COVID-19: Changing our Views on Consent

4 min read

At the time of writing this, we’ve spent the better part of a year in a pandemic that has impacted every one of us in one way or another – some more significantly than others. 

One of the biggest things that has changed in our daily lives is how we interact with other people. 

Without access to the normal ways we move through society, and meet our needs for socializing, we’ve learned to not only become resourceful, but develop clearer language around boundaries and comfort levels. 

Because of the inherent risk of socializing during a pandemic, consent has become a regular part of many people’s days. 

While anyone may be susceptible to the virus, people who have compromised immune systems, or who regularly have contact with immunocompromised people, have to be that much more conscientious about interacting with other people, and that much clearer on their boundaries. 

COVID and Consent

Depending on your culture, you may not have thought twice about hugging an old friend, or even someone you’ve just met. Maybe you regularly smooch people on the cheeks or lips as a greeting. Perhaps you’ll only go as far as a handshake and aren’t the most touchy person. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, COVID-19 has displaced that, and called for a greater culture of consent. 

It’s like an awkward dance trying to figure out whether or not certain social behaviors are acceptable – however, this is the basis of consent. The idea that we don’t know what someone else’s comfort levels are unless we ask.

Consent culture is based on mutual respect and clear communication. 

Consent during COVID is not just about respecting people’s boundaries (although that’s always important), for many people it really is a matter of life or death. 

Whether or not you knew someone previously, this level of awareness can help you gauge someone’s level of understanding for people’s different comfort levels regarding the virus based on how they do this dance.

It’s now a mark of not only respect but social intelligence when someone clearly discusses physical contact, whether that be a hug or just being in the same vicinity as someone outside of their household.

The Layers of Consent

COVID has asked us to reevaluate how we navigate consent even amongst people we already had established norms with. 

When making plans, it’s not just a matter of whether or not you want to spend time with someone (or vice versa), you also have to discuss whether or not it’s in person or virtual. If you are meeting in person, will it be outside? Will you both wear masks? Will you stay six feet apart? If not, will you hug? Cuddle? Share food?

While this may seem tedious (although many of us have gotten used to it at this point), it goes to show the capacity that we have for navigating consent and honoring not only other people’s boundaries but our own.

We see this consent carried out in our own little “quaranpods”, or groups of people you choose to have close contact with. For those using this strategy, that means having an ongoing discussion with the people in your pod about anyone else you may be seeing, anyplace outside of your home you may be going to, and any other behaviors that may potentially put them at greater risk. 

This practice in communication can also be seen in our dating lives. For people trying to date during quarantine, more and more new connections are being made online. People may be taking longer to get to know someone virtually before meeting in person – if at all.

Casual sex is not as commonplace as it once was, and discussing COVID with a new sexual partner can look similarly to how you discuss STIs. “Have you been tested recently? Have you been with anyone else? What safety precautions have you been taking?”

If anything, this can help weed out people who may not be right for you, based on how much they respect your boundaries surrounding not only sex, but COVID as well. 

Ask, Ask, Ask

While a devastating global pandemic is certainly not necessary to deepen the conversation around consent, that is one lesson we can extract from this experience as a whole. 

If you’re unsure of someone’s boundaries around physical contact – ASK! That is the number one way to get a gauge on how to interact with someone, and where to draw the line.

The more comfortable you get with discussing boundaries and consent, the easier it becomes. You then start to see the necessity of it in many other areas of life, and start asking yourself more and more how your behavior may impact other people, and how you can change that.

Remember, consent is rooted in respect and clear communication.

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