Inconvenient boundaries

This morning I had a chat with a female friend of mine in Australia. She thanked me for being the only one of her male friends to like a post related to the rape case Brock Turner in the US. And she wondered why men, from what she observes, usually don’t react to these kind of posts.

Some time later I came across a video of a guy behaving … well, badly doesn’t cover it in the least! And that just because she is wearing something sexy. Watch it till the end because he gets what was coming for him. This might be staged but sadly enough this is reality for too many women.

These things made me think and wonder. Are we maybe afraid to contribute to creating an image that all men are bad? Are we afraid that we get stigmatized when we share something about our fellow men misbehaving badly? I confess that for me that’s sometimes the case and I believe this needs to change.

Thoughts and behaviour

You know what, being a man, I know what goes through our heads when we see a sexy woman who isn’t afraid to dress accordingly: Wow! That looks good! I wouldn’t mind spending a night with her! And when we haven’t had sex for a while we might even get frustrated about it too. I know I have. Yes, it’s true, we men objectify women. There, it’s out. We are sexual beings and in that context we objectify. That doesn’t mean we do it all the time and it doesn’t mean we necessarily objectify sex itself. But denying that it happens hinders dialogue. So does making it wrong.

Now, behaviour is a totally different ball game. We can have objectified phantasies about the other sex but that is no excuse to treat them as objects. People need to be treated as people, no matter how they dress. They could even walk around naked and it still shouldn’t matter! That means being respectful to their boundaries. And boundaries can be so damn inconvenient when applied to others. We all love them when they apply to ourselves. And we want people to respect ours. And we all have the right to insist on that. So do others.


There seem to be a couple of misunderstandings when it comes to boundaries. The first mistake that occurs is that a lot of people seem to have a bit of a weird definition of them. For your information, having a boundary does not equal drawing the line at everything you just happen to dislike. If you don’t like women to dress sexy or gays to show affection in public then that has nothing whatsoever to do with your boundaries. It has everything to do with your preferences, judgements and most likely your inner struggles. And you know what, it’s ok to not like it. It’s not ok to go punch someone in the face for it. It’s not ok to insult someone over it. And it’s not ok to tell them they should change their ways.

So what is a boundary? They only relate to what is truly yours. You have absolutely the last say over who you allow to touch your body, who you give your time to, who you allow to enter your house, what you read, what you watch, who you share your emotions with, … You are the only one who has the right to decide about those things. That means everyone around you also has those rights. This has a couple of consequences. You can not tell someone how they should dress, who they should or should not have sex with, what their sexuality should be like, what gender they should be, what religion they should follow, who they can or can not hang out with, …

And I know this can be challenging. There are occasions when we get angry, jealous or frustrated. That’s ok. But that is no excuse to become violent in any way! Talk about it without projecting it onto the other. If you have a hard time dealing with these emotions there is only one thing to do: talk about it and seek help. There is no shame in that. Far from it, it’s an act of courage! Sometimes friends and family can help us through this but sometimes we need to seek professional help too. There is no shame in that either. These people are trained to help you and everyone wins, including you. And yes, this is most likely very challenging. Especially when the people around you think seeking professional help is for sissies or crazies and that having a real conversation about your emotions is for the weak. They are wrong! Seeking help is for the truly courageous because it might be the hardest thing to do in life.

And to those who are called upon, don’t judge. Create a safe space in which everything can be said and discussed. It’s about helping someone through hard times, not about giving them an instruction manual about how you think they should live their lives. And yes, this too is challenging. There have been plenty of occasions where I was sure I had the perfect solution for the problem but when dealing with emotions things are not that simple.

Education is key

The reason dealing with all this is so hard for many of us is that our society neglected educating us in it. Things are getting slightly better in some schools but we still have a long way to go. Everyone is talking about how we need to prepare our kids for the job market but we are failing to educate them into well balanced human beings. Some would say this is the task of parents. But who teaches the parents? You don’t expect kids to learn engineering from their parents either, right? And believe me, compared to dealing with the complexities of life, engineering is a piece of cake!

We need to act on this! We need to start teaching this in our schools. And these classes must be structured differently than the ones for math and languages. There is no 1 right answer for these things. There are no ‘tests’ for this. What is needed here is a safe space to bring all the messiness to the table and look at it together. Life is complex and it’s a lifetime study. Best to start early.

A task for all of us

For those of us who have managed to build some experience in this, we are the lucky ones. We need to reach out to the ones who are struggling. And although we can not condone violence we still need to show compassion. When you have never known anything else and you have been brought up in an environment where violent behaviour is seen as normal, you often just don’t know any better.

The most important thing though is to not remain silent. When people we know are demeaning or violent to others we need to speak up. We need to make clear their behaviour is not accepted. Note that I said behaviour, not that they are not accepted. This is a very important difference. Changing our behaviour might not be easy but it’s way easier than changing who we are.

When it comes to male violence against women, we especially need us men to speak up against it. We can turn the tide if we work together. Peer pressure can be a great tool when applied for the right causes.

It doesn’t stop there

Men assaulting women is not the only problem we are facing in today’s society. We have hetero’s attacking members of the LBGT community, Christians attacking Muslims, Muslims attacking non Muslims, Jews attacking Arabs, Arabs attacking Jews, whites attacking blacks, … The list is endless but most of these attacks all have one thing in common: the victim just didn’t fit in the right box in the head of the attacker and apparently that is an excuse to insult, assault, kill or maim.

We need to gather the courage to bring all these problems to the table without stigmatizing groups along the way. Not the easiest of exercises but one that we can all lend a hand to.

Let’s break the silence!

Also published on Medium.

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Filed under: Personal Growth


  1. Boundaries eh 🙂

    An interesting read Captain. On some points I disagree. Society needs some shared and accepted boundaries in order to function well. I’m not saying our society has ‘good’ boundaries though. But boundaries are shared as well as personal.

    An example.

    A friend recently complained at five rhythms about men taking their tops off. It ruined the experience for her. She asked the organizers what would happen if a woman took her top off. They said that had happened and they asked her to put it back on. Because it would ‘sexualize’ the space.

    I agree it would not be ok for women to take their tops off at dance. I would question it at festivals and confest too (for men and women). I’ve seen overtly sexual behaviour at confest. One dude spent the whole weekend naked, every time I saw him he had a semi erection. Not cool at a ‘family’ event.

    I don’t think it’s ok for men to take their tops off at dance either. Firstly when men take their tops off it also becomes ‘sexualized.’ (“My spirit has been out there fornicating all over the place”) Secondly it becomes more ‘macho’ which makes people feel uncomfortable. And lastly when the men in question brush past me I get covered in man sweat. If I wanted to be covered in man sweat I’d go naked wrestling at a male sauna.

    If the organizers set a boundary that no one could take their tops off myself and others would welcome it. That would be a good shared boundary that keeps everyone safe and comfortable.

    • You are talking about 2 separate things. Boundaries and agreements. The boundaries I am talking about are strictly personal. Keeping it that way also makes it easier to talk about. Whether or not we then agree to certain rules, those are not boundaries but agreements.
      What you describe could become a dangerous slippery slope though. Do we need to make new rules every time someone feels uncomfortable in the space? What if someone objects to certain types of clothing? Do we put restrictions on that too then? What about the contact improv going on on the dance floor? What about sensual dancing? What about sexy sounding music? See where I am going?
      I’ve been to an ecstatic dance where there was a woman dancing without her top. It didn’t become sexual in any way. It was just an expression of freedom. Sexualisation happens in our head. In some African tribes women are constantly walking around topless and that isn’t sexualized. Sexualisation happens in our own heads. Our Western world sexualizes nudity too much in my opinion. Why do we feel so uncomfortable in the presence of nudity? This is especially the case in Anglo Saxon countries. Move that line enough and we are all headed towards extreme prudishness where we need to cover every inch of flesh in order to not make anyone uncomfortable.
      Maybe, instead of eliminating all discomfort we need to have a conversation on why we feel so uncomfortable and work through it. Together and in respect of people’s boundaries. But moving the entire group toward the smallest common denominator of comfort zones is not a solution in my opinion.
      As for the ‘My spirit has been out there fornicating all over the place’, what goes on in people’s heads is none of our business to be honest. If someone has sex with everyone on the dance floor in their mind, that’s their business and should not be a problem as long as they respect others’ boundaries in their actions.
      Happy to get a conversation going on this 🙂

      • But are they respecting other people’s boundaries?

        Thoughts become behaviours, and if those behaviours make others uncomfortable does that mean those behaviours are ok?

        Many people have complained about men taking there tops off. I personally don’t think it’s ok.

        It’s like that lady said when we were outside 5 rhythms. She gets tired of the leaky sexuality. She’s not the only woman that has expressed a frustration at such disregard to respectIng peoples boundaries.

        I don’t think there’s a clear resolution to the problem. More transparency about what constitutes respectful behaviour within the space might help.

        There’s a specific challenge with dance in that no words are spoken, no agreements made. Which leaves much space for assumption.

        We’re going to have to agree to disagree old friend. For me (and many others) it’s a bit of a messy practice. Not without merit of course, lots of people gain great benefit from such dance practices. I have myself at certain times benefited greatly. But I think the organizers need to do more to make people feel safer.

        • I agree that it’s a messy thing 🙂 Instead of immediately setting rules whenever people feel uncomfortable though I am more a proponent of having a chat about it first. As you said, there are a lot of assumptions being made and those assumptions lead to stories in our heads, which then lead to feelings and emotions triggered by those stories. Those feelings and emotions might therefore rest on false assumptions, which doesn’t serve anyone. So, my suggestion is, talk about it in the group. Make sure everyone is heard and then agree on what the group wants. This might mean that 2 groups need to be formed. One where it is accepted that men take their shirts off and one where it’s not ok. And that’s fine if you ask me. But it needs to be clear. And it’s not all up to the organizers. The participants also need to state they want a discussion about it.
          And it will never be perfect. It will always be at least a bit messy and people will make mistakes. Just getting frustrated and angry about it won’t help though. Talking to the people involved increases those chances quite a bit. And that could also be part of the agreed frame of the space. That people, by entering the space, are open to be approached by others on their behaviour on the dance floor. That creates way more freedom and is more organic than setting hard rules according to the narrowest common denominator of comfort.
          As for thoughts leading to behaviour, it depends. When I am in the kitchen with a knife in my hand, the thought of stabbing someone with it or cutting off a finger sometimes crosses my mind. It has never led to me stabbing someone and I still have all my fingers. Thoughts only lead to behaviour if we let them. We have a choice in that. Trying not to think certain thoughts is futile. This is why the philosophers club which requires you to not think about a white horse for two hours, starting now, has no members. We can not control all of our thoughts. We can control the stories we make up though and we can also control the behaviour we exhibit based on our thoughts and stories. I’ve got another article in the pipeline about thoughts and emotions. This discussion is adding some meat to it 🙂

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