The Boiling Frog Principle Of Boundary Violation
Jaclyn said some wonderful things in her latest post at Amplify, and one in particular that I want to expand on. She wrote:
When it comes to naming sexual violence, too many of us are like frogs in a pot of slowly heating water – by the time the violation rises to the level of rape, the victim-blame has been heating around us so slowly for so long that we don’t even notice we’re boiling. And so, when an interviewer asks us if we’ve been raped, we say no, even if we’ve just described to that interviewer the details of a rape that was perpetrated against us.
What I’ve tried to tell young women — relatives and their friends, and anyone else who will listen, is that rapists test boundaries by violating them, and examining the reaction. They look for targets who don’t have the tools to set and defend boundaries. And we are in a culture where socialization as a woman is one long harangue against setting and defending boundaries. I’ll never say it better than Harriet Jacobs did in this blogosphere classic:
[W]omen are raised being told by parents, teachers, media, peers, and all surrounding social strata that:
it is not okay to set solid and distinct boundaries and reinforce them immediately and dramatically when crossed (“mean bitch”)
it is not okay to appear distraught or emotional (“crazy bitch”)
it is not okay to make personal decisions that the adults or other peers in your life do not agree with, and it is not okay to refuse to explain those decisions to others (“stuck-up bitch”)
it is not okay to refuse to agree with somebody, over and over and over again (“angry bitch”)
it is not okay to have (or express) conflicted, fluid, or experimental feelings about yourself, your body, your sexuality, your desires, and your needs (“bitch got daddy issues”)
it is not okay to use your physical strength (if you have it) to set physical boundaries (“dyke bitch”)
it is not okay to raise your voice (“shrill bitch”)
it is not okay to completely and utterly shut down somebody who obviously likes you (“mean dyke/frigid bitch”)
If we teach women that there are only certain ways they may acceptably behave, we should not be surprised when they behave in those ways.
And we should not be surprised when they behave these ways during attempted or completed rapes.
Women who are taught not to speak up too loudly or too forcefully or too adamantly or too demandingly are not going to shout “NO” at the top of their goddamn lungs just because some guy is getting uncomfortably close.
Women who are taught not to keep arguing are not going to keep saying “NO.”
Women who are taught that their needs and desires are not to be trusted, are fickle and wrong and are not to be interpreted by the woman herself, are not going to know how to argue with “but you liked kissing, I just thought…”
Women who are taught that physical confrontations make them look crazy will not start hitting, kicking, and screaming until it’s too late, if they do at all.
Women who are taught that a display of their emotional state will have them labeled hysterical and crazy (which is how their perception of events will be discounted) will not be willing to run from a room disheveled and screaming and crying.
Women who are taught that certain established boundaries are frowned upon as too rigid and unnecessary are going to find themselves in situations that move further faster before they realize that their first impression was right, and they are in a dangerous room with a dangerous person.
Women who are taught that refusing to flirt back results in an immediately hostile environment will continue to unwillingly and unhappily flirt with somebody who is invading their space and giving them creep alerts.
People wonder why women don’t “fight back,” but they don’t wonder about it when women back down in arguments, are interrupted, purposefully lower and modulate their voices to express less emotion, make obvious signals that they are uninterested in conversation or being in closer physical proximity and are ignored.
What Jaclyn was writing about is whether women call their experiences rape, and whether they say they’ve been harmed, in the aftermath. And readers of the feminist blogosphere know that a lot of women will deny that what happened to them was rape, even if it met the legal definition where they were, for months or years after. That’s a self-preservation mechanism. People who can’t impose or defend their own boundaries usually can’t handle understanding how vulnerable they are until they are in a position to do something about it. The most common coping mechanism is to front, to save face, to play it off. No big deal. Saying it’s no big deal is taking out a loan on the trauma. (I’m not criticizing; somebody who can’t pay the principal now may be in a better position to clear the balance later. Folks who have been raped have better information about what they need than I do.)
But the issue of boundaries is not an individual issue of what one rape survivor did or didn’t do. People are targets more for structural than personal reasons. There are lots of reasons that people don’t have the tools to set boundaries and have them respected. A lot, but not all, of these things have to do with the categories of “man” and “woman,” and the social constructs around them, but there are others. People are raped because they’re vulnerable due to incarceration or other institutional confinement; because they have a disability and the culture around disability means people feel free to violate them and others don’t listen to them about violation; because their social position is such that they will be blamed and rebuked instead of defended if they report a violation — how many trans women think that going to the cops after being raped will go well for them? How many trans men, how many non-binary identified folks, think they could go to the cops? I expect they’re right about that. These are not my experiences; all I can do is boost the signal on what other people have told me about their experiences.
Rapists look for the spots where boundaries cannot or will not be enforced. They don’t really care why. They are opportunists. They do what works. They can’t be changed. And we sure can’t wait around for the people who can’t defend their boundaries to change it; they’re doing what they can with what they have where they are. More than that, the boundary violations tend to work by degrees, so that the little ones build the foundation for the big ones, and by the time the rape happens the rapist stands on a stepladder of disempowerment. What we as a wider community need to do, if we care about solving the problem, is to take down the ladder. We need to look for the places where boundaries can’t and won’t be enforced … and fix them. We can’t start when and where the rapes happen. We have to start at the beginning. We have to believe that bodily autonomy is a human right, and that the little violations matter. If the whole culture believed that, it might not end all rape, but it would end a culture where rape is normalized and generally unpunished.