Intimacy and Children’s Physical Boundaries

A reflection by Sarah

About three weeks ago, I came across an article on children and bodily autonomy via my friend Jessica’s Facebook page. The article, “Respecting Every BODY,” discusses the importance of respecting children’s boundaries with physical affection and offers a couple of examples from the author’s own life. In one of these, Libby Anne tells readers about a time when her father-in-law failed to honor her daughter Sally’s boundaries:

“Over Christmas we were at Sean’s parents’ house. Sally’s grandpa was holding her on his lap when she asked to get down, and he said no. He said he wasn’t done holding her, and besides, didn’t she love him and like sitting on his lap? Sally struggled and Sean’s dad held her closer. At first I said nothing, because I was in a state of shock. I couldn’t believe this was really actually happening. Shaking myself out of my shock, I asked Sean’s dad to put Sally down, but he didn’t. He acted like it was some sort of joke. It wasn’t until I stood and moved forward to intervene that he set Sally down. She immediately ran from the room, crying.”

Upon reading this, I knew immediately that I had to write something of my own on the topic of children and physical boundaries, but I also knew that I needed to wait a bit before attempting to do so. I needed that time because my first reaction to the story about Sally and her grandfather was intense anger. This story left me shaking for several minutes because I could identify so strongly with Sally’s frustration and apparent sense of powerlessness.

About halfway through my first reading of the quoted paragraph, I noticed myself flashing back to several experiences from my childhood when different adults refused to honor the limits with which I was comfortable for my own body. One of the more prominent images that came to mind was of a family member who took disturbing delight in popping my toes. From the time I was a preschooler all the way through my adolescence, this family member would take every opportunity possible while I was relaxing on the floor, my bed, or a sofa to grab my feet and begin toe-popping and laughing while I kicked and screamed for him to stop. When I was very young, he would tease me about my disdain for this activity with a silly rhyme he’d ad-libbed, then laugh at me when I responded with even further disgust because my irritated facial expression was “cute.” At times when I accidentally kicked him in the face while trying to get my feet away, he would become angry with me and say sternly, “Stop that! I was just playing around with you!” As the subject has arisen again during my adulthood (usually within the context of this person’s reminiscing about my childhood), I still haven’t been able to convince him that popping my toes was not playful teasing, but instead a legitimate affront to my physical boundaries. Even now as I write this, I feel my blood pressure rising a bit.

The purpose of this post is not to submit my family member with a proclivity for toe-popping to a round of public shaming. God knows that in my own interactions with children as an adult, I have also made mistakes regarding respect for boundaries. When tutoring, it’s not always easy to remember that certain kids don’t welcome hugs as celebrations of skill mastery. After painstakingly preparing a meal for a child I’m babysitting, it can be tempting to insist that she eat all her meat, vegetables, and fruits before leaving the table even when she says she’s full. Regrettably, I’ve made many such errors in judgment in the past when it comes to children. I’ve since seen that my decisions in these situations were motivated by concern for my own needs and wants while I lacked awareness of another person’s needs and wants.

Herein lies the reason I felt so deeply compelled to spill some thoughts on this topic: our blog is about the experience of living a celibate vocation, and respect for bodies is just as important for celibates as it is for people who are sexually active. Children begin developing senses of appropriate boundaries early in life based on the models they see from adults. Children aren’t lesser beings. They are people, and their boundaries matter. I know very few adults who would disagree with this theoretically, but many of us need to do better about putting it into practice with the children in our lives. If we don’t respect children’s boundaries, we are sending the message that there is no such thing as choice in physical intimacy. This message can be incredibly damaging for tiny humans who will eventually grow up and be faced with all kinds of pressures regarding sex, whether they choose celibacy or another way of life.

One of the sharpest hurdles along my journey to a celibate partnership was an incorrect belief that all intimate, more-than-friendship relationships must necessarily include (or have the potential for future inclusion of) sexual activity. I spent several years thinking this, and as a result I ended up turning against my conscience and compromising my own physical boundaries on many occasions. Reflecting on this now, I see that my struggles with saying “No” came in part from my lack of understanding that my body was not made simply for the amusement of another human being.

As a teenager raised in a Christian home, I believed that because we weren’t married I had the right to say “No” if my boyfriend asked me to have sex. However, I can honestly say I had no idea that it was also my prerogative to state something like, “I don’t want you to hold my hand.” I thought these signs of physical affection were obligatory if we were more than friends and were potentially headed toward marriage. When I came into young adulthood and accepted my sexual orientation, any remote idea that I had rights concerning physical boundaries flew out the window. The question of how such things were supposed to work in the context of a lesbian relationship completely blew my mind. I was relatively innocent regarding sex and had experienced mixed messages about physical affection limits before my college years. I had remembered hearing, “No sex or touching of private parts until you’re married” and that rubbing my high school boyfriend’s shoulders was enough to upset my parents, but I don’t recall ever getting the message that I could make my own determinations about other things that felt wrong in my body simply because of my feelings on the matter. It has only been within the past few years that I’ve come to see how wrong I was about this.

Somewhere along the way to my early twenties, I came into the notion that sex was something I owed to another woman if we had decided to pursue a more-than-friends relationship. Not only did I think I would be obliged to her in this way, but I also believed that obligation would extend to whatever sexual actions she wanted to perform. Despite this, something just didn’t seem okay with giving another person unfettered control over my body. About three weeks into one of my first serious relationships and following two weeks of my girlfriend’s complaining that I was “leading her on,” I asked her, “What does having sex with another person mean to you?” I was anticipating responses like “intimacy,” “closeness,” and “connection.” Her response took me completely by surprise: “It means getting the pleasure I want, and maybe the other person will experience some pleasure too,” she replied cooly. She began to explain that sex was a means to an end, and that’s exactly how–less than a week later–she approached our first time together. When I requested that we stop a few minutes into the experience, she paid no attention and continued with what she had been doing. And I’ll always remember her response a couple of days later when I finally had the courage to confront her: “What’s the matter? I was just playing around with you.

Speaking of boundaries, I think I’ve reached mine with this post. Writing even this much on such a sensitive topic has been a bit exhausting. I don’t mean to imply that one can trace all my sexual mistakes back to popped toes. I’m quite confident that it doesn’t work that way, and I’m responsible for my own actions as an adult. I’ve experienced a number of physical boundary violations in my life up to this point, and discussions of those might be material for future blog posts. But I cannot stress enough how vital it is to remind children that they can reject unwanted touch even if the toucher has innocent intentions. It’s our responsibility as adults to model respectful behavior toward all people’s bodies. If this doesn’t happen, we run the risk of teaching the wrong lesson: that expressions of sexuality, whether sexually active or celibate, are ultimately all about satisfying other people.

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4 thoughts on “Intimacy and Children’s Physical Boundaries

  1. Did you decide to be celibate because you had the bad experience with your girlfriend? What did that have to do with you being celibate. And one more thing, that blog you quoted is a atheist blog. Aren’t you a Christian? It says so in your blog’s front page.

    • Kay, no, I did not choose celibacy because of the negative sexual experience described in this post or because of any other negative sexual experience I’ve ever had. For me, celibacy is not about avoiding sex out of fear. To your second question, there’s no reason any blogger shouldn’t be able to interact with the ideas of another blogger just because the two come from different religious traditions and worldviews. Because Libby Anne’s blog is part of the Atheist channel at Patheos, I’m sure she and I probably have different opinions about a wide variety of things. But that doesn’t mean a Christian and an Atheist will never find anything on which to agree. -Sarah

  2. Thank you for bringing this up.

    You write: “I don’t recall ever getting the message that I could make my own determinations about other things that felt wrong in my body simply because of my feelings on the matter.”

    Wow, I can relate to this. In my process of coming to terms with my sexual orientation and starting to make actual informed decisions about what place I want sexuality to have in my life, I’ve run into some unexpectedly deep-seated fears that have a lot to do with assumptions I swallowed about sex and other forms of physical intimacy. Until just a few years ago, I was an inveterate people-pleaser, who hardly knew she had her own feelings beyond generally “please other people.” So in the context of sexuality, my own inability or unfamiliarity with 1)knowing what does and does not feel right and 2)saying “No” when I need to left me feeling scared of being some kind of victim in any sexual relationship. Workin’ on that. 🙂

    Thank you for the link, too. I don’t think I have ever actually thought about teaching children that their bodies are their own – certainly not in so many words. Even training designed to prevent abuse in church settings never hit me quite so clearly. And it is easy to see, in my own life at least, the far-reaching effects of failing to teach this unequivocally.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Suzanne. It’s likely that a lot of people have never thought about teaching children that it’s okay to reject touch that feels bad, even if the other person’s intentions were good. Lindsey and I were talking about this topic again last night, especially how important it is to honor a child’s sense of “good touch” and “bad touch.” Some parents who do teach children about good and bad touch give confusing mixed messages, for example: tickling a child, hearing the child say “That’s bad touch,” and responding with, “That’s not bad touch. You know I love you and wasn’t meaning to hurt you.” It’s so confusing to hear that kind of message as a child. -Sarah

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