Ask Professor Foxy: Am I Overreacting When He Ignores My Boundaries?

This weekly Saturday column “Ask Professor Foxy” will regularly contain sexually explicit material. This material is likely not safe for work viewing. The title of the column will include the major topic of the post, so please read the topic when deciding whether or not to read the entire column.

Dear Professor Foxy,
I have trouble with physical contact. I was abused as a kid, and now I have a really tough time hugging, touching, or even shaking hands with people regardless of their gender, sexuality, or relationship with me. I was unable to touch my last boyfriend, and I find it difficult to hug my family. I have been relatively able to receive physical attention from other people, but I have recently discovered I don’t know how to voice my discomfort when it gets out of hand or encourage it on the rare occassion I’m okay with it.
I dance paired dances and recently got a new dance partner. Oddly enough, I’m perfectly okay with virtually any level of physical contact while dancing, so that isn’t the problem. What is the problem is this particular man is very touchy on and off the dance floor. He’s done a number of things off the dance floor that I am very uncomfortable with (including laying his head in my lap, stroking my hair, and pulling my legs over his) and which I think would set off even someone who didn’t share my aversion. I have at no point encouraged him but the behavior is escalating and I’m having trouble finding a way to tell him to stop. My body language has been enough that people observing have commented that I look uncomfortable, but he doesn’t seem to pick up on it. He has a girlfriend who he’s made no secret about so I don’t really understand why he’s so perfectly comfortable with his actions towards me in public. And its embarrassing to me as well because my friends see it and are understandably confused.
I’ve tried to talk to him about this issue and a few others, but he usually starts crying, making excuses, or just flat out ignores me. This paired with my apparent inability to express myself has led to a very uncomfortable relationship. Some of my friends are saying that I need to be direct with him regardless of his reaction which is great except I’m not really out to hurt this guy. Some are also saying that because I’ve let him get to a certain point with me I can’t tell him to stop those behaviors, but I need to tell him “no” on further stuff. I’m also really concered that if I can’t make it clear to this guy that I’m not okay with what he’s doing I will once again be unable to initiate contact or encourage it for anyone in the future. I also don’t want him to feel terribly guilty; I just want him to stop.
My questions to you are am I being unreasonable, how do I broach this subject without getting shut down, and how do I get over my issues with physicality without sacrificing my agency?

Dear Dudestoptouchingme,
I want you to stop thinking about him and start thinking about you. You are NOT being unreasonable. You are uncomfortable and that is valid, regardless of what his response is.
You need to set clear boundaries with him- without worrying about hurting his feelings. You are NOT DOING ANYTHING WRONG. He is by ignoring your boundaries, but he is not taking responsibility for it, so unfortunately and unfairly, you neeed to be the boundrary setter and enforcer.
His feelings may be hurt and he may feel guilty, but that is not something you can control or focus on. You can tell him to stop any and all behaviors. Just because he has done it before, he does not get a pass to do it again.
How is it easiest for you to set these boundaries? In person, over email, over the phone, text? Do you have a friend you can talk it through with? Say exactly what you want:
I want you to stop XXXXX. It makes me uncomfortable. If you do not stop, I will no longer be able to be around you. I ask for you to respect this.
I think it is likely that he will not respect your reuest. If he doesn’t, what feels best and safest for you? Do you need to switch partners? Not see him again? Say something in person the next time he crosses a line?
He may also make fun of you for this. Again, that is on him not you. Call out the behavior. “You know, Sam, I asked you to stop. This is serious for me.”
His girlfriend is irrelevant, he is using her as a shield for his behavior
You are working on your issues with physicality. Physicality and agency are not an either/or. They are part of the same motion forward. By regaining your agency in this space, you are enforcing your boundaries and along the way may become more comfortable with your physicality.
I am so happy that you found an outlet and I am so pissed and sorry that this person is taking it away from you. It is about him being unhealthy, not you.
Professor Foxy

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