Five Ways You’re Violating Women’s Personal Boundaries (And Probably Don’t Even Realize It)

By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist

Personal boundaries are your personal rules and principles that spell out what you will or won’t do or allow. Most people can identify obvious boundary violations, such as sexual assault, physical violence, name calling, cutting ahead of others in a line, stealing, and reading someone else’s email, text messages, or diary. While it’s obvious that the preceding five examples are boundary violations, there are five subtle boundary violations that women experience so often that most people don’t even realize they’re boundary violations because they’re accepted as normal behaviour. It’s important to note that these boundary violations are committed by both men and women. Even though the following examples also happen to men (and shouldn’t be tolerated when they do), they happen to women more often and are typically dismissed as the woman being “too sensitive”, “bitchy”, or “making a big deal out of nothing”. Read on to find out more:

1)Asking “Why?” when a woman says no.

The word “no” is a complete sentence and doesn’t require an explanation or justification.

If a woman doesn’t want to do something, that’s the end of the conversation. You must accept that and not interrogate her or try to negotiate with her. It is not your right to try and talk her out of doing something she doesn’t want to do.

Unfortunately, the following scenarios happen to women far too often and have led many to believe that it’s acceptable to have their “no” questioned:

  • Asking her why she declined an alcoholic beverage that you offered her.
  • Asking her why she didn’t order alcohol at a restaurant.
  • Questioning her decision not to attend a wedding, baby shower, bridal shower, or any event where attendance and gift giving are typically expected of women.
  • Questioning why she declined your offer to spend time with you.
    • If she provided a reason, trying to convince her to go out with you anyway. Or simply dismissing her reason altogether (“Instead of going to the gym after work, you could go to the gym in the morning, and see your dentist another day so we can have dinner together tomorrow night.”).
    • Judging her reason for not wanting to spend time with you (“Why do you want to stay home when you can have dinner with me?”).

While some may think it’s not a big deal to question why a woman doesn’t want to go out for dinner or tell her to go to the gym at a different time, it’s actually sending the message that when a woman says “no”, it can be ignored, dismissed, criticized, or even made fun of.

What if this was a sexual situation? If she said no to sexual activity and you repeatedly asked her why, criticized her, or dismissed her and tried to make her do something she wasn’t comfortable doing, you’re telling her that you don’t respect her “no”– and that includes her decision not to have sex with you (and you just sexually assaulted someone, which is a crime and could lead to jail time). Boundaries – whether physical (including sexual), emotional, or spiritual – are non-negotiable.

2) Touching a woman’s hair or clothing without asking.

Just because we like the way a woman looks or what she’s wearing doesn’t give us the right to touch her. How many times have you reached out to feel a woman’s hair or touch her sweater without asking? Remember: Other people’s bodies (including what they put on their bodies) don’t belong to you. If something doesn’t belong to you, you’re not allowed to touch it.

3) Touching a pregnant woman’s belly without asking.

This technically falls under point #2, but for some, common sense disappears when pregnancy and children are involved. Whether you know the pregnant woman or not, it’s never ok to touch a pregnant woman’s belly. Think about it: would you want someone coming up to you and touching your belly (pregnant or not) without asking? The fact that people do this shows how women’s bodies are considered public property. Keep your hands off pregnant women’s bellies. If you want to touch a pregnant woman’s belly, ask her first if it’s okay. Just don’t be surprised when she say no (and if she does say no, refer to point #1).

4) Addressing a woman by her first name when the situation doesn’t warrant it or when she tells you not to.

Times have changed since the 1950s when we would address our superiors at work as Mister or Miss. Nowadays, most people would laugh at the thought of addressing their manager by their proper title and family name. While this might be acceptable where you work, not everyone in your life wants to be addressed by their given (first) name. Next time you’re at a medical, dental, counselling, naturopathic, or chiropractic appointment, pay attention to how the female health care practitioners introduce themselves. When she introduces herself as Doctor, do you then address her by her given name? Do you do this to the male health care practitioners or do you address them as Doctor? Why would you comply with a male doctor’s request but ignore the request of a female doctor? Don’t assume that the professionals you meet are comfortable being on a first-name basis with you. If you’re unsure, ask.

5) Telling women how to live their lives.

You might think you would never do this, but think about what you’ve said to women who have told you something about their lives that is different from your own. For example, maybe they don’t want to get married, have children, work a traditional 9-5 job, own a home, have pets, drink alcohol, eat certain foods (e.g. meat, chips, chocolate, strawberries), dye their grey or white hair, or own a car. Did you ask why with the intention of trying to understand her choice or to shame her for not living her life the way you think she should? If you chose the former, your desire to expand your worldview is commendable. If, after hearing her reasons, you told her why you believe she should live her life like you, you have violated her emotional boundaries.

Think twice before trying to convince someone to think, feel, or act like you. Don’t demand an explanation when you’re not owed one. It’s none of your business why a woman isn’t living her life the way you think she ought to. Respect that people are different from you and don’t owe you an explanation for why they live their lives differently than yours.

The lesser-known, but more frequently violated personal boundaries, include asking “Why?” when a woman says no, touching a woman’s hair, clothing, or pregnant belly without asking, addressing a woman by her first name when the situation doesn’t warrant it or when she tells you not to, and telling women how to live their lives. If you’ve committed any of these errors, don’t despair. Read this list over a few times (because you’re probably going to forget that these are boundary violations). Be aware of your actions, listen and respect the boundaries of others when they tell you to stop doing something, and work on identifying and strengthening your own personal boundaries.  Asking to understand is very different than asking to force others to live like you do. You may not think it’s a big difference, but I assure you that it comes across not just in your words, but in your body language and tone of voice.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of these boundary violations, it’s up to you to enforce your boundaries assertively. Your boundaries teach others how to treat you. Make sure you’re setting a good example.

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