even if we are able to articulate them—are so frequently ignored that it can be difficult to understand what enthusiastic consent does and does not look like. With every unsolicited touch from a stranger, teacher, or parent (even if it is done seemingly for the purposes of instruction), we are taught that our bodies do not belong to us. When consent is so rarely requested from us in a non-sexual context, it is no wonder that people with disabilities are at a significantly higher risk of experiencing sexual or intimate partner violence.
Sometimes, I have a visceral reaction to the frequent boundary violations committed by others because they remind me of other times I felt helpless, of the experiences that have given me the title of “survivor.” In a few milliseconds, I am no longer in the street with a stranger; I am a small child being sexually and physically abused by a family member that I trusted; I’m a young adult, hiding from my drunk boyfriend who is breaking furniture and yelling at me; I am at Washington Seminar and national convention, feeling hands on my skin that I never asked to touch me; I am at another student’s apartment after a party at the training center apartments where I have come to search for my independence, but instead wake up to find a man raping me while I silently cry. The same thread woven throughout these experiences is the thread of powerlessness and self-blame.
What I know now, after years of therapy and learning about boundaries and consent, is that I was not to blame in these situations. Yes, my power was momentarily taken from me, but that does not make me responsible. When I was a child, I could not consent simply because I was a child and had not been taught that I had the right to boundaries and autonomy. When I was assaulted as an adult, nothing I did gave someone the right to take advantage of me without my consent; this includes going over to the student’s apartment and consenting to kissing. Consent is ongoing, can be withdrawn at any time, and consenting to one activity is not a license to advance to another. Now that I have been taught what healthy boundaries look like, I’m better equipped to practice self-compassion, and am empowered to teach others their importance so we can build a culture of consent. As we work towards that, hopefully fewer people will experience the trauma that I have.
What does it look like to set boundaries or ask for consent?
I recently attended an intensive training for a form of trauma therapy called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). A coach who was assisting me by describing training videos asked me if I would like to touch her hand and arm as she demonstrated the signature actions that are necessary for this type of therapy. If my movements were incorrect, she asked me if I would be okay with her touching my hand and arm to make an adjustment. She asked if she could either tap on my knees or cue me verbally to tap on my own knees so I could learn the pace and duration of the tapping, which is essential to my understanding of how to deliver this modality as a blind therapist. In all of these instances, the coach sought my permission and feedback on my comfort level with her actions. If I had said “no” at any point, I am confident that my boundaries would have been honored and a different solution discovered.
My consent, needs, and autonomy being valued in these ways helped me to feel seen, heard, and valued. As I reflect back on this experience, I recognize how strongly it contrasts with the feelings of shame, anger, and powerlessness I experience in those all-too-common scenarios when someone swoops in and commandeers my body, time, or sense of control without my permission.
Maybe next time I am crossing that street, and a well-meaning person grabs me to provide help I do not need or want, I’ll recall this experience where my boundaries were beautifully honored and my consent was desired. Maybe I’ll remember that I do have power, and that it is never rude to expect others to respect my body and personhood.
Just because we’re disabled, it doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to consent, autonomy, and our own decision-making power. This applies throughout the entire process—from sexual misconduct or other consent/boundary violations, to the sharing and use of our survivorship stories, to our path of processing and healing from trauma and boundary violations.
It is never too late to start the practice of honoring your own and others’ boundaries. Every time you set a boundary and someone respects it, and every time you ask for enthusiastic consent from another, you are both healing the wounds in others and also healing your own.
— Sarah Meyer