I recently had a weird experience on a dating app. I’m a transfeminine non-binary person, and I mostly date other trans people. I was messaging someone (a transmasculine non-binary person) on an app, and it seemed like things were going pretty well. I sent them a couple of photos of myself that were completely non-sexual in my perspective. In the photos, I am fully dressed and not making any kind of sexual poses or gestures, and there aren’t any sex toys, lingerie, gear or anything like that around—they’re basically just normal selfies (NOT thirst traps) of me in my living room. And to be clear, they had already seen very similar photos of me … because I have them in my profile on the app where we met in the first place.
I sent the photos because I thought it was a cute and friendly thing to do. However, the person immediately responded by saying that I had “crossed their boundaries” because we “hadn’t consented to sharing photos with one another.” Then they said that because I had done this boundary-crossing behaviour, they didn’t think we were a good match and blocked me on the app. I found this kind of emotionally intense, because they made it seem like I had done something wrong, and potentially even violent or abusive. Not that they used those exact words, but it was the feeling I got from what they said. On the one hand, I think that isn’t true, but I also don’t want to just automatically excuse myself from potentially having done something wrong. What’s your take?
Baffled, Bothered & Bewildered
I’m so sorry that this happened to you—the course of looking for love (or sex) on dating apps never did run smooth, and if I may commit a minor social justice blasphemy here, I sometimes think that the complications of dating go double for queer and trans folks (go ahead and cancel me, internet!).
The mainstream heterosexual world has, for better and for worse, developed some well-established social scripts for sex and dating. Queer and trans people, however, in following our collective impulse toward transgressing social norms, are often making things up as we go along. This can lead to conflicts born of mismatched expectations, and it seems to me that that is what has happened with you.
In today’s world of popularized social justice terminology and public denunciations, being told that we have “crossed someone’s boundaries” can certainly feel intense. That phrase, for many of us, is at once vague while carrying some very specific connotations: “boundary crossing” can conjure images of sexual violence, abuses of power and other seriously harmful actions.
Without assuming too much about your specific experience, BBB, I might also add that these connotations may feel particularly loaded for transfeminine people like you and me because of the cultural stereotypes that mischaracterize trans women and femmes as dangerous sexual predators. At its base, however, crossing someone’s boundaries is not necessarily violent or even intentional: it simply means that we have done something that goes against their expectations of how they should be treated, and what that “something” is can span the entire spectrum from trivial to seriously harmful.
As human beings, we cross other human beings’ boundaries all the time, BBB. This is an unavoidable part of social life. In most cases, we instinctively rely upon years of social conditioning that we receive from our families, from school and from the general public in order to treat people according to their expectations; this is what we commonly call “good manners” or “etiquette.”
Even when we make the intentional choice to ask someone how they would like to be treated—as a relatively neutral example, asking someone if they would like to join us for dinner—we must still rely upon a huge array of unspoken social codes (manners and etiquette) and non-verbal social cues (body language and context) in order to observe and respect their boundaries.
Asking someone to go for dinner: it is not enough to know that I “should” ask someone if they want to go for dinner with me to be successful at not crossing a boundary. I need to have good, precise timing based on everything that has happened with the person beforehand: have we just had a meet-cute at a laundromat? Or have I just given their car a fender-bender? I need to know the right words that will feel appropriate to the situation. Are they the kind of person who wants to call it a “date,” or will they prefer a “hang-out”? I need to be attentive to the power dynamics and roles. If I’m their former college teacher, asking them out for dinner takes us into an ethically complicated place. I need to know about ethno-cultural expectations they may have that are different from mine: based on how they were raised and our respective genders, is asking them to come to dinner with me alone potentially inappropriate?
The list of unspoken social codes necessary for an interaction to be successful is potentially infinite, and while we can and should be as attuned and thoughtful as humanly possible, the truth is that in any relationship, we must at some point take a leap of faith and do the best we can with the information we have. The corollary to this is that we will, eventually, cross someone’s boundaries in small and even large ways. While certain social skills (like asking questions about what other people prefer) can help us avoid the really serious errors, there is literally zero chance that we can go through life never crossing another person’s boundary, and it’s much more useful (and pleasant) to go through life being compassionate to ourselves and others when this occurs.
So let’s zero in on your specific situation, BBB. The person you were messaging said you crossed their boundaries by non-consensually sending them non-sexual selfies that were similar to the profile pictures of you that they had already seen. Let’s take this on good faith as true (they don’t have any obvious reason to lie). So you maybe did cross their boundary. The important questions are: How much harm could this have caused? How responsible are you for their feelings about it? And how reasonable is it that you could have known about the boundary in the first place?
In regard to harm, it’s really impossible to know what the other person’s subjective experience is without them telling us. However, I personally have a pretty hard time buying that simply receiving a non-sexual selfie from somebody you are already messaging with on a dating app (and that the other pserson has already seen in profile pictures) could be seriously harmful—and if it is, I don’t know that being on dating apps is the best idea for that person. In regard to your responsibility, BBB, well, I suppose it is true that you could have asked permission before sending the selfies, and I can’t see the harm in doing that. Perhaps that is a good lesson to take away from this. That said, I also do not believe that you can carry the balance of responsibility for crossing a boundary that you could not reasonably have known about.
When is it reasonable to assume that someone else should know about our boundaries? Like everything in the social world, it’s complex, but essentially, this involves assessing the social and cultural knowledge the other person has access to. Here are some relatively universal social standards in dating culture.
Don’t assault people is the basic one. Asking for consent before sexual activity is another, though different people have different understandings of what this means. So is asking for consent before sharing nudes, though again, different subcultures have varying expectations around this, Grindr and gay-male-dominated hookup apps being a prime example. Asking for consent before sending non-sexual selfies? I personally have never heard of this as an expected norm before now, and I know of many dating subcultures where the opposite is true—sending a non-sexual selfie early on is often considered a courtesy, since it helps verify your identity.
Now, it’s totally valid for someone to have a boundary around receiving selfies (of any kind)—or really, any potentially romantic interaction at all. What I don’t think is all that reasonable, however, is for them to expect everyone else to be automatically aware of a boundary that is idiosyncratic, rather than universal.
As adults in the social world, we do have a responsibility to communicate those boundaries that others may not reasonably be able to anticipate based on the information available to them. And while the person you were messaging is certainly within their rights to stop communicating with you, or to even block you, BBB (because it’s always our right to end an interaction we don’t like, for any reason), I don’t think that you deserve to carry the potential anxiety or shame that may come from being labelled as someone who “crosses boundaries.” This feels particularly important because of the social context of you being transfeminine. To be frank, trans women and femmes are too often made scapegoats for the insecurities and sexual hang-ups of others in the queer and trans community, and that is not a burden you should have to carry.
I hope you can chalk this one up to living and learning and let this go in peace, BBB. You didn’t do anything wrong. You do not have to be perfect to date. You do not have to read anybody’s mind. You are allowed to not know right off the bat what somebody wants or needs. Being kind, compassionate and open to feedback is good enough. That’s the most that any of us can be.
Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.