Responding To & Repairing Consent Violations (WLC Toolbox)
Last Updated: February 3, 2023
WeLoveConsent Toolbox Series: Repairing a Consent Violation Through Ownership, Apology, & Accountability
By: Sloane Ferenchak, MA, WeLoveConsent Coordinator
Edited by: Kayla McAdams, MSW, MEd; Stacey Forrester, Good Night Out Vancouver; Rachel Clark, DanceSafe Education Manager
As a human being, it is inevitable that you will make mistakes. Even if you consider yourself to be a consent wizard, at some point you will cross a boundary or violate someone’s consent, despite your best efforts and intentions not to do so. So how do you respond when you’re told by someone that you’ve caused harm, or you realize that you’ve crossed someone’s boundary?
What’s most important is that you work towards repair through a process of ownership and accountability, which we’ve broken down into nine parts:
- Stop, Pause, Breathe, and Think
- Check In and Listen
- Center the Target/Victim/Harmed Party
- Talk About What Happened
- Own Your Mistakes
- Take Accountable Action
- Don’t Assume an Outcome: You’re Not Owed Forgiveness
- Self-Care in the Aftermath
It’s important to remember that all of these parts may happen in one conversation, or the parts may progress over time, with you pausing at one part to spend more time doing the necessary work and maybe revisiting others later. Going through this process in an authentic and intentional way is much more important than following this process using a set order and timeframe.
1. Stop, Pause, Breathe, and Think
When you realize (or have been told) that you’ve crossed a boundary, the first step is to stop what you are doing to avoid further harm. Consent is ongoing, reversible, and ideally enthusiastic, which means that as soon as someone is uncomfortable, you need to stop what you’re doing immediately! Sometimes you learn, are told, or realize that you’ve violated consent after the fact; if this happens, pause so you can respond thoughtfully rather than react.
You may find yourself overwhelmed with emotions like worry, guilt, shame, remorse, frustration, or defensiveness. These emotions are uncomfortable but not uncommon; most people experience strong negative feelings when they make mistakes or hurt others.
To avoid acting on emotions in a harmful way, pause for a minute – take a moment to breathe, and give yourself some time to process what just happened and how you’re feeling about it. The first step to calming down is recognizing and accepting your emotions. Taking slow, deep breaths while being present with your emotions further relaxes your amped-up nervous system and helps you think more clearly.
When reflecting on what happened, it’s important to think about what your role is in the interaction, what your intentions were, and how things may have gone wrong. Try to step into the other person’s shoes and think about how they may feel and how you may have contributed to their experience. This includes reflecting on not only your physical actions, but also what you may have said to the other party (or implied with your body language or behaviors) and any unfair expectations you may have had. This step is especially important when considering that we can perpetuate stigma against other people without realizing it.
There is, unfortunately, already stigma attached to being a victim of sexual assault. This stigma can be compounded when we knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate additional harmful and/or prejudiced beliefs and attitudes about people based on aspects of their identity such as their gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, ability/disability, economic status, etc. Not pausing to reflect on how stigma may be showing up in your response could lead to causing someone additional emotional, psychological, and even physical harm.
Accidentally violating someone’s consent does not make you a bad person: it’s how you respond that matters. The first part of appropriately responding is to accept that harm occurred so that you can authentically correct it.
2. Check In and Listen
If you 1) sense that someone is uncomfortable or 2) are concerned that you violated their consent, it’s important to check in with them. When someone tells you that you crossed a boundary, first check in about what happened and how they are feeling. It’s important to do this in either scenario because what you think went wrong may not line up with the other person’s experience. What you find to be hurtful, inappropriate, or traumatic may be very different from what others do. That difference does not make their experience less real or valid.
A helpful way to begin this check-in is: “Can you help me understand what just happened? I don’t want this to happen again, your comfort is so important to me.” If they are willing to explain, you can also ask, “What could I have done differently?”
If you feel angry, defensive, or ashamed about crossing a boundary, you may feel pulled to argue with the person, downplay your contribution to the situation, or try to placate or calm them down. Rushing to downplay a consent violation or diffuse the situation can be overwhelming and will likely make things worse because it’s invalidating. Checking in with someone isn’t about winning an argument or trying to make a problem disappear; it means openly and earnestly asking about and listening to how the other person feels, including what went wrong from their perspective AND what they need to feel better.
If this process is new for you or if you fear the outcome of the conversation, you may feel uncomfortable with checking in. It’s completely normal to experience anxiety when confronting an uncomfortable topic, but it is critical to face difficult emotions in order to grow. Otherwise, you’re choosing to center your comfort and risk causing more harm or damaging the relationship. Remember that you don’t have to be perfect at hard conversations before having them! It is better to show up imperfectly than to never show up at all, and the more you practice, the easier these conversations will be. You may find that a check-in is all that’s needed to make a quick change that makes the person feel safe.
3. Center the Harmed Party
When it comes to addressing a consent violation, your emotions are valid, but they are not the focus of concern. It’s important to center the experience, safety, and needs of the person harmed when you examine your role in a consent violation. The goal is to prevent or reduce the impact of potential trauma and to help repair the issue.
Repairing a relationship after a consent violation must come from a place of love and commitment to growth. Being told that you’ve made a mistake, whether or not you asked for feedback, is a gift. It is an opportunity to correct a harmful action. Telling someone that they hurt you requires emotional labor; it can be tiring, stressful, and scary, especially if they don’t know how you will respond. A person is unlikely to undergo this effort if they don’t value the relationship. Your job is to make it as easy and comfortable as possible by centering their needs and experiences in the moment without defensiveness.
When centering the person who was hurt, be sure to ask them what they need at that moment. Someone might want time to process their experience (either alone or with loved ones) before talking, while others might be anxious and want to speak as soon as possible. You should also feel emotionally ready to hold space in the conversation before having it so you are less emotionally reactive. Don’t feel pressured to discuss right away if you cannot do so in a calm, compassionate, and patient manner. If anyone needs more time before talking, be sure to set an explicit time when you will revisit the conversation.
Centering the harmed person also means examining how your social identities influenced the consent violation or the impact it had on the harmed person. It is not your place to invalidate someone’s lived experience. While you can work to understand their experience, you can never live it, so it is important to respect their perspective (even if it differs from your own).
4. Talk About What Happened
If and when the harmed party is ready to talk about what happened, there are important things for you to consider beforehand. You can only figure out a solution to resolve a consent violation when you understand why the boundary violation happened, how it was harmful, and how it impacted the person who was harmed. It is important to ask:
- What was the intent and impact of the boundary-crossing? Was the boundary not made clear or was it not known beforehand? Was a boundary ignored on purpose or on accident? Were you acting out because the boundary felt unfair or difficult to maintain? (Harris, 2008).
- What boundary was crossed? How did the harmed person experience and feel about it? What do they feel needs to happen in order to correct the incident?
This might be a short conversation where someone tells you that they don’t like the name you called them and they want you to stop, or it could be more complex. The person might need you to do critical self-reflection on why you thought your actions were okay, explain your perspective, attend a training, etc.
When you’re having a conversation about what occurred, and discussing if (and how) it can be made right:
- To promote safety and comfort, always have the conversation on the hurt person’s terms. You are inviting the hurt person to engage in a potentially draining conversation, so they should decide its boundaries.
- Your areas of privilege may afford you power that impacts the harmed person’s experience and their reaction to what happened. Differences in power, such as physical strength, social status (related to race, gender, sexuality, etc.), or financial resources can result in someone feeling unsafe addressing a boundary violation with someone who harmed them, sharing their story, or seeking help. If you recognize that you hold a privileged position(s) over the harmed person, you should make efforts to reduce the power differential.
- For example, if you are a large male who violated the consent of a smaller non-binary person, acknowledge how differences in your relative physical sizes and social privileges could intimidate the other person and address this imbalance by checking in and standing farther away, sitting at eye level, naming the potential discomfort, etc.
- Many conflicts are fueled by miscommunication rather than intentional harmful behavior. To reduce this risk, make sure that key terms are clearly defined. For example, if they say that your dirty talk was too dirty, ask what that means to them and if they’d be willing to explain what they would have preferred.
- Although silence can be uncomfortable, allowing it to occur is important. The hurt person may need more time to collect themselves or their thoughts due to distress; you don’t need to speak to fill the void. Be patient.
- Lean into the conversation with curiosity and leave assumptions and judgments at the door. You may feel pulled to counter the harmed person’s narrative, but if this happens, what could’ve been a constructive conversation may turn into an argument. Instead of rushing to make your point or correct the other person, ask for more clarification about their perspective: “Can you say more? I want to make sure I understand.” This can not only help you grasp what happened in order to prevent it in the future, but also help the hurt person feel seen and heard.
- To ensure your understanding of the scenario and provide informed responses, make sure to ask the other person clarifying questions. Repeat back your understanding of what was said to provide an opportunity for further clarification and demonstrate that you have been engaged in the conversation.
- If you are having thoughts like “I am bad” / “I am sexist” / “I am an aggressor,” it is helpful to reframe your internal monologue. Try intentionally responding to those thoughts with statements like “I don’t want to be a sexist/aggressor” and “I am not a bad person. I want to correct my mistakes.” This can recenter the goal of being present and open to accountability, rather than risk behaving combatively toward the person you are trying to make amends with.
- Remember that the harmed person does not owe you anything. They can leave the conversation at any point, and they have already done emotional labor for you. It’s not easy to tell someone that they fucked up! You may not get all the answers or explanations you are looking for, and that’s okay.
- You don’t need to share everything about your experience, but it can be helpful to explain your intent, motivations, perception of what happened, and reflect back your understanding of the harmed party’s experience if they request it. Sharing your experience should be coupled with the recognition that it does not align with the other person’s. The goal is to internalize the impact of your actions in order to take ownership and accountability.
5. Own Your Mistakes
Growing from mistakes and adjusting behavior going forward requires first acknowledging and then taking active responsibility for your role in violating boundaries. Once you have an understanding of what happened, it’s time to start the process of Ownership.
Ownership involves recognizing and taking personal responsibility for the ways in which you’ve hurt someone, rather than denying the impacts of your actions, excusing them, or blaming them on someone else. You need to not only show that you understand that your behavior was problematic, but also challenge your own behavior and make a personal commitment to making amends within the boundaries of the harmed person.
True ownership is guided by a desire to be better, rather than by believing that it’s what is expected of you – or acting out of fear at the possibility of being outcast for your consent faux-paus. Ownership doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for or receive help in the process of making repairs, but you need to take initiative and recognize that you are ultimately responsible for your behavioral changes – or lack thereof.
An apology should only come after taking ownership of your part in causing harm, and should be sincere and delivered as quickly as possible after the incident. This being said, you should always give the person time to process and heal if needed prior to offering an apology. You need to be sure that you have a clear understanding of your contribution to the issue at hand, and that you have come up with a plan to take corrective measures. A good apology:
- Acknowledges the hurt that was caused
- Takes ownership of your contribution to the hurt that was caused
- Declares a plan of behavioral changes that you will implement in response to this experience
When apologizing, it’s important to focus on the impact on the other person rather than your guilt/shame/disappointment in yourself. Excessive apologizing or self-depreciation can end up making the other person feel obligated to comfort you when it is inappropriate for them to do so.
Your apology should be focused on YOUR actions and how they impacted the person; it should be done for their feelings, not yours. Avoid making “you” statements that could place any blame for your behavior elsewhere, and use “I” statements to explain your intentions. Only promise to never repeat this mistake again if you intend to keep that promise and have a plan to change your behavior.
You can offer a way to address the issue or ask the person what they need, but the most important response is actually taking action on clearly defined, tangible steps to address the problem. When you apologize, it can be helpful to ask for input regarding how you could have handled things differently and how you can improve to make sure you are pursuing true accountability. Lastly, thank the person for trusting you enough to give you the opportunity to make things right!
7. Take Accountable Action
As discussed in this toolbox series article, accountability means following through on your promises. This involves taking action and being transparent about how, when, and whether you achieve your stated goals for behavioral changes.
Again, the steps you take should be based on what the person who has harmed has expressed that they need. Accountability also means taking personal responsibility for the results of your efforts to change. While you don’t need to provide detailed answers to every question someone might have about what you are doing to be accountable, you do need to be actively taking steps towards a solution and be open to feedback that the harmed individual may provide.
8. Don’t Assume an Outcome: You’re Not Owed Forgiveness
You may expect to feel positive feelings and see your relationship, reputation etc. return to normal when you apologize and practice accountability, but reparative processes aren’t always satisfying for either party, and the goal is not to remove your negative feelings. When done right, a relationship can be mended – but don’t expect the harmed person to ease any uncomfortable feelings that you may experience.
It’s important to recognize that you are not owed access to someone just because you’ve made changes. It’s possible that you could do all this work and the harmed person still doesn’t forgive you. While this hurts, you’re not owed forgiveness, and it’s important to go into this process with an understanding of this possibility. This doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or that you’ve failed to address the issue. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you do the work and aren’t forgiven; show yourself some compassion, recognizing that if you sincerely apologized and made changes, you did the right thing!
Throughout this emotional process of ownership and accountability, it’s important to practice self-care. Reflect on what you need in order to physically, emotionally, and psychologically recharge after critical self-reflection about difficult topics. What will you do to care for yourself and show yourself some compassion afterwards? How might you use your experience to reduce the likelihood of this happening again? Have a plan in place for days when you have little energy or are struggling with your feelings around the experience.
Takeaway: View This as a Learning Experience!
It can be overwhelming to be made aware that you crossed a boundary or violated someone’s consent, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad experience. If we come at this from a framework of wanting to be good to others, rather than just assuming that we already are, we are more likely to drop our defensiveness and be curious about how we can improve. This increases the likelihood that we are able to make changes, as well as the chances that the hurt person will feel seen and heard.
One way that relationships are strengthened is through experiencing ruptures and responding to them quickly and earnestly. Being open to conversations about having made a consent mistake and approaching the process with humility allows us to gain a better understanding of how to address and resolve conflict. We can enhance our ability to trust and be trusted, and with time, our ability to enjoy interactions with others is enhanced as well because we’re better-versed in practicing consent. And who doesn’t want that?