The Balance of Boundaries

 Posted by on June 13, 2011
Jun 132011

By Sarah Sloane

I asked my friend, who I hadn’t seen in over a year, why they hadn’t been teaching very much. I’m always curious about how other educators handle their life/work balance, and I like to learn great skills from others (as well as benefit from their lessons learned).

“I don’t have any private time anymore”, he said. “I have people coming up to me to talk after classes, then emails, and invitations to coffee or dinner, or people come up to me during play parties and ask me questions or want me to show them how to do something. I don’t get to just relax anymore, and it’s just not worth the stress.”

My response was pretty quick. “Did you ever say no?”

It’s hard to have any kind of relationship – business or personal – without knowing and speaking our boundaries. They’re what allow us to operate in ways that are healthy for us; they not only define our wants and needs, but our limits, too. And contrary to our culture’s trope that as an educator (or volunteer, or healing professional) we’re here to only serve others, it’s almost impossible to be there for others if we can’t take care of ourselves.

As educators, it’s key that we not only have and enforce our boundaries for our own sakes, but that we model them for others to learn. Much of what we teach is what happens between the sentences of our talk, and between our classes. It’s how we carry ourselves; it’s how we interact with others. For example, teaching a class on safer sex practices, then showing up at a play party and having unbarriered sex with multiple partners does not show that we do what we say. When we teach topics that require negotiation, active listening, and boundary delineation, our ability to mirror those behaviors makes the difference in whether our classes will be received the way we want them to.

What boundaries are we talking about? Well, first, it’s the boundary of public versus private. We tend to share (knowingly or unknowingly) a lot of information about ourselves , especially when we talk about on sexuality & kink topics. But how much of that do we want to share? Making a decision of how much information you put out there is key. You may be fine with students knowing that you’re queer, or that you are a graduate of the Sexy School of Sex (my alma mater!)…and in fact, those things may make you even more relatable or reputable to them. However, somewhere along the line, there will be details about your life that you don’t want known, big or small. You have a right to that privacy, and you have a responsibility to yourself (as well as to your partners, affected friends, families, and work) to maintain that level of privacy – without apology.

Another boundary we have to negotiate is that of physical contact. Often, we teach in highly sexualized environments – sexy parties, BDSM events, open relationship weekends, and the like. In those charged atmospheres, our comfort with physical touch (or even with sexual or kinky play) may be assumed by others to be wide open; and despite your personal boundaries, you may also feel some pressure to be even more open about it. At many kink events I attend, I see at least a few presenters scheduling four or five play dates in one evening – with at least a few of them involving brand new people who want to experience a technique – and quite often, they burn themselves out. On the other hand, I usually see a few presenters (often single) who spend the majority of the weekend without their desires for physical contact being met, because it can be hard to get the KIND of touch or play that they want. It’s important (and usually a learning process) for us to discover how much is too much, and how much is too little, and what kind of interactions we want.

We also need to learn to manage our professional boundaries with the event or shop that we’re working for. Some events are incredibly respectful of your time, and don’t want to work you “too hard”. Some events, especially those that are paying, expect that your time becomes theirs and that you’ll teach four classes and participate in three other events over a weekend – which is tough, even under the best circumstances. Clarifying your needs with them as you negotiate the weekend is key: we often think in terms of things like lodging and expenses, but forget our basic physical needs such as assistance, food breaks, and energy limits.

Ask for what you need, when you know you need it, and decide what (if any) of your wants that you’re willing to be flexible with. It makes life a lot easier when you tell them that you need a private room, but you’re happy to do an extra class and help with an auction to help even it out.

One caveat: reality bites. Some things that you ask for, you may never get. A small event that works on a shoe-string budget may not be interested in paying you $1000 for your Saturday morning class. A store may not be able both pay you and cover your hotel for the night if you are not well known in the area. The big event may be too frantic to take care of every detail. Those are the facts of life. They’re neither bad, nor good – they’re just facts. Know what you’re willing to be flexible about – and have a sense of realism for what you’re asking for.

Yes, it may feel strange to do this. Yes, it may feel like you’re running the risk of becoming an arch-diva or being “that guy with all the demands”. But having your boundaries in place (and reviewing & rebuilding them as necessary) will help keep you passionate about your work, and that passion will translate into your ability to teach classes that not only deeply affect your students, but bring them back for more!