Keep Them Coming: Boundaries and healing

Illustration by Shelby Phelps

Content warning: This piece discusses sexual violence and consent violation.

Let’s talk about it again…

It’s Sexual Health Month, and this year’s theme is Consent. Since I recently provided a framework for navigating weed and consent in the April issue, this time I want to offer advice for navigating consent violations. 

Consent, from a sex education standpoint, is conceptualized as permission or an agreement for something to happen. Local sexual health advocates and educators Barrier Babes say on their condom packs to remember the acronym: COME (Clear, Open, Mutual, Enthusiastic). Add “Revocable” to that list, and you have your basics covered. 

Local therapist Chuck Franks of the Midwest Sexual Health Institute believes there is a more nuanced approach to consent.

“I shift the conversation from an act-centered definition to a principle-centered definition,” Franks says.

On imparting the concept of consent, Becca Anderson, MSW with MOCSA, says, “I always talk about how if you’ve ever been invited to a party that you thought was awesome, and then you got there and it wasn’t awesome, you have the right to leave.”

Informed consent means you have all the information you need to consent or decline. Omission of facts like not disclosing STI status or not getting clear and enthusiastic approval for things like filming a sex act are violations of informed consent. 

Deep consent conversations happen in some communities, be it gay males, kinksters, swingers, and other sex-positive groups, for example. They have complexities around consent that some folks simply don’t experience. Consent isn’t always so cut and dry, and neither is a violation. 

What is a consent violation?

The Consent Academy says that a consent violation happens when “someone believes their consent was broken or a set boundary was crossed.” It further asserts that “only the person who experienced harm within the event gets to decide if their consent was violated.”

Anyone—any gender, age, or ability—can experience a consent violation. This could include unwanted touch like a hug from a first date even though you said “no,” a partner who touches your body in a way you’ve asked them not to, sexual violence, and more.

When discussing what happens in real life, it can be incredibly complicated to pin down further. 

Franks says, “I have sexual health conversations with individuals and couples about how they define consent rather than me being authoritarian and imposing an external definition of consent.”

To say there must be continued learning on this subject is an understatement. For example, my teen brain could never have processed what not going to the cops looked like after intimate partner violence, but after countless conversations, I know far too many reasons for not reporting. My 30-year-old self didn’t know that there are processes for transforming harm and reconciling a situation between parties when a consent violation has happened in a sex-positive community, such as in the instance of sex educator Reid Mahalko’s public accountability process. 

Your boundary was set. You have determined your consent was violated. Now what?

Since there is such a large spectrum of consent violations, there is no perfect way to handle a consent violation against you. It’s complicated and messy because humans are complicated and messy. Take what resonates with your situation and leave the rest.

Safety first: If you need to leave and find a safe place, then go. If you have to stay or aren’t sure if you’re unsafe, you may consider turning to organizations like MOCSA or Safe In Harm’s Way for support.

Talk to someone if you need help sorting through feelings. 

Anderson says, “We never want to define somebody’s experience.” 

She reminds people that just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it was okay. 

Talking to someone can help normalize whatever you’re feeling.

Everyone handles trauma differently.  

“A lot of times we have an initial trauma response,” Anderson says.

MOCSA has a support line anyone can call to discuss their situation. You can talk to a therapist or counselor you already know. Support professionals will not tell you what to do but rather offer potential action steps. Ultimately, you are the only one who can decide how to proceed. 

In situations where you want or have to continue to be around the person that violated your boundaries, and you decide to discuss their actions in order to move forward, how the violator reacts may dictate if accountability and transforming harm are even possible. 

The offender doesn’t get to decide that they did not cross a line. 

“There are explanations that aren’t excuses. So maybe giving context for what they were thinking so that they can make sure that that doesn’t happen again can be helpful,” says Anderson. 

If they become defensive, say they didn’t do anything wrong, ignore you, tell you you’re crazy, or do a number of other acts that are outside of ownership and accountability, it may not be possible to do the work together until they can. 

Ask yourself if this is a repeated pattern or if you were surprised by their violation. 

A friend, who was kind enough to discuss their consent violation with me for this piece, said that taking into account the one-offed nature of the offense influenced their decision to move forward once an apology was issued and they were ready to be held accountable. Had it been a pattern of behavior, they may have treated the situation differently. 

Communication is the vehicle for connection to other humans. Talking about these things is only part of the equation. Discussing the harm an action caused, holding space for the person who was harmed, apologizing without excusing behavior, and deciding how to move forward together can be healing for both parties. 

Resources: MOCSA, Midwest Sexual Health Institute, The Consent Academy, RAINN, 988, National Domestic Abuse Hotline  

You can find Kristen @OpenTheDoorsKC on Twitter or

Categories: Culture