Prior articles on the Bleeding Love blog have highlighted the ways in which being both a woman and lesbian, bisexual or trans identified impacts on the complexities of domestic abuse reporting. Fears of being outed, risks of perpetuating discrimination towards the LGBT community and gender assumptions of women as non-violent are barriers identified by past research (Balsam et al 2003, Brown 2008). Another integral perspective within domestic violence issues is looking at the ways in which survivors recognise their abuse and the power dynamics within their relationships that constitute abuse. Survivors of emotional, mental, psychological, physical or sexual abuse do not consent to their abusive experiences. Yet lack of regard for adhering to physical and sexual boundaries is a commonality across abuse perpetrators.
Consent discourse in the UK strongly refers to the pro-active, enthusiastic communication of all sexual parties agreement to sexual activity. It is often described in terms of what does not count as consent, such as being intoxicated, a minor or anything less than an enthusiastic “yes”, such as “maybe” or silence. Despite the UK definition of rape being unrepresentative of sexual violence between women (see below), Cambridge University Student’s Union identifies the need for consent discussion across all relationship dynamics in their consent campaign: “Consent is important in every sort of sexual encounter whether it is a one night stand, a long term partnership, a fling, a marriage, and no matter whether the encounter is between a woman and a man, two women, two men, or more than two participants.”
“Sexual Offences Act 2003: Rape-
A person (A) commits an offence if—
(a)he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,
(b)B does not consent to the penetration, and
(c)A does not reasonably believe that B consents”
Whilst consent is an on-going process of checking sexual agreements and physical boundaries, relationships also fundamentally require communication and respect of emotional and physical boundaries. Campaign 4 Consent states: “no-one should be taken advantage of when they are vulnerable, and that is a moral code which we hope a greater understanding of consent will promote”. Not only does this address the larger issue of sexual violence in a way that does not assume the stereotyped dynamic of male attacker/female victim, but in turn points to the belief that consent is an aspect of good morality. Merging the sexual violence discussion of consent with general domestic violence issues provides a perspective which supports the view that the wider the understanding of consent an individual has, the more they respect a person’s general boundaries.
At the root of abusive behaviours is disregard for boundaries and a lack of respect for a person’s autonomy. Signs of abuse are typically characterised through acts of control, manipulation, ownership and entitlement – presenting themselves in physical, emotional, mental and psychological forms. A survivor of intimate partnership violence shared her story with Bleeding Love, speaking to us about boundaries and consent.
Tess’ relationship with another woman was heavily sexually abusive. “She had no regard for my sexual boundaries, often ignored what I’d said no to and instead touched me in the ways I said I didn’t want. After a while I stopped saying no or trying to fight because it was better to be quiet than try to fight and be ignored. It wasn’t just this though, she’d undermine my interests and belittle me for what I wore. She’d threaten to get rid of my belongings if she didn’t like them and sometimes did when I wasn’t around. I tried constantly to reassert my personal boundaries after reading online how to try and do that but it never seemed to work.
She had no respect for the boundaries of my identity when I was exploring being less feminine, and would do other things that I said no to that impacted on me emotionally and psychologically. I think if somebody doesn’t respect sexual consent then they probably don’t respect other personal or non-sexual boundaries too, I can see the link there.
I think a lot of what she did was about control and not giving me room in the relationship to be my own person or talk about my limits in a way that was ever respected in reality. I guess at the beginning I thought this was typical of most relationships and didn’t see that it was abuse until I started speaking to other people”.
Consent is ultimately about respecting boundaries and striving to find out what people’s boundaries are, and to communicate effectively to make sure those boundaries aren’t crossed. Where the consent narrative in the UK is heavily situated around sexual violence, the survivor stories that Bleeding Love have received demonstrate how general consent is seen to be an integral consideration for personal, emotional and relationship boundaries in non-sexual contexts. Not only can consent awareness and education provide insight to sexual abuse, but also can be extended to assess other areas of relationships that requires communication and boundary-setting.
Encouraging consent awareness to both survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence between women is not only important for the rehabilitation of perpetrators, but can also introduce a focus on survivor well-being. The advocacy of empowerment, through reconnecting with safe and healthy ways of discussing and thinking about boundaries, can help survivors to rediscover and rebuild their boundaries after their abusive relationships. Helping to identify healthy relationships boundaries through looking at consent is a valuable aspect of approaching domestic violence issues before and after abuse has occurred. By giving others the information to be able to identify an abusive breach of boundaries after they have experienced abuse, they can be encouraged to redirect a healthier self-control over their lives again, or perhaps for the first time.
-Chelsea Murphy, Broken Rainbow UK