Predators and Boundaries

By definition, every criminal attack is a boundary violation. For instance, sexual assault and rape are obvious boundary violations.

While not every boundary violation is a crime, criminal attacks often start with gradually increasing boundary violations. Some attacks violate physical boundaries; others, like some types of sexual harassment, breach mental and emotional comfort zones.

Predators need to cross boundaries and gain closeness to attack their victims. They generally gain proximity through two basic methods: ambush or charm. They initially either use an immediate ambush or their social skills to get close to their victims. While ambush predators often use stealth, perceived superior strength, and the victim’s surprise, charm predators generally use their social skills, manipulation, and gradually increasing boundary violations. For example, a high-school basketball coach who plans on raping a student may start by massaging her neck after a game. He may violate verbal boundaries by telling her inappropriate personal information, for example that he just left his girlfriend. He may eventually try to isolate her by inviting her to his house for a private post game analysis.

Many attackers rely primarily on their charm and manipulation skills rather than on stealth and ambush. Often highly skilled at reading their potential victims’ emotions, aggressors tend to test potential victims to find out whether and how they set and enforce their boundaries. They explore and assess their targets’ personality traits and vulnerabilities, such as kindness, credulity, eagerness to please, loneliness, or cravings for acceptance. Using this information, these predators influence and control their victims, and ultimately maneuver them into isolating themselves with the predator.

Like charm predators, ambush predators also often test boundaries before they commit to an attack. For instance, such a predator may stalk a woman as she is shopping at a box store. He may watch her as she arrives in the parking lot. He may notice that she is preoccupied or distracted. In the store, he may test her boundaries when he bumps into her as she walks through the aisles. He notes that she smiles, looks down, and mumbles an apology to him even though he is the one who bumped into her. He may follow her around in the store and then out into the parking lot. He may surprise her, coming up behind her as she is loading groceries into the trunk of her car.

Ultimately, charm predators also ambush their victims; the difference is that they manipulate their victims to isolate themselves voluntarily. They will eventually attack when the conditions are right for them. For example, serial killer Ted Bundy managed to lure two young women away from a crowded beach on Suquamish Lake in Washington in one afternoon. With a fake cast on his arm, he used his charm and appealed to their kindness. He asked them to walk to his car with him and to help him load a boat onto his car. When they were alone with him he beat them unconscious, kidnapped and raped them, and then killed them. Bundy used deception and charm to isolate these women so that he could attack them. But his attacks started with observing these women and assessing their boundaries.

Most women and girls are attacked by men they know, not by strangers. And many of these men are people in a position of actual or perceived power or control. Boundary violations, especially when they gradually increase in severity and number should raise red flags. Boundary violations should especially trigger alarm when people in authority commit them, such as teachers, professors, clergy, supervisors, and other people in similar positions of power. Pay attention to your gut feelings about such people and be sensitive to red flags.

You may want to determine and practice how to set and enforce your boundaries with specific people. Support other women and girls to do the same.

Here is one potential strategy:

1. Name the behavior that constitutes a boundary violation. This can help clarify the situation for yourself. For example, he is a supervisor at work, and when no one else is around, he tries to put his hands on my shoulder or my back when he talks with me.

2. Tell the person what you want him to do or not to do. Remember that you owe no excuse or explanation. E.g., “Take your hand off my back. Do not touch me.”

3. Repeat. If he doesn’t respond to your statement, repeat it. “I said, ‘Take your hand off my back.’ Take your hand off my back now.”

4. If he still doesn’t respond, take an action to end the situation. For example, take his wrist and physically remove his hand from your body yourself and tell him, you will make a complaint with HR if he ever does it again.

Of course, sometimes it’s hard to enforce your boundaries. You may be concerned about your job, or grades, or other situations that people in authority have power over. But there is help and there are resources, such as local or college support groups, HR departments at work, and hotlines.

You don’t need to tolerate boundary violations, assaults, and harassment. Let’s do what we can to hold these people accountable. But of course, the choice of whether to report or what action to take is yours and only yours to make.

Brigitte Schulze