How to respond if someone tells you that you violated their consent.

Our culture has finally started talking about consent, but unfortunately often it is only in the context of “yes/no.” In reality, consent, in sexual situations and otherwise, is a conversation, and context matters. Lately I’ve thought a lot about what would help me heal if someone I cared for crossed my boundaries and that’s where this post comes from.

“What counts as a violation of consent?”

In the context of this post a violation of consent can be considered anytime someone comes to you with something along the lines of:

“Hey, last time we had sex, I didn’t really feel comfortable saying no.”

“Hey, you keep touching me in a way that makes me feel weird and I’ve mentioned I’m not into.”

“Hey, last time we fooled around, you surprised me by going further than we talked about, and I don’t think I was ready for that.”

“Hey, you told someone X thing about me without asking me first, and I felt startled and put on the spot.”

These are specific examples, but basically a violation of someone’s consent can be any situation where they did not feel empowered to voice their discomfort or enforce their boundaries.

“But that isn’t what I meant/intended/wanted! They got the wrong idea!”

Intentions are great, and few people ever intend to cross another’s boundaries without permission, but unfortunately we all will at some point. And even if that wasn’t our intent, it is our actions, and the effects they have, that count in the end.

The good news is, when someone tells us we unintentionally violated their consent, that is them trusting us with an opportunity to hear them and make amends/change our behavior for the future.

“I’m sorry” is a great start towards healing. But an apology is more than words, it’s action. Helpful ways to respond if someone tells us we violated their consent:

“Can you tell me what things I said/did that made you feel uncomfortable saying no to what we were doing?”

“What are things I can do to make you feel empowered to speak up in the future?”

“What steps can I take to heal this?”

“What makes you feel safe and heard?”

“Is this something we can work through together?”

“How does this change the boundaries between us?”

“Can we sit down together and talk about what each of our boundaries are, and what makes us feel safe and understood?”

This is by no means an end all be all list, but these are ideas to give you a jump start on how to handle this kind of situation in an affirming way.

“So what shouldn’t I say?”

Avoid pushing responsibility back onto the person you hurt. Hearing that we’ve fucked up, especially in such an intimate way can create a knee-jerk impulse to defend ourselves. But we can’t heal each other if we don’t hear each other and aren’t willing to take responsibility for ourselves.

Here’s what victim-blaming can sound like:

“That isn’t what happened at all!”

“You know me better than that, how could you think that about me?”

“You’re overreacting, it wasn’t like that.”

“How can I trust you to say no to me now?”

“You misunderstood what I meant, let me explain.”

“I’m sorry you felt hurt by this, but…”

Finally, these are things we can get out ahead of before they happen. There will always be situations where we make mistakes and hurt others, but asking others about their boundaries, instead of waiting for them to tell us, can help.

Here are some questions to ask (and answer) to get to know other’s boundaries:

“What are you into?”

“What do you never want to try?”

“What makes you feel safe?”

“How do you like to be approached about trying something new?”

“Are you comfortable with surprises?”

“What makes you feel anxious/scared?”

“What experiences do you try to avoid?”

“What makes you feel ignored?”

“What shows you someone else is listening?”

“What gestures make you feel appreciated?”

“How do you show others appreciation?”

Again, these aren’t a comprehensive list, but are meant to help you get ideas going. An important part of building healthy relationships of all kinds is communication and honesty, as well as taking responsibility when we drop the ball.