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

If you have a question for Professor Foxy, send it to ProfessorFoxyATfeministingDOTcom.

Join the Conversation

  • jj

    I would highly recommend finding a new dance partner and phasing this person out of your life completely. I wouldn’t even bother trying to enforce your boundaries anymore. You’ve already done this, and done it well, and he’s too stupid/creepy to get it. His presence in your life is making you miserable (and rightfully so)…so why keep him in your life? Some of his behaviors would make those of us without any problems with contact very uncomfortable (especially the hair stroking…ick). His responses to your requests make him seem mentally unstable. Just because someone doesn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, doesn’t mean you should keep them in your life.

  • lucierohan

    “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.”
    Please don’t be around this person anymore than you have to. I guy touching you without permission is annoying and sometimes creepy, but when you ask him to stop and he DOESN’T… no good, ma’am. no good.

  • Comrade Kevin

    You’re not at fault here. As Professor Foxy said, you really need to stop focusing on him and pull away. This is not your fault. If it were me I would cut ties with him altogether. It won’t stop unless you remove yourself from the situation.

  • paperispatient

    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.
    You absolutely still have the right to tell him to stop those behaviors. Maybe he genuinely doesn’t grasp how upsetting they are to you, maybe he knows but doesn’t care. Either way, it is entirely your right to put your needs first here and tell him what is and isn’t okay. Even if you had been fine with the hair stroking and cuddling but at some point changed your mind and started feeling uncomfortable with it, you would still be completely right in conveying that to him.

  • Miriam/Heddy

    I rarely think, “Trigger warning needed” when there isn’t one, but this was one post where I really think one is needed. And I’ll say that I’m going to talk about rape, so I’ll put one here.
    TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of Rape.
    What this man is doing is more than boundary violation. Men who do this kind of shit often move on to rape, and rapists often begin by “testing” to see how many boundaries they can cross in order to see if the person they’re considering raping is likely to report them for it.
    The crying is coercion, and it’s a profoundly unethical response to boundary-setting. Men who rape women sometimes cry afterwards too–as do men who hit women. How a man feels after he’s violated a woman doesn’t matter.
    Beyond steering clear of this man and breaking off all contact with him (which is something I’d strongly recommend, because his behavior in response to polite attempts at boundary setting is repugnant), if there’s anyone in control of the dance venue who might be a sympathetic ear, I would consider speaking to this person and reporting this man’s behavior because it violates basic standards of professional and interpersonal behavior.

  • Lydia

    I couldn’t agree more. Any man worth this salt knows that when a woman, any woman and for any reason, expresses that she’s not comfortable with a certain level of physicality between them, that means you DON’T DO IT. There should be no explanation required. And he starts CRYING when you bring this up? What??? That’s just messed up and totally manipulative. When he reacts in such an extreme, emotional way to a very reasonable request (“please stop behaving towards me in a way that some people wouldn’t even like their intimate partners behaving towards them in public…”), he’s making it all about him. He’s forcing you comfort him and cater to his feelings when what this is really about is your feelings. I had a (manic depressive) partner who used to do that kind of thing to me and that was bad enough. But in light of the fact that you’re not even in a relationship with this guy (and that he is, in fact, in a relationship with someone else) his behavior is not just very wrong it’s plain bizarre. I mean, let me count all the different ways in which this guy has absolutely no sense of appropriateness.
    There’ve got to be other dance partners out there. This guy sounds like a wack job.

  • Marj

    Your comment about being okay with just about anything while dancing makes me wonder if he’s not feeling a bit of a mixed message from you–not that that makes any of this okay.
    But really, don’t be afraid to tell someone to back off when they’re making you uncomfortable. If they can’t respect your boundaries, then that tells you something about their respect for you. Don’t beat around the bush–“You’re making me uncomfortable, please stop” is enough. Any response other than “I’m sorry” and an effort to back off is a sign to re-evaluate just how much contact you want with this person.
    I’m with JJ–get rid of this guy. He’s already made it clear that he doesn’t respect your boundaries, and there’s no reason to tolerate his behaviour.
    A phrase from sex-ed comes to mind here–if a person really respects you, they won’t try to push you into something you don’t want to do. It may be he’s just a really physical person. But that doesn’t give him the right to ignore your comfort, and the fact that he’s pretty much shown no indication he’s willing to restrain himself around you tells you all you need to know about him, IMHO.

  • Selidor

    I’ve had trouble with physical contact for quite a few years, though not for the same reasons, and I’ve always found that one of the things almost guaranteed to exacerbate my phobia was to worry about upsetting other people, and to sacrifice my own comfort to make them feel better. Forcing myself to let other people do as they wish and trying to hide my own discomfort just made me feel worse. My social circle at the moment is a lot less physical than my previous social groups, and without the pressure or guilt from either the people around me or my own embarrassment at my problem I feel far happier, and more comfortable with being touched when it does happen.
    Whether your dance partner is just well-meaning but very physical and doesn’t understand, or whether he’s a creep, his being offended or upset is far less important than your right to enjoy dancing without having your personal boundaries violated. You need to focus on restoring your own comfort, and if he can’t respect what you need then a new dance partner sounds like the best idea.

  • Shy Mox

    I agree completely. You (Dudestoptouchingme) are not being unreasonable at all, it would bother me too if someone touched me like that and its sooooooooo not okay to keep doing that after a person told you no. His reaction sounds extremely unreasonable (the crying and such), I would definitely switch partners rather than wonder all the time about him being overly dramatic about what should be a very reasonable boundary.

  • lionessrepublic

    I completely agree with foxy.
    You are above all others, who cares if what you tell him hurts him, if it’s going to stop making you feel uncomfortable?
    If you don’t put a stop to it he’ll keep on taking these physical advantages.
    I feel the same way towards physical contact with others. I find it very helpful to tell someone from the very beginning that they need to have a limit with how i am approached, because most contact makes me uncomfortable. so…back off!
    Don’t feel bad, or guilty for feeling uncomfortable about physical contact.
    -It’s your body and you set the rules to how you are approached.

  • Melimalle

    He sounds very emotionally manipulative. I agree with Prof. Foxy when she’s says that you should approach the subject through another medium. That way you can be sure that your point is made clear without it being difficult to express. Also you are never ever ever overreacting when expressing your boundries. EVER!
    I’ve had similar issues with men who overstep boundries after finding out I’ve worked as a sex worker. If they haven’t stop after me making myself clear then there was no room for them in my life.

  • elikit

    I agree with Foxy and JJ.
    And what’s more? Your friends, who say you have to continue to put up with the behaviours you’ve accepted so far – I hope you know they are soaking in rape culture with that opinion.
    If you let someone hold your hand Monday through Friday, but on Saturday, you don’t want them to touch you? You are in no way obligated to allow it because it was the case for the preceding five days.
    That’s some bullshit.

  • The Subversive Librarian

    Excellent advice. I would add one more thing: if this guy knows what he’s doing is hurting you (and it sounds like he does), then if he continues to cross that line, he’s being abusive. He may not know it or mean to be, but it’s abuse all the same.
    This guy really creeps me out. The way he’s touching you is the way one would touch an intimate partner. Certainly not an acquaintance. Your instincts are right on the money. Trust them.
    I’d change dance partners immediately, and if I still didn’t feel at ease, I’d change classes.

  • PamelaVee

    I feel that the guy in question is well aware that this woman is uncomfortable and is being emotionally manipulative. I am not saying people don’t have a right to cry or anything, but laughing and ignoring her as well to me demonstrates that he simply doesn’t respect her wishes.
    Dudestoptouchingme- you don’t owe anyone an explanation, but if you two are close enough, maybe it would help him understand that you were abused as a kid. That’s obviously really personal and up to you to disclose.
    If you really want to keep a friendship, I would suggest writing it down in an email or letter. If someone constantly disrespected my wishes about touching MY body and I was SURE they knew I was serious, I could not be around that person anymore.
    It’s your body and no one has the right to use/touch it w/o your permission

  • Devoted_Toucan

    Considering he’s their dance partner, they both probably attend some kind of dance club…in which case, unless we advise the asker to quit (which would be very unfair – having to stop doing something they enjoy because of an asshole), or the guy randomly quits, it’s unlikely they can just stop seeing each other completely.
    His actions remind me of things my old best friend (of several years) used to do – a guy I was completely comfortable around, loved, etc. Someone you just have to dance with shouldn’t think they have the right, or that it’s OK, to be like that with you.
    I agree with what Professor Foxy (who sounds different, hmm) said.

  • Brittany-Ann

    If you want to confront him in person, I would take one of the friends with you who has been noticing your discomfort. It may make you feel safer, more comfortable, and this guy will not feel so free to manipulate you with his “feelings.”
    Also, I’m horrified at your friend that is telling you that you cannot tell him to stop doing things that you have been “letting” him do. That’s wrong! Wrong wrong wrong! You can say no or stop anytime you want, for any reason. These are YOUR boundaries. YOU control them, not anyone else.
    You deserve to feel safe, comfortable, and free in your social circle. If you don’t, then you should change whatever it is that is keeping you from those things. These things must be consideration number one. Other people’s feelings come later, a lot later. If they truly care about you then they’ll understand. If not, then you know they don’t.

  • Anonymous

    This guy is MANIPULATING YOU, by crying and making excuses and otherwise derailing your objections to him. He’s an asshole. Go ahead and “hurt his feelings”. Really.

  • eryn

    “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 think it is very very important to point out that this line of thinking is wrong. Period. Using that logic one could say “well he already had sex with me once so now I have to let him have sex with me anytime he wants.”
    You have the power and right to tell him no about anything at anytime regardless of whether you have ever said yes (or in a case like this nothing) in the past. Anyone who says differently does not have your best interest at heart.

  • Jeanette

    I also question this:
    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.
    I don’t know if these are friends or acquaintances you met through your dance class? But anyone who tells you that at some point you give up the right to decide what happens to your own body is not a friend. That’s the kind of talk I hear from victim-blamers and rape apologists, and I would not consider them trustworthy.

  • TabloidScully

    The fact that the police can honestly classify attempting to drop a lesbian off a 50-foot cliff by three (presumably) non-lesbians on a day raising awareness of issues of violence pertaining largely to homosexuals as a “juvenile prank” illustrates not only why hate crime legislation is badly needed in this status quo, but just how limited mainstream understanding of hate actually is.

  • Athenia

    (including laying his head in my lap, stroking my hair, and pulling my legs over his)
    Uhhh, and he has a girlfriend?
    This guy sounds like bad news.

  • Adrian

    Somebody who “makes excuses” for ignoring your boundaries, is acting unreasonably. It looks like he is manipulating you (crying when you try to talk about your boundaries, making you blame yourself if HE feels guilty or unhappy about not being able to take advantage of you) into being afraid to even tell him he is hurting you. That’s a common form of emotional abuse. If he won’t listen to you respectfully, find another dance partner.
    You asked “How do I broach this subject without getting shut down?” The critical thing is that you need to broach the subject with somebody who is not an abusive asshole. When people in your community dance with somebody new, do they generally hug each other at the end of the dance? Or saying goodnight at the end of the evening? That’s when you offer your hand to shake, and say, “I really liked dancing with you, but I’m not comfortable with a lot of touch when we’re not dancing.”
    It’s easier if you can tell somebody you’re not comfortable with hugging before they hug you. (Just like it’s easier if you can say, “you’re about to step on my foot,” than “you stepped on my foot. Please don’t do it again.”) But a considerate person will try not to hurt you. You deserve considerate people as dance partners and friends, even if it takes more looking around for you to find them.

  • Nicole

    I think that Prof Foxy is right when she says he is likely to ignore your requests for respect. I agree with everything she and jj has said. I would let him, first, that this is going to happen; say to him, “I really enjoy our friendship and our dance partnership, but I take serious issue with your refusal to accept my personal boundaries. If you continue doing this, I’m going to have to find a new dance partner. Your behaviour upsets me and I’m even worried that your behaviour is going to affect our compatibility as dancers.”
    I don’t know if your partners are assigned or not, but if they are, I would also approach your teacher/coach about this problem. Not to rat him out, but to let them know that your partnership might have to come to an end so that they are prepared to find you a new partner once the time comes.

  • realinterrobang

    Maybe it’s because I’m a little older than the usual target audience of this blog, and because I have been intimately involved with a guy whose entire MO was exactly what Dudestoptouchingme describes (violate boundaries, get upset when called on it — emotional blackmail, in other words), but I’ll be blunt: This guy is an abuser, both physically and emotionally, and you need to get away from him before he escalates. (In my case, “escalation” constituted a rape attempt over my repeated “No.”)
    I don’t recommend what I did to deal with the situation to most women, because unlike most women, I’m more or less the size of a man, and I’ve been lifting weights for a decade or so — I punched the guy hard enough to stun him, then physically restrained him until I could leave. (I consider this self-defence.) On the other hand, if it’s possible, it does seem to work on that type of guy; they’re so used to being able to emotionally blackmail people into giving them their way that they don’t know what to do about a refusal with force to back it up.

  • AMM

    I’m someone who goes dancing quite regularly (I spent last weekend at a music & dance festival, for instance), so I thought I’d contribute my viewpoint as a dancer.
    There is no way that this guy is unaware of how uncomfortable he’s making you feel. You can’t even be a mediocre dancer without being able to feel how the other person’s body is responding to you. He knows damned well how you feel, and he either doesn’t care, or maybe he’s even getting off on it. There is no excuse for this behavior. None. I agree with everyone else: refuse to dance with him, immediately, no excuses, no second chances. Find a different partner.
    One other thing to do is to bring this up with whoever organizes this dance group (it sounds like an organized dance group, if you’re calling him “my dance partner.”) This is not just your issue — I suspect you’re not the first woman he’s pulled this on (or tried to.) What’s more, it’s probably making at least some of the other women uncomfortable just seeing it happen. In most dance groups, sooner or later, you’ll get a guy or two who starts coming and consistently does stuff that makes women uncomfortable. If the group doesn’t do something about it, there’s the danger that women will quit because of it.

  • monoi

    I have many well-meaning but less-informed friends who might have and in some cases have actually expressed similar opinions. I choose to school them rather than write them off. With these notions being ingrained in our very culture and upbringing, it’s unfair to blame everyone who repeats them. If they continue their sexist/bigoted behaviour, that’s a different story altogether.