I’M going to start with my usual content disclaimer. This week we’re talking about consent, sex, and boundaries. If any of those are topics you would rather avoid, by doing so you are already respecting your own boundaries and that’s something you should be proud of.

Although consent is a concept inextricably linked with sex, discussions about consent do not have to be sexual. Personal boundaries have applications in every aspect of life and establishing these boundaries from an early age can form the building-blocks of a robust sense of self-respect.

Asking younger family members, “would you like a hug?” or clearly signposting cuddles with open arms demonstrates two aspects of initiating consent: verbally and through body language. This gives them the opportunity to refuse, which lets them know that anyone who respects them will respect their physical boundaries and personal space.

Though it may be hard for adults to accept that a child in their family might refuse a cuddle or a kiss, it's important to remember that kids are people, too, and when trusted adults in their life model consent, they learn they have a right to bodily autonomy.

It might seem counterintuitive, but putting in that extra step before engaging in physical affection can create more trust and help keep them safe. Practising ‘no’ and learning how to express discomfort is extremely important for kids.

If a child feels comfortable saying ‘no’ to physical interactions, especially with adults, they will recognise their personal space is important and worthy of respect. They will also be taught that other people deserve to establish their own boundaries, which normalises consent and helps reduce feelings of obligation when it comes to physical contact.

Being told ‘no’ by others and learning to accept it without justification can help prevent kids from feeling entitled to physical contact from others – an essential lesson which only becomes more important as they develop and begin to form their own friendships and relationships.

It is only through a good understanding of what consent means that young people are best equipped to identify and articulate inappropriate behaviour, if and when it occurs.

The RSHP (Relationships, Sexual Health, and Parenthood) resources outline the best age and stage appropriate guidance for young people. Their documents on consent – easily accessible online – advise that teaching young people about physical boundaries also involves discussing with them who they can and should confide in if anyone disrespects these boundaries, or makes them feel uncomfortable in any way.

Starting open and honest dialogues around consent and personal space can empower children to communicate discomfort and open up about situations they find upsetting. Making yourself available as a safe person to have non-judgemental discussions about topics which might be embarrassing or scary can help them to feel supported and more able to access help and advice when needed.

‘No’ is a perfectly valid answer. You do not have to justify why you do not consent to something, and you should never have to debate your personal boundaries.

It is also important to acknowledge that an absence of a ‘no’ does not automatically imply a ‘yes.’ Enthusiastic consent is foundational for positive intimate experiences and can be demonstrated verbally or through body language depending on the context.

If you are unsure at any point, it is best to check and ensure that everyone is still comfortable. Consent isn’t automatic or assumed, regardless of the length or nature of an established relationship, and can always be retracted. Whether you are meeting a person for the first time, have been in a committed relationship for years, or are married, partners never have the right to engage intimately with you without your enthusiastic consent. I mentioned this on Twitter a while ago and didn’t expect so many ‘happily-married’ people to say that if they had to wait for consent from their partner, they would rarely engage intimately with them.

Sexual assault of a spouse is still sexual assault, as is sexual assault of a sex worker, and everyone has the right to assert their physical boundaries and retract consent at any time.

Your body belongs only to you, and you alone should be able to decide who is allowed to touch it, and when. There is no such thing as ‘asking for it’ without actually asking for it, regardless of what someone is wearing, how they walk or what they look like. Until they clearly articulate their enthusiastic consent, and are in a fit state to do so, appropriate consent has not been given.

If you are used to people disrespecting your boundaries, it can be difficult to assert yourself, particularly if you are in a position where you don’t want to feel as though you are disappointing someone else.

Boundaries take time to develop, and they can start small and incrementally, but it’s never too late to prioritise your comfort and happiness. You can practice setting boundaries for every situation within which you find yourself. The first step is to identify your boundaries: what do you like and not like? What are things you are open to trying, in the right context, and what do you never want to do?

Understanding your own levels of comfort leads you to the next step: expressing the boundaries to others. Clearly communicating what you are comfortable with empowers yourself and those around you to better accommodate your needs and wants, and should be the last step; unfortunately, however, sometimes you will have to address step three: enforcing your boundaries.

If someone is disrespecting you, and making you uncomfortable, depending on the situation sometimes it is best to restate the boundary, or in other cases you might be best served by removing yourself from the situation entirely. If people are let down or disappointed by you having or enforcing your boundaries, they are usually the exact reason for these limits being in place.

You deserve to engage only with people who are considerate of your boundaries, and if someone does not put in the effort to accommodate you, they do not deserve your time, or access to you. Whether personally, professionally, platonically, or sexually, always remember that you, and your boundaries, are worthy of respect.