The Role of Boundaries in Sexual Misconduct


We see more and more cases of sexual misconduct in the media, and it can be hard to understand how such behavior is still occurring in our society. We all want to ensure we do our part to create a safe and respectful environment for everyone, especially our children.

One of the most important aspects of making this happen is understanding the role of boundaries in sexual offense prevention.

The importance of boundaries in sexual misconduct

Setting boundaries and understanding when they are being crossed is an essential part of any healthy human relationship. And they are especially important in preventing cases of sexual misconduct from arising.

Boundaries provide a sense of security and respect for all parties involved. They create a safe space with clear expectations about how each person should be treated and what is and is not acceptable behavior.

When these boundaries are not clearly established and respected, it can lead to uncomfortable situations that could potentially put someone at risk.

It can be daunting to bring up the topic of boundaries with someone, but it is a necessary conversation to ensure everyone involved feels safe and respected. The problem is that often, people are not well-versed in setting and understanding boundaries, especially their own.

Because so many of us have not been educated on boundaries and taught how to set them and hold them, it can be difficult to recognize them in ourselves or someone else and to know how to communicate them.

That’s why it’s so important to have conversations on boundaries and to educate children from a young age to understand them and to ensure they are clear that it is their right to enforce them.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are the limits a person sets to maintain their sense of self and protect themselves from emotional, physical, or sexual harm.

They are determined by what each person is comfortable with; they help us recognize when someone else is crossing the limits that we don’t want to be crossed, and they are essential in sexual offense prevention.

Each person has their own set of boundaries, which can differ from someone else’s. These boundaries change over time as we learn more about ourselves and what we are and are not comfortable with.

They can also differ depending on the context; for example, someone may feel comfortable holding hands with their partner or parent but not with a stranger.

Boundaries should always be respected and discussed openly to ensure everyone involved is aware of them and feels safe in the situation.

Types of boundaries

We cantalk about types of boundaries in terms of the kind of limits they set and how we hold them.

Some examples of the kind of limits we set can be physical, emotional, and mental boundaries.

  • Physical boundaries include things like not allowing someone to touch you without your permission, not invading someone’s personal space, and respecting the limits that someone sets for themselves when it comes to their own body.
  • Emotional boundaries include setting limits on how much of your feelings or thoughts you are comfortable sharing with another person.
  • Mental boundaries involve setting limits on how much of your own or someone else’s thoughts you are comfortable discussing, as well as the limits set by both parties involved in a conversation.

Regarding how we hold boundaries, we can talk about four different types.

  • When someone has rigid boundaries, it’s as if they had a “no trespassing” sign up, a brick wall that keeps others out without allowing any flexibility or exceptions.
  • Some people may have no boundaries at all when they allow others to constantly cross their personal boundaries because they haven’t set any limits for themselves. This can lead to unhealthy relationships and can be damaging in the long run as it may leave a person feeling taken advantage of or disregarded.
  • There are also partial boundaries, which means that your boundaries are fluid and change depending on how you’re feeling or the situation you’re in.
  • Lastly, healthy boundaries are established like a protective bubble around you when you are clear on what’s important to you, what you’re comfortable with sharing, and what you keep for yourself.

The importance of boundaries with children

We need to raise children to have autonomy over their own lives, know who they are and what they want, and understand what behavior from others is acceptable. For this, we must teach them about boundaries, how to enforce them, and how to respect the boundaries of others.

We can help our children develop self-control and ensure they’re physically and emotionally safe by setting appropriate limits and expectations.

When it comes to adults setting boundaries with minors, it can be helpful to use the term children at all times and for all age groups.

Often by talking about boundaries with adolescents or teenagers, adults can see them as “nearly adults” and forget that they are still minors that require special protection, and we need to treat them as such.

Children may not know how to communicate or enforce their boundaries effectively, but this doesn’t mean they lack boundaries. As adults, we need to ensure we are giving them tools, space, and autonomy to start drawing their boundaries, as a critical tool to prevent sexual offenses with children.

Boundary issues can sneak up on you

When we talk about sexual offenses with adolescents or children, we tend to think that they are committed by monsters, people who were born evil or have spent their life plotting ways to hurt the most vulnerable.

But the reality is that many of these offenders would never have imagined themselves crossing that line or being capable of committing such a crime.

The problem can often lie in what people see as gray areas. There are clear behaviors that anyone would classify as wrong, that are very black or white, but many others fall into a gray space where the boundaries may not be as clear.

And that’s when boundaries can sneak up on you when they aren’t clear, because someone else then uses their judgment or interpretation of what’s right or wrong for you in those gray areas.

It’s like the analogy of the frog in boiling water. If you suddenly dropped a frog into boiling water, it would jump out immediately. But if you place it in cold water and very gradually start raising the heat, little by little, so it’s barely noticeable, the temperature rises so slowly that the frog doesn’t realize what’s happening until it is too late.

The same happens with personal boundaries. If we ignore them or start pushing past them just a tiny bit, over time, we can find that we’ve crossed a red line that we would never have thought ourselves capable of doing.

The current climate of boundary awareness

In today’s post #metoo era, where we’ve seen scandals rock organizations like the Catholic Church, the Olympics, Hollywood, and other high-profile organizations, the awareness of just how vital boundaries are has grown.

The ultimate goal is to prevent children from being harmed, and people need to realize that we are all protectors. There is no such thing as innocent bystanders when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable in our society. We all have to take a stand.

Working in a professional role, it’s vital to have healthy professional boundaries around us, to regulate our own behavior and feelings, and to be able to support children to do so as professionals.

Do you want to implement a zero-tolerance approach to sexual misconduct in your organization?

Prevention and Response