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What COVID-19 Can Teach Us About Consent

Written by Lara Hamburger, Campus Educator

CW: this piece discusses consensual sex and mentions sexual assault and red flags of abuse.

In the Before Times, back when I worked in an office with other people, (consensually) hugged my friends when I saw them, and invited people to hang out with me at my home, I also did IRL education, mostly with college students. 

My title at the Advocacy Center is Campus Educator, which can mean a lot of things. Many students know my face because I frequent all of our local campuses running support groups, meeting with faculty and staff to create programming, backing students in their own activism and organizations, and running programs about consent and healthy relationships. (Oh, and I made my YouTube debut recently with an Advocacy Center informational video! #famous).

In the educational programs that I facilitate, we talk a lot about consent: what does it look like in a sexual context? How do I use real words to ask for the thing I know that I want? How can I communicate my boundaries when I don’t really know the person I’m with? 

The Coronavirus pandemic has given us an opportunity to expand our practice of consent. Many of us are having explicit conversations with friends, family members, and neighbors about how we want to interact, and how we don’t. These conversations are challenging and can absolutely feel awkward. Before we even see each other face-to-face, we are asking relatively personal questions. 

We ask questions about each others history and safety practices:

Who else have you been spending time with in person?

Do you wear a mask in public? 

Do you think you might have been exposed at any point? 

And when we make plans, we assert our expectations and get clarification ahead of time:

This should be a masked hangout. 

Given that you’ve been isolating, I’m okay with not wearing masks together. 

Is your roommate okay with me coming over? 

These conversations set the stage with clear boundaries and expectations. But on their own these conversations are not ongoing consent about how we will interact.  When we take the leap and hang out, these conversations continue.

When we are in person we check-in. 

Does this distance feel okay to you? Is it okay if I take off my mask while I’m sitting?

We make adjustments. 

I’ll move my chair over here so we’re a bit farther apart

And we read body language. 

If someone puts on their mask, we respond by putting on our own in turn or checking in. If someone moves a few inches farther away, we don’t take it personally (and don’t keep scooting closer either.)

While the circumstances and consequences are different, the conversation isn’t too far removed from talking about consent in a sexual context. Before becoming more physically or sexually intimate we ask each other questions to gauge  interest and get a feel for each other’s preferences and boundaries, and then once we’re in it it’s our responsibility to read body language and check in about what’s going on. And if someone isn’t giving us that same respect? They aren’t practicing consent and probably don’t deserve our time, masked and clothed or in the nude. (Or naked with masks on, whatever works for you.) 

Here are a couple of guidelines to keep in mind, in any situation: 

  1. Look out for red flags. Minimizing concerns, belittling your choices, or denying realities of science are red flags. If a friend tells you that your concerns about COVID-19 are overblown, or a date is telling you not to worry about where the night is going, they are minimizing your concerns and aren’t respecting your boundaries. If a friend tells you that you’re a prude for not wanting to fool around, or your cousin tells you that wearing a mask means you’re just scared, they’re belittling you (not to mention being rude and putting others in danger). If someone tells you that your concerns about COVID, STIs, or pregnancy are not valid, they are gaslighting you. You didn’t make this up, and your concerns are valid. 
  2. Accommodate everyone. Meet folks where they are the least comfortable or have the most boundaries.  When it comes to socializing or sex, the pace, closeness, and intimacy should be determined by the person who wants the least. One person wants masks? Great. Everyone wears masks. Your partner wants to cuddle and you want to get it on? Great, you’re having a cuddle night. 
  3. No need to justify. It’s not your responsibility to tell the people you’re spending time with that you are being cautious because your roommate is immuno-compromised. And in sex, there’s no need to disclose previous experiences to have someone understand why you may want to move at a certain pace: Disclosure should never be a gatekeeper for intimacy. No one should demand an explanation from you about your past or the reasons you make the choices you do. You get to share that in your own way and on your own time. If they do push you, see point #1 re: red flags. 

Consent is monumentally important in both sexual and social situations. Consent requires us to sit in the challenge, awkwardness, and benefits of explicit communication. When we ask what someone is comfortable with, we acknowledge that they are full humans with different desires, boundaries, and safety concerns than our own. When we practice consent, we honor our communities, our partners, and our own bodies with parameters of safety within which our actions can be more freeing, enjoyable, and safer. 

While I hope that I can get back to sharing plates of food with my family, walking arm-in-arm with my close friends, and having non-screen interactions with students, I also know that the safety of my community comes first. Violating social norms around distancing is not the same as disregarding or violating someone’s bodily autonomy. But if the skills that I’ve spent years developing and sharing with students have somehow been renewed during this pandemic, and if we can come out of this with practical knowledge about how to be more decent to each other, then I tip my face shield to that. 

Want to hear more about Lara’s Campus Educator work? in episode 2 of “Let’s Talk About…” a podcast from the Advocacy Center you can listen to Leah and Lara talking about Sexual Violence Prevention on College Campuses.