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The Boiling Frog Principle Of Boundary Violation

September 14, 2010

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.

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30 Comments leave one →
  1. Allegra permalink
    September 14, 2010 11:56 am

    Absolutely true, I spend a good amount of time trying to debunk these ideas and give women and men the power over their own bodies. So thank you.

  2. cathy permalink
    September 14, 2010 1:48 pm

    My niece goes to tae kwon do and she believes that it’s not nice to hit someone. I’m glad that her parents set her straight on when it’s appropriate to hit someone.

  3. September 14, 2010 4:05 pm

    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.

    I’m not a woman, but I’ve had htis happen to me. A guy I dated for 2 months kept violating my boundaries, and when I went ot my friends hoping to get a “Yeah- that’s busted” I just got “You’re a bad partner for not wanting to do that!” or “How can you expect a guy to date someone who doesn’t want to do that?!”. It kind of led to me being extremely anti-sexual for a few years because I assumed that must be what all sexual activity was like- violating boundaries and harming people.

    Thankfully, I did have some boundaries set enough- after he wouldn’t accept my “maybe someday”s to sex and kept pressuring me into it, I finally just said “no”. (which is actually what got me told off by one of my friends. How dare I react negatively to someone constantly pressuring me into something I didn’t want to do right then?!) I think the mentality that if a man puts effort into you, he deserves something from you is a big part of why I dated him in the first place. He spent 7 or 8 months asking me out before I finally said yes (“He’ll be moving in a month, what could happen?” 14 and STUPID)- I thought I was supposed to be flattered, that the hounding and ignoring my “no”s was supposed to be translated as “Gosh, he really likes you! Why don’t you give him a chance?” (eurgh). That’s what romance songs teach us, right? If someone really likes you, they show it by not taking no for an answer. How romantic!

    14. Stupid. Didn’t even know there was anything between kissing and sex or that anyone actually had sex before marriage. So I was thinking “the most that could happen is kissing- that shouldn’t be too bad”. And, besides, “no means no”. So if you say no, the other person stops. It’s like the magic words we’re taught about in school. Right.

    • September 15, 2010 10:44 am

      Dreki, what happened to you is wrong. 14 isn’t stupid; we were all 14 once. We should be able to bungle our way through out early relationships and sexual encounters without being pressured to do things we don’t want to do or are not ready for, and our friends should support us.

      • September 15, 2010 10:56 pm

        I agree with that. I don’t really blame myself too much, but I still hate that I let my own feelings get drowned out by people who didn’t know exactly what I was feeling and who clearly had no room in their minds that what was happening was happening.

    • ginmar permalink
      October 13, 2010 4:34 pm

      You weren’t stupid. You were innocent. You didn’t even know what boundaries were, much less how to build them and reinforce them.

  4. September 14, 2010 6:25 pm

    This is so dead on; it took me ages to accept that my rape by a “friend” was actually rape. After all, I followed him upstairs to his dorm room from a party, and I had been drinking.

    We as human beings need to do all we can to end acceptance of rape, sexual assault, abuse as a fact of life. Property crime is all too often treated more seriously than crime against our bodies, and when it’s treated as an equally bad problem it’s to use property crime as a metaphor for rape in a way that trivializes the crime.

  5. Donna permalink
    September 15, 2010 9:41 am

    One thing that troubles me is the way same sex sexual harassment/assault/rape is ignored. In high school, my daughter was involved with a girl who, at first, seemed very nice. But the relationship quickly turned obsessive, and my daughter became a totally different person. Isolated, angry, withdrawn and secretive. She started wearing different clothes, talking different, refusing to do things she always loved. It took a lot to even get to the point where she would open up to me about what was going on. Then she showed me IM transcripts and notes. Threats, coercion, lies to bind them together. I talked to the girl’s parents who denied that there even was a relationship going on. I talked to the school, who refused to believe that a girl could be stalking and abusing — the same counselor who had another girl’s obsessive boyfriend suspended for doing the same things. They refused to acknowledge any issue.

    My daughter got the help she needed, but no help from the school system who refused to believe that a girl could ever be an abuser.

    Yes, same sex sexual abuse and harassment happens. It needs to be widely addressed.

  6. September 19, 2010 6:09 pm

    This is a great post. The comments have been wonderful too. Thank you.

  7. Donald permalink
    September 20, 2010 1:47 pm

    I agree entirely. Society needs to teach women that standing up for yourself is OK. Doing so also has the advantage of making clear that you’re not happy to the people around you. That greatly increases the chance of someone stepping in to warn the aggressor off.

  8. shirelee permalink
    October 13, 2010 3:21 pm

    I think this is the best article I have ever read about rape. This:

    “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.”

    is so true. At 21, as a vulnerable girl with family problems who’d only had sex 4 times in my life with a man who treated me like something precious, I was pursued and became involved with a local drug dealer and alcoholic who came in the shop where I worked. He was 15 years older than me. I had never tried any drug, and in fact he never encouraged me to and I still never have.

    He took advantage of my inability to stand up for myself and my lack of experience. On two occasions, he forced me to have sex with men of his acquaintance, though I have always struggled to define it as rape. On one of those occasions, he arrived at my house when he knew my parents were away on holiday. He was supposed to arrive alone, but brought a ‘friend’ with him, who turned out to be a recovering heroin addict who had just got out of prison. They were both drunk and high – apparently they had been doing coke. They came in and sat down, and before long, my ‘boyfriend’ started to turn the conversation to his sex life with me. He told me that his ‘friend’ would like sex with me, and started trying to pull my top up and my skirt off. I said no and that I didn’t want to but he ignored me and carried on, fighting me to pull my skirt up to my waist and touch me. I protested repeatedly but he ignored me. I was scared, because I was alone in my house, a house I couldn’t just run out of, with two strong men, one of whom I had already learned the hard way had enough strength to overwhelm me whether I liked it or not. So I gave in, and ended up being forced to have anal and oral sex with the ‘friend’, unprotected. It was obvious that I was upset, in fact I was crying. As soon as it was over, I ran upstairs and got in a bath of the hottest water I could run, so hot it scalded my skin, because I felt so violated. I also cut my arms with a knife. My ‘boyfriend’ came and found me in the bathroom with blood in the water. I got in bed and curled up in the foetal position, and he came and got in with me. He feigned apology and told me the friend had gone, then started trying to touch me himself, telling me how horny he found the whole thing. In the end, I gave in and let him have sex with me – I was crying.

    The next day, he used the excuse that he was drunk/high and he was sorry, but it was one of two similar incidents, along with others where he forced me to have sex with him or pinned me down physically against my will. He told me he’d only ever behaved like that with one other woman in his life – the reality was that he was an exploiter and had chosen to behave like that with the two women/girls he’d encountered who didn’t have the tools to fight back or defend themselves.

    For many years I told myself it was my fault, because I should have said no better and maybe if I had been more forceful it wouldn’t have happened. Now I realise that he chose me deliberately, that he tested my ability to defend myself and was aware that he could abuse me because I didn’t have the tools to defend myself. That he chose me deliberately, as a victim.

    Nevertheless, in law, as far as I am aware, my experience was not rape, because I ended up consenting out of fear rather than continuing to fight. It is hard to define such things in law, and yet it makes it difficult to deal with what happened to me, because technically, I consented to my own abuse and therefore it is ‘my fault’.

    Your definition and understanding of rape is insightful – I only wish it was one more people shared. The number of people I have told what happened to me who I have felt have judged that my experiences were my own fault (because they wouldn’t have allowed it to happen to them), or would not accept that this was rape far outnumber those who think my boyfriend’s behaviour was deeply wrong or criminal. Maybe in law, they are correct, but in moral terms? I do feel I was raped.

    • October 13, 2010 3:49 pm

      Shirelee, what they did to you was rape, morally and also legally just about everywhere in the US. I won’t tell you that the criminal justice system is good or fair or that a prosecutor or a jury would do the right thing or that prosecution is right for you or that the statute of limitations hasn’t run, but don’t feel the need to qualify your experience. It’s not some kind of gray area. Not fighting because you’re scared isn’t consent. It was rape, no two ways about it, and it was not your fault. Not legally, not technically, not kind of, not sort of, not at all. Not your fault.

      I can say that I’m sorry for what happened to you, and I can type it a million times, and it will never undo what was done to you. But I’ll say it anyway. I’m sorry for what happened to you. You didn’t deserve it. An evil person targeted you, and nothing you ever did or didn’t do makes any of it your fault. They made choices — cruel, abusive choices, and they harmed you. Their excuses are all bullshit. They’re adults and they’re responsible for the choices they make and the harm they did is their fault.

      I hope you can find some peace.

    • stillfeelbad permalink
      June 17, 2013 2:37 pm

      I know this is way after the posting date. I hope that’s still ok. This post and Shirelee’s story really hit home. As a freshman in college, I was told a story by a friend about a former friend of hers who I had/have never met. This girl (my friend’s friend) and her boyfriend were at a party at a house of one of his friends. They retired to another room with another of his friends. Her boyfriend “started sending her signals that he wanted sex right then and she was uncomfortable because his friend was in the room, but went ahead because they were under a blanket and his friend would get up and leave.” His friend joined them. I’ve never considered myself a rape apologist, but (to my later shame) I didn’t realize this was rape. I knew something was off about the situation and I couldn’t understand why the guys acted like that, but I didn’t know what to say. I think I said something about “that’s messed up.” I didn’t think to ask if she was ok.

      • stillfeelbad permalink
        June 17, 2013 2:38 pm

        Slight clarification to above, I never said anything bad about her

  9. Leah permalink
    October 25, 2010 3:17 pm

    I absolutely agree with everything you said. Though I am grateful that I have not experienced sexual assault, I have certainly experienced situations in which my boundaries were pushed far enough that I had plenty of upsetting and confusing feelings afterward. There is so much wrong with the “no means no” slogan. Even if it were true – that you could get someone to stop just by saying “no” – it still doesn’t solve the problem. There are so many times when I really didn’t want to say “no,” or wasn’t sure if it was ok to say “no,” and in a yes/no binary, if it’s not no, it’s yes. But it wasn’t yes. It has to be yes!

  10. brilliantmindbrokenbody permalink
    September 16, 2012 10:36 pm

    A very good post.

    When I was 17, and a very innocent 17 at that, I met a guy. He was smart, and he was funny, and I liked him. A friend warned me to be careful with him, and I wish to god I’d listened better. I thought I could protect myself – I’d taken self-defense courses, and even fought off an attacker. He…well, let’s just say boundaries weren’t his thing. I didn’t really know that until I’d put myself in a very bad position – not entirely my fault, my car broke down permanently on the way to this very bad position. I would have had to do something obviously socially transgressive to get out of the situation, and like the Good Girl I am, I didn’t.

    After the fact, I talked about the fact that things weren’t entirely consensual and the way he hurt me physically and wouldn’t take ‘Stop, that hurts!’ as a cue to, well, stop. He threatened me with a libel suit. It scared me – like I said, very innocent 17. I ended up taking out the loan because I couldn’t pay the principle, to borrow your metaphor.

    The sad thing is that our mutual friends almost all supported me. They weren’t completely shunning him, but they recognized what had gone down as an abusive situation and reacted accordingly – sometimes physically shutting him up when he belittled me, giving me an ‘out’, and generally directing him away from me.

    That ‘loan’ came due about 4 years after the fact. I was…a mess…for about 2 years. Somewhere in the middle of that time, I dated a guy who had no respect for boundaries, who said I was crazy when I called him out and told him we were done, and let’s just say it didn’t help anything.

    Even though it was well within the statute of limitations, the sheriff’s office declined to continue an investigation, because there wasn’t enough ‘proof’. I told them that I could get the names and contact information of people who had seen that the situation was “intimate” in an ugly way, I told them that there was record of the fact that we attended a music festival during that period, and…well, it didn’t matter. Not enough proof, my word against his, and well my word against his wasn’t enough to prosecute. I guess sexual assault (not rape, legally speaking, but definitely sexual assault) and statutory rape just don’t really matter when you’re talking about someone who wasn’t far below the age of consent, who couldn’t handle reporting at the time.


  11. Emily permalink
    September 19, 2012 12:47 am

    Oh my Gosh.

    This really hit home for me. I am lucky enough to have never been raped, but I have been harassed and groped by a co-worker at my first job. I was 18, and I hadn’t learned what the danger signs were, and when it was ok to be mean. Just like it says here, I didn’t understand that sometimes you *need* to be a b@@@@, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I had been taught all my life to be friendly and subtle in social situations- I didn’t even realize the guy was hitting on me when he asked me my age. I just told him I was 18, which of course to him meant “she’s legal- full steam ahead!” We’d even chat at lunch sometimes, being, you know, co-workers and fellow human beings. Long story short, he ended up coming up behind me in the back room and groping me over my clothes, making me cry a bit and beg him to just let me get the shoes I was there for- he didn’t register or care that I was pushing him away the whole time. After that I avoided him at work, but didn’t ever report it. In the next couple weeks he got himself fired for something unrelated, so my immediate problem was solved, but I still remember how completely and totally unprepared I was for the whole thing.

    I wonder if I should try to find out where he is now, if he’s still in the local retail industry, and give his female managers a heads-up about those tendencies. He was always inviting me to hang out with him and his friends, and I dread thinking what might have happened if I had been just a little more naive and ever gone with him, even with a friend of my own. I hope to god he hasn’t done the same or worse to another girl or woman.

  12. July 22, 2013 4:00 pm

    Reblogged this on jenniferallen1976.

  13. July 22, 2013 4:02 pm

    Reblogged this on Lady Parts.

  14. March 21, 2014 7:37 pm

    A point to make: We HAVE to teach our children bodily autonomy. Don’t let grandma pinch cheeks if the child says no, don’t make her stand still for kisses from relatives, no birthday spankings, no tickling, no unwanted hugs. If No doesn’t mean No for a child (not over necessary things, but displays of “affection”), it won’t mean No when they grow up. And if they didn’t really mean it when they said No or Stop….they will learn not to say it unless they mean it. Also, no saying sorry when you aren’t!


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