Harassment and Boundaries

3481712_xlTechnically this is part of my Pagans and Predators series, but in this case, I’m largely not talking about intentional predators. I’m talking about the ambient harassment and physical boundary-pushing that happens at every Pagan event out there, to a certain extent.

It’s worse at some events than at others.

I’m going to describe a few situations I’ve found myself in at Pagan events, and at some science fiction and fantasy conventions, that I would consider to be in violation of my physical boundaries. In other words, harassment, or even the mild side of physical assault.

And at the time, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t speak up. In some of these cases, I didn’t even realize it was harassment until later.

As more women have started coming forward to speak out about being raped or harassed, I notice that there’s this cultural idea that women wake up the next day after having sex and suddenly, arbitrarily decide, “No, I didn’t want that. I didn’t really consent, I’m going to accuse this guy of rape.” There’s even ads out there, “Don’t be that girl.”

As I’ve posted in past articles on sex and ethics, the idea of being sex positive is a complicated one. Women, for instance, are simultaneously pressured by the dominant culture to be sexualized and sex objects, and pressured to not have sex because it’s “wrong” or “sinful.” And then the pressures of the sex positive movement is that sex isn’t “wrong” or “sinful” and women should enjoy sex…but, there’s a pressuring in that too.

And it’s not just women facing these pressures.

At Pagan events like conferences and festivals, and at other subculture events I’ve attended like science fiction and fantasy conventions, there’s varying levels of pressure to be ok with sex. The idea that being sex positive means that casual touch is ok.

Or, the more insidious side of the supposedly sex-positive culture is, “If you don’t like sex you’re a prude, you’re bad.”

Looking back, I’ve put up with a lot of touching and inappropriate comments under the auspices of not wanting to be “that girl.” Not wanting to be the party pooper, the prude, the person who was no fun. That’s a label I’ve held in my life and it’s one I’ve avoided getting stuck with.

But when I review certain situations, I see where I really wanted to say, “I’m not ok with this,” and I didn’t because I was afraid of offending people and being labeled the party pooper.

And that’s the communal problem we have–it’s the peer pressuring that we don’t even realize we’re engaging in that makes someone allow touching and other behavior that they aren’t ok with, for fear of being labeled (and thusly, rejected) for being “the party pooper.”

And as long as we see holding boundaries as someone who is ruining the group’s fun, we’re going to keep running into these problems.

If you want a quick review of what I mean by boundaries, and particularly the difficulty with poor boundaries in terms of people pleasing, one of my past blog posts might help. In the second half of the article I especially talk about the issues of boundaries and people pleasing. In other words–we are afraid to say “no” because it will offend someone.

What would happen if we, instead, honored and respected someone’s boundaries? If we asked them if it was ok before trying to hug them, if we respected someone’s desire to not drink alcohol or smoke without teasing them. What if instead of complaining about all the nasty jokes we can’t tell because then someone will complain, what if instead of worrying about how all these boundaries are going to spoil our fun, we look at the community we keep saying we want to be part of?

If we want a sex positive community and culture, that means we have to respect people’s boundaries.

Touching people without their consent is not sex positive. Telling people they are ruining the group’s fun and that they are ashamed of their sexuality because they don’t want to be groped in public is not sex positive.


Yes, there’s that axiom; “Pagans hug, you’ll get use to it.” And, I have. I just kind of freeze over my body when people I don’t know come up and hug me without asking me. Truthfully, I don’t mind a short hug. I don’t like a long hug with someone I don’t know well. In fact, I don’t generally like much physical contact with people I don’t know well. People who genuinely like hugging don’t get this about people who don’t like hugging. How can you not like hugging?

Thing is–it’s an issue of consent. At the very least, offer someone the chance to decline the hug without any major drama. I always appreciate it when someone asks if I’m ok with a hug, particularly if I’m at a Pagan festival and my shoulders are sunburned. Generally I’m fine with a quick hug. Some folks I know really  find it uncomfortable to be hugged. For instance, some folks on the autism spectrum find physical touch to be extremely distressing.

The reason doesn’t matter, and you don’t need to know if someone’s triggered by touch because of sexual assault or if they just don’t like to be touched. People who don’t like physical touch don’t need to be “fixed.”

If I’m being really truthful, I’d probably decline more hugs at events if I weren’t concerned that I’d offend people. However, I’m in that gray area where, while I don’t prefer random hugs, I can also be generally ok with them. But I’m a lot more ok with them if someone asks first.

Hug from Behind
This past year at a Pagan conference Michigan, I was standing at one of the registration tables getting my badge holder set up. Someone ran up to me from behind and said, “Shauna!” and wrapped their arms around me. I was kind of half standing up by then, but I had no idea who was behind me. I had to keep myself from my body’s automatic reflex which was to turn and shove.

It turned out to be someone that I know, but, let me just articulate that this is several degrees worse than an unasked-for hug from the front. It doesn’t matter if you know me…if you come running at me from behind and touch me, and I don’t know who you are, some of us find that to be really threatening or at least unnerving.

There’s a list of maybe five people where I’d be ok with them wrapping their arms around me when I can’t see them, and in all of those cases, I’d need to know who it was ahead of time. In other words–that type of physical intimacy is really not ok with me in a public place where it could be anyone.

I talked to a friend who had the same thing happen at a convention. She was in the vendors room when someone came up to her from behind to hug her. She was talking to a vendor at that time. She stood up straight and said, “That better be my husband.” The vendor smirked and said, “Or someone really cute.”

My friend put it really succinctly. How is it–in any way–ok just because the person doing it is cute?

You might see this as just innocent hijinks. Just someone teasing someone else. That if someone is saying no, that they aren’t ok with being touched like that, that they are a spoil-sport. I would say that someone unknown to me touching me in a way that I didn’t consent to is getting pretty close to assault.

And yet, we make exceptions. It’s just a convention, it’s just a festival, it’s just Pagans…

Let’s rewind. It’s not ok. Just because you want it to be ok for you to touch someone without asking, doesn’t make it ok. Ask before you touch. Always.

Cleavage is not Consent
So here’s another thing that happened to me at a Pagan convention. I was hanging out with some friends who like to drink and party. I don’t really drink, but, I wanted to spend time with my friends. They were a little more rowdy than I was, but I was basically all right with that. I’m not really a party animal, but this was the only way I’d get to hang out with these particular people.

One of the alcoholic substances in their ensemble was that they had some spray whipped cream cans with chocolate liquor whipped cream.

That particular evening, I was wearing something that showed off my cleavage. At some point as things got rowdier and the laughing went up a few decibels, after I’d declined yet another offer of a drink, my friends reached over and sprayed chocolate whipped cream on my cleavage and told their friend to lick it off.

Now–let’s hit pause for a moment. One of the things I hear a lot when people are denouncing victims of harassment is, “Well, why didn’t you say no?”

In this particular instance, everything happened so fast, there wasn’t time to say no. By the time I had even taken a breath to speak, their friend was already doing what they had told him to do. Let me describe one of the least sexy moments of my life. I felt like I was watching my own body from far away. I couldn’t even really feel what the guy was doing because I just completely disassociated from the physical sensation in shock.

By the time I’d even wrapped my brain around what was happening, it was done.

Speaking Up
In neither of these cases did I speak up and say, “I’m not ok with what you did, you violated my physical boundaries.” In neither of these cases did I complain to the staff or security. Why? Well–because these were my friends, right? They didn’t mean any harm, I was just taking it the wrong way, I was just oversensitive, I was just a stick in the mud and they were more party animals, right?

We have to stop raising up on a pedestal this idea that people who speak up about their boundaries are spoiling people’s fun and thus, deserving of victim blaming and derision.

I didn’t say anything because I knew they’d just roll their eyes and think I was overreacting. And it never occurred to me to talk to security. Thing is, I know that these folks didn’t mean any harm by their actions. But this is a form of sexual harassment nonetheless.

I want to point your attention to this fine article addressing harassment policies from scifi conventions that could be adapted for Pagan events.  http://wildhunt.org/2014/04/addressing-safety-at-pagan-conventions-and-festivals.html

The article addresses different types of inappropriate behavior and a potential range of consequences.

The article outlines the “Costume is not Consent” campaign at CONvergence, a scifi/fantasy convention. And while most harassment complaints come from women, I’m pleased that this article references the “kilt checks” that happen at events. If you’re unfamiliar with a kilt check, it’s where a woman (or group of women) will go up to a man or men dressed in kilts and, often without their permission, reach up under their kilt to grope them to see if they have underwear on under the kilt or if they are going “regimental style.”

All in good fun, most people would say…except, again we’re looking at totally violating someone’s physical boundaries without consent.

Here’s another example from my distant past. And, until talking about harassment with others in the past weeks, I never thought of this as harassment. I never would have labeled it as such, and yet I have to now acknowledge it for what it was.

And once again–this wasn’t someone with malicious intent. It was someone who really wasn’t good at respecting physical boundaries.

I was 18, and I was attending my first Scifi/Fantasy convention. As it happens–this particular convention happened at the same hotel that CONvergence (the scifi/fantasy convention referenced above) is located at. This was the conference that predated CONvergence.

Anyhoo. A friend of mine told me about this event and I met up with her at the hotel. It was my first year of college in Minneapolis. After going through the registration line, my friend was introducing me to some other friends of hers, including a very flirty guy she knew from the Renaissance Faire.

I’m not entirely sure how this all happened so fast, but we went from him admiring my necklace, to him kissing me in front of the whole registration line.

This was the first time I’d ever been kissed. In fact, this was the first time anyone had really flirted with me. So, I was really conflicted and confused. I had terrible self esteem at the time. I’d always been the fat kid, the social reject. So I figured it was some kind of freaking miracle that a guy was actually interested in me. And yet, I also was wondering where the fireworks were, and why I wasn’t enjoying what was going on.

Hours after, I was still frowning and mulling on the encounter. Being who I am, I wrote about it. I kept wondering over and over why it hadn’t been hot.

During the rest of the convention, whenever this particular guy saw me, he would find excuses to touch me, to try and make out with me. And every time, I kept thinking, gosh, I should be grateful that this guy is interested. In fact, I seriously considered having sex with him just because he was the only guy who had ever shown any physical interest in me.

But something felt wrong about it. I kept thinking over and over, why isn’t this hot? Shouldn’t this be hot? What’s wrong with me that this isn’t sexy?

It’s been almost 20 years since this happened, and I only have just been able to wrap my mind around why this entire series of experiences troubled me.

I didn’t consent to any of it.

I wasn’t interested in this guy, and his continued attempts to get me to agree to more physical intimacy had me kind of squicked out. I thought there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t interested. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t interested and that him pressing me for more touching and making out was turning me off.

Now–let me also take a step back. I’m fully aware that I did not verbally, directly tell this man to stop during most of these episodes. And–when he did start to go to far and I said it was time to stop, he did. However, during the course of this weekend, this man continued pressuring me for more physical intimacy, and I’m really clear that I was not giving him the physical signals of enthusiastic consent. I was probably giving the signals of “nervous/confused/shy/overwhelmed.”

While I don’t think this guy meant me any harm, I also think that he, and many people like him, unconsciously go for the shy, nervous folks who are afraid to say no.

Shy, Nervous–Predatory
Now, I get it. If you’re a geek or otherwise shy, nervous, and not really very confident in your physical appeal, there’s a tendency to go for others who are shy or nervous. Trust me, I understand–I’m a geeky mess of shyness and awkwardness.

However, there’s a point where targeting the shy/nervous/low-self-confident person in the room can start to veer into predatory behavior.

I have several times hosted Pagan events where there was someone (typically a man) who was hitting on the shyest, youngest, or most vulnerable woman at the event. At one event in particular there was a man who already had a track record of having broken a few hearts by misrepresenting himself (he identified as polyamorous but didn’t bother to tell that to the women he was with, so they thought they were dating, and he was just playing the field). He was hanging around a young woman who had just experienced her first ecstatic ritual. She was a little out of it. We made sure she got home safely, but with that event, I finally noticed his pattern.

He went for the young, pretty, shy girls with low self esteem.

My own ex, similarly, has gone for students in classes of his or people who attended events and festivals where they met him in context as a teacher/leader. There are a number of times when he was with–or he hit on–women who were shy, or who had low self confidence.

And ultimately, this is why boundaries and consent are really important–because, if we have a culture of consent, if we know what physical boundary-pushing is very much not ok, then participants are more empowered to say that. To say, “I’m not ok with this.” And if the behavior continues, to be empowered to talk to one of the event staff for help.

When we have confusing physical boundaries, when we’re afraid of speaking up for fear of offending someone, that’s what opens the door for the worse predatory behavior. The boundary pushing I mentioned above is what I’d call naive or unintentional harassment.

For instance, I have a few friends that are really touchy feely. They like to take your hand or grip your shoulder or lean in for a big long hug. They don’t mean anything by it. But, if we don’t talk about these things, if we don’t begin to respect each other’s physical boundaries, we’re making a lot more room for the genuine creepers to slip through the cracks.

Another fine blog post, this one on negotiating boundaries.

While the primary exercise listed is geared for children to explore boundaries, I’d offer that a similar exercise for adults would be excellent work. In fact, in some of the sex magic intensives that friends of mine have experienced, 75% of the workshop was negotiating trust and boundaries. Before any physical touch happened, they did a more adult-adapted version of the boundaries exercises in the above blog post.

In some ways, it’s really simple. And sometimes, the simplest work is the hardest. We have to learn to say no. And, we have to know that our “no” is going to be respected. That we won’t be teased for it. That people won’t roll their eyes or tell us we’re overreacting. Our “no” must be respected.

Only if “no” is respected does “yes” have any meaning.




15 thoughts on “Harassment and Boundaries

  1. Another good piece, Shauna. I am particularly glad that you included the example of men being sexually harassed. There was one festival that an otherwise pretty aware female heterosexual friend of mine attended where a group of women (including herself) pulled up chairs in order to make ‘admiring’ comments at the physiques of several young men who were chopping wood for the fires. This was seen as “just good fun”, and when I talked with her about how uncomfortable these guys must have felt, it didn’t sink in at first. One of these men, whom I know, is quite handsome and he and a female platonic friend of his tented together throughout the event so that he, and she, could reduce the amount of sexual attention that they received.

  2. Thanks Shauna for a detailed and important post. It’s disturbing to think that for some sex positive means sex always no matter what without boundaries or respect for others. I’m ice cream positive, but I have boundaries on eating it. If I say no to cone number three it doesn’t mean I’m an ice cream prude.

    Of course I’m contemplating a response post, a model for sexual boundaries. Probably around Beltane.

  3. Reblogged this on Sable Aradia, Priestess & Witch and commented:
    I am a sex-positive Pagan; but I don’t like to be touched without permission. Not hugged, not kissed, not picked up (I’m five feet tall; men love that.) Boundaries are important and you’re right, only if no is respected does yes have any meaning.

  4. Fabulous post! I also find hugs without consent to be uncomfortable. More than that, though, are hugs wherein the other person is obviously taking more pleasure from it than is allowed. And gods forbid if you say anything. They act all hurt because you let others hug you, but now they are restricted.

  5. I wanted to quote something for you, I post it alot as a moderator in a forum:
    “Consent is always happening, and can always be renegotiated or withdrawn.
    Sex is not about entitlement.
    No one is entitled to any kind of sex from a partner — EVER.
    If your partner loves you but doesn’t want to have sex with you? That’s a respectable choice.
    If you’re really turned on, but your partner can’t stand the idea of having sex right now? That’s a respectable choice.
    If your partner used to do something with you a lot, but doesn’t want to do it anymore? That’s a respectable choice.
    If you are married to your partner, but he/she doesn’t want to have sex? That’s a respectable choice.
    If your partner performed a sexual act with another partner but would prefer not to do it with you? That’s a respectable choice.
    If you know your partner likes a certain kind of sex, but they don’t want to do it right now? That’s a respectable choice.
    If you think a certain act is “mild” and “taken for granted”, like kissing or tickling, but your partner doesn’t want to do it? That’s a respectable choice.”
    ~ Clarisse Thorn

  6. EXCELLENT article Shauna! People often forget that you can’t have a sex-positive culture without appropriate and respectful boundaries. For many years I lived in No. Calif. and went to many Pagan events. Perhaps because many of the people involved had been together and practicing polyamory, social nudity, etc. they were very aware of the idea that a sex-positive culture doesn’t happen unless everyone feels safe; this is particularly true for the women, who have been harassed more than men, as a rule. When I went to events, the men were extremely chivalrous and if anyone didn’t practice good boundaries, the guys would take the person aside and talk with them respectfully. It was an extremely healing thing for me, as a woman, to see the guys take care of the safe zone. This made what could have been a unsafe community, a healing community. So, for those who think some Pagans are being prudes, it’s important to remind them that there is no sex positive culture without safe boundaries which are respected – and this includes not harassing the men, either. You never know who may have just been raped or was molested as a child or some such, so that the person isn’t comfortable with touch by strangers, at least at that time. This should ALWAYS be respected.

  7. Hi Shauna. I realize I’m really late to this (I didn’t discover this article until about a week ago), but I just want to highly thank you for writing about issues like this, and validating my true feelings about them.

    I’ve also encountered “sex-positive” attitudes like the ones you described outside the pagan/scifi/fantasy worlds. For instance, in certain situations I was made to feel I was oversensitive, a prude, a killjoy for not wanting to and refusing to date needy, desperate men. A couple of examples:

    Once, I met a guy who on our first date told me he was so happy he found me, and that we were meant to be together. This was a guy I only just met a few days ago and barely knew, but he was acting like we were already a couple. This really weirded me out, and I complained to a woman I was casually friends with about this, and she couldn’t understand why I felt the way I did and thought I should be flattered that he was so into me.

    Most recently, I met another guy this at a weekly swing-dancing event in a park (I like to swing-dance). He didn’t just want to go out with me, he would tell me that he “missed me,” implying that we were instant serious soul mates; even though I had only seen him a few times at this dance in the park and didn’t even know his name! When I diplomatically – or so I thought – told him I wasn’t ready to date or be in a relationship, a couple overheard me and gave me these really pained looks; like they thought I was being soooo mean to him. After all, he was just acting this way because he was so into me and I should be flattered, right? I should just learn to enjoy it and stop being so sensitive.

    Flirting is always fun, but when there is an underlying pressure on you to comply with their wishes, it changes the whole dynamic; at least for me. What should be fun banter becomes a situation where you not only practically feel bullied into dating them, but you also feel you’re supposed to pretend there is an intimacy between both of you that really doesn’t exist. And for me, this takes the fun out of flirting.

    Of course, the same goes for sex. When you feel pressured into it, when you’re made to feel you’re supposed to feel and experience things a certain way and you really don’t, it’s no longer fun. It is interesting to me how similar puritanical people and “sex-positive” people can be, in that they both tell you what to feel.

    Like you, I have to admit I’ve also played along in these situations; pretending I was having fun with these pushy, obnoxious men; pretending I was more hip and sex-positive than I really was; simply because I didn’t want to be considered an uncool, curmudgeonly, oversensitive party pooper. For a long time, semi-unconsciously, I believed I might be the one with the problem, not them. I had also been a social reject in school with no friends or boyfriends, so there was a part of me that believed people that thought I should feel grateful for any type of male attention, even if it felt like harassment.

    Once again, I really appreciate your efforts in getting this issue out in the open, and if there is anything I can do help, feel free to let me know. Many blessings.

  8. Pingback: The value of consent | We're Made of Mud and Magic

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  11. It does boil down to the basic concept of respect. Your body, you have total control over what is done, how it is done and who by whether sexual or non-sexual. As such you have the right to tell someone if you are uncomfortable or just don’t like their actions.

  12. I also adore your last paragraph.

    I really liked the idea one woman had at the 2015 PCon: she would give you one of three ribbons: red meant touch-me-not, yellow meant maybe (and I scrawled further stipulations on it), and green meant There’s no such things as too many hugs. I hope she chooses to repeat this.

    I too have had at least two folk I knew well come up behind me, yell my name and hug me. One was a favorite barista I hadn’t seen in years, and didn’t expect her to be where I was; the other was a nice, taller man, who did that at an event where the rules say touching without consent is wrong. I’m 5′ 1/2″, and cushy, but I wasn’t wearing clogs or other weapon-y shoes with which to defind myself.

    Seaserpentdesign mentioned being made to feel a killjoy because she would not date needy or desperate men. My experience with this dates about 1987, working in the AI division of Xerox. There was a distribution list for random chat that I was involved with. One day, someone complained about his car being vandalised. Using the standard blame-the-rape-victim platitudes transformed for the situation, I let loose. Most of the guys didn’t get it, but one did. I can’t recall at this point, 20 years later, whether it was a separate discussion or a tangent off that one, but some idiot took me to task for not giving guys not meeting my criteria, honed by enough experience to know what wouldn’t work, a chance to date me, that I wasn’t being fair. My response: how much of my life was I obligated to waste on repeating something I knew wouldn’t work? I didn’t write, but did think, and who are you to tell me how much of my time I should waste on such a thing?

  13. I don’t smoke anything, and the smell of pot smoke makes me close to vomiting. If I’m the one offering, and someone doesn’t care for alcohol or whatever I’m offering, I would be incredibly rude to make fun of someone for declining the offer. Some folk are allergic to things most people seem to like, and it’s not nice to ask someone to get sick just to make you happy.

    For potlucks, I label the container with the ingredients, if it’s not bought in a package. If making a vegetarian/vegan dish and a meated dish at the same time, I avoid cross-containation with utensils and even spoonrests. If I’m making something with, and then without, particular ingredients, I do the same.

    My usual reaction is not to press things, but ask if there’s anything they’d care to have. One night some folk were over, and I offered various caffeinated drink choices, which were declined. I thought, maybe they’re Mormon (they were), and offered cocoa, which was happily accepted.

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