The Difficulty of Asserting Boundaries

I was on a panel at WisCon earlier this year entitled ‘Be Firm, Be Pithy, Be Gone,’ in which we talked about the experience of asserting boundaries, asking to have our space respected, and creating scripts for dealing with intense, frustrating, or scary social situations. And then, on my way home, I had a perfect illustration of why that panel was so necessary — and how the things we talked about played out in the real world. I wouldn’t have had the courage of self-possession to handle that situation the way I did if I hadn’t been on the panel talking about these very things just the day before, but the fact that I was prepared for the situation didn’t make it any less infuriating.

One of the things I found most fascinating about the panel, which was populated entirely by people who had been socialised as women, was the difference between our experience and that of some of the people in the audience. At one point, we started talking about deescalating: How, as a person who may be smaller, who may have a higher voice, and who, critically, may have a body that is read as public property and an object, you get out of a situation that is potentially dangerous.

When I have an interaction with¬†someone who is aggressive and larger than me — usually a man — who is trying to exert power over me, it is stressful. It’s stressful not just because I’m upset that someone is trying to control me, is trying to act like he owns me, is trying to push me around, but because I find it threatening and scary. I never know if a verbal confrontation is going to turn physical, and men often don’t respect this — it doesn’t occur to them that while they may think they’re being playful or ‘arguing for argument’s sake’ that what they are doing is actually frightening and intimidating.

So I, like many other people with bodies like mine, have learned a variety of tactics for coping with perceived threats, and for getting out of such conversations. Which often means swallowing shit, because the alternative is confronting it and then finding ourselves in danger. It means that when someone says something we find upsetting, or gets pushy with us, that we back down, because we aren’t prepared to deal with conflict that might turn dangerous.

As this came up on the panel, one of the women in the audience stood up and asked why we don’t recommend getting aggressive: Why we don’t stand up, step forward, say no, posture our bodies aggressively. And I realised that we had come to an interesting divide in experience. She had been socialised as a man, and was used to communicating this way and getting the upper hand in conversations. And she was an intimidating woman: Beautiful, tall, well-built. Not the kind of woman you’d want to get into an argument with, no matter what your gender. While her experiences were her own and other people socialised as men might have had different experiences, there’s a thread that runs through the gendered socialisation of children by the world around them, their families, and even themselves.

Another member of the audience pointed out that this was an experiental difference, and it’s one I spoke to at more length as well. Your life is fundamentally different when you were socialised as a woman, even when you have parents and mentors who consciously tried to avoid some common harmful aspects of female socialisation. My father, for example, certainly never told me what I could and couldn’t do. He never told me to be quiet when I saw something wrong happening. He never told me to back down from arguments. He certainly didn’t teach me to fear men.

These are things I picked up from the world around me, where I learned that girls need to be nice, and quiet. Need to not create a ruckus, or disagree. Need to protect themselves from violence, because if something bad happens to them, it’s their fault. I learned that girls need to politely demur in arguments and focus on getting out of potentially dangerous situations — and that when it comes to assessing risks, the threshold for sensitivity needs to be set extremely high. In my case, because I was so conflicted and confused about my gender, I often went overboard in performing femininity in order to aggressively prove that I was a good girl, an experience shared by some other people socialised as women.

It’s a conversation I’ve had over and over again with cis male friends who are largely unconscious of the world around them, when for me, I’m constantly evaluating the world around me. I’m constantly checking for dangers, trying to identify risks, gauging the people in my surroundings. Who poses a risk? Who might intervene if I need help? Who could I turn to if I needed assistance? How many ways are there for me to get out of this room/off this train car? Can I reach the flight attendant call button if my seatmate starts to harass me?

This is the society we live in: it’s difficult for women and people socialised as women to assert their boundaries because they were trained to have no boundaries, and consequently, have to build them up as adults. It’s hard for us to scream in people’s faces, or say ‘no,’ and we have to learn this — which is why some self-defense classes have entire programs dedicated to getting participants to scream, to yell, to shout for help. To get them used to coming at a man wearing heavy gear, pounding at him with all they’ve got, saying ‘NO!

And the consequence of learning boundaries and creating a safer world for ourselves is that we’re punished for it. We’re oversensitive, we’re bitches, we’re cunts, we’re being ridiculous. This is a society that takes our boundaries away at birth on the basis of the genitals we’re dealt, and then registers deep offense when we seize them back.

Image: NO, Nathan Gibbs, Flickr.