So you’ve been told that you violated someone’s boundaries. Maybe right then and there by the person whose boundaries you crossed, maybe later in an email, maybe taken aside by a mutual friend and told That Was Not Okay. This does not need to be the end of the world, and does not necessarily mean you’re a bad person. However, it does mean that you’re on notice. People in your social circle are trying to figure out if you’re a predator — in other words, if you did it on purpose and are likely to do it again. The problem is that right now society trains good people to use the same deflecting tactics as predators, and make victims shoulder all the responsibility. Here’s how to differentiate yourself from a predator and show that you’re committed to fixing your mistake:

  1. Take time if you need it. Let them know you’re not ignoring them, but that you need time to get control of your emotions. Particularly if the incident was months ago – you can bet that they’ve been rehearsing this statement ever since it happened. You owe them a well thought out response, and you owe yourself a bit of time to come up with it. Don’t take more time than they did in bringing it to you, though.
  2. Don’t dump your own emotions on the person calling you out or the intermediary. Being accused of violating someone’s boundaries can bring up all sorts of difficult emotions as you realize that other people don’t see you or your actions the way you do. However, that doesn’t make you the injured party here. It’s fine to admit to having emotions, but don’t turn the accusation around or refuse to engage in the conversation because it’s been too hard on you.
  3. Know the difference between a reason and an excuse. Being drunk, or prior sexy or sexual contact, may be relevant to the situation because they help explain why you thought this was acceptable, but it was still your choices that put you in this situation and nobody should let you off the hook. Indeed, if you’ve been sexy with this person before, presumably you like them, and you just made them feel bad! You should want to do something about that!
  4. You may not have been given details you consider essential, such as the name of the person or what you did to make them feel uncomfortable. Check out the comic below. Your victim probably feels damned if they do tell you and damned if they don’t. It may be uncomfortable, but it is possible to apologize without knowing the specifics, and moves you closer to having them trust you with the information you want. It’s your responsibility to show that you can be trusted if they come forward and that you will use the information only to change your behavior.

    3 panel stick figure cartoon. The first panel demonstrates common excuses and responses when a person names their assailant and what happened. The second panel has common excuses/responses when a person says that an assault occurred but doesn't give details. The third panel gives common responses when the person stays silent.

    “Sexual harassment at conventions, in comic form” by Jim Hines.

  5. I’m sure there are other instances where you have supported people who have been on the receiving end of unwanted behavior. Remind yourself of those instances to help you understand what your victim is going through; DON’T use them as examples of why you couldn’t possibly have crossed someone’s boundaries.
  6. If you’re being approached through an intermediary, such as a mutual acquaintance or host, don’t demand to interact with the person bringing the complaint. They aren’t comfortable around you. Traumatizing them and then demanding that THEY be the one to educate you, when you’ve already demonstrated that you don’t care what they want, is not helpful. You may want to talk to them because you feel like your apology will have more impact in person. But predators also use this tactic because they know they can make it all go away by dealing with a person with less social power, who is also in pain, rather than someone with training and a bit of objectivity. By rejecting the support structure your friends are trying to erect around the victim, you’re making it harder to tell if you’re a predator or not.
  7. If you feel that you’re being falsely accused, there are a couple things you could say depending on the scenario. If you don’t remember the incident at all or think the person is making it up, you could say “I’m super sorry that you’re upset, but I really have no idea what you’re talking about. Could we discuss this in person so we can reach an amicable resolution? I’d welcome a mediator of your choosing if that makes you more comfortable.” If you were unaware at the time that you were violating a boundary of theirs, you could say ” I’m very sorry you felt violated by my actions. That was sincerely not my intention, and I understand that that does not change your experience. Is there anything I can do to help rectify this situation?” While there may not be any way to remedy things with this person, responses like these let them know you’re taking it seriously, while not necessarily admitting blame.
  8. Make good on your promise to try to do better. Frequently, predators will be uncovered by their patterns: they don’t stop when called out. Differentiate yourself from the predators by upping your game around consent.  (Hint: practice asking people you want to touch in sexy ways!)

If you take these steps, you will be demonstrating to the person whose boundaries you crossed, and any mutual friends who are paying attention, that you take them seriously and are going to try to do better. That is literally all they’re looking for in most cases, but it’s been unbelievably difficult to achieve. You’ll also be making it easier to spot actual predators because the culture won’t protect them, if people who get called out no longer feel the need to go on the offensive. In this way, improving consent culture helps both perpetrators and victims. Good luck.