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What Do Communication and Consent Have to Do with a Pandemic?

While talking with a few friends the other day, it occurred to me that this global health crisis requires us to use specific, and in some cases new, communication skills when we engage with other humans– whether they be family or friends, people we live with or people who live in other households. The words communication and consent came to mind. And, personally, I have been struggling with these skills in different relationships and contexts.

During COVID-19, the general sense of unsafety and uncertainty is widespread, and, on top of that, communication from our leaders is completely disorganized and conflicting. Thus, as we engage in any kind of interpersonal relationships, it’s important that we center the goal of establishing individual and collective health and safety. Furthermore, this goal necessitates clear communication and agreements, aka consent. AND it is not a one-time thing, it’s a process of checking in with ourselves and one another.

I am writing and collecting this piece as a white, able-bodied, young, middle-class, hetero-presenting, cis woman. We all experience different levels and intersections of privilege and oppression which contribute to how safe or unsafe we feel on a daily basis. All of this is amplified during a pandemic. Thus, this conversation will be different depending on your social location, as well as where you live in the US or the world.

Defining Consent

Many people associate the word consent with sex and/or intimacy. I’m so glad that this conversation has become widespread and familiar. AND, I think we have work to do in broadening our understanding of consent and creating a culture of consent.

Here’s a simple definition of consent: permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something.

Birth Monopoly, an organization that is committed to advancing the human rights of all birthing people, extends this definition:“‘ Consent is yes, ongoing, freely given, explicit and unambiguous, enthusiastic, informed, and active.” 

I invite you to pause and reread this list again. What stands out to you?

What Do Communication and Consent Have to Do with a Pandemic?

Some of the communication skills I have witnessed myself and others practicing during this time include:

  • identifying and expressing needs and boundaries
  • listening to other people and their needs and boundaries
  • considering how to reduce harm for self, others, and community
  • checking in with oneself and one another
  • creating agreements together
  • assessing risk tolerance individually and together
  • brainstorming and/or researching

These are a few examples of communication and consent that I have personally engaged in recently:

  • Grappling with my personal comfort level.
  • Establishing safety protocols for entering/exiting the home with my spouse and roommate.
  • Making a tentative plan for what we would do if someone in the house has symptoms or has potentially been exposed to the virus.
  • Informing clients who have inquired that I am not committed to resuming in-person sessions by any particular date.
  • Discussing which birth environments I am willing to be in during COVID-19 based on the risk tolerance of everyone in my household.
  • Deciding what steps I will take to keep myself safe and healthy if I support birthing clients during this time.
  • Agreeing to wear a facemask and maintain 6 feet distance with a friend as we exchanged gifts outside my home.
  • Exploring the idea of socially distanced hangouts with friends and negotiating expectations for these meetups.
  • Voicing concerns and brainstorming what a potential visit with my family would look like.
  • Asking people to refrain from making coronavirus jokes.
  • Committing to wearing a mask any time I go into public.

Does anything on this list feel familiar? What does your list of communication and consent look like during this time? Additionally, how do you think these experiences will inform your life post-COVID?

What are Others Thinking About Communication and Consent? 

As I’ve been processing my own thoughts and feelings on this topic, it’s been helpful and interesting to talk with friends and colleagues about how they’re experiencing communication and consent during COVID-19.

I sent the 5 questions below to a number of folks and invited them to respond if they felt called. Only some voices and social locations are represented in the responses that follow. Again, this is only one small piece of a much larger conversation on communication and consent. The font of each contribution alternates from italicized to standard to designate different speakers.

  1. How has communication changed between you and friends/family during this time?
  2. How do you see consent practices showing up in your relationships?
  3. Are there any new communication or consent skills you are growing during this time?
  4. What does establishing consent look like to you during the pandemic?
  5. What experiences have you had with the agreement-setting process?

“As a person who is prone to anxiety, especially as it relates to my health and the health of my loved ones, COVID has been a fascinating and difficult thing to navigate. I have been living alone for the duration of the pandemic, so I have been alone with my thoughts a lot. As a highly social person pre-COVID, I thrived on in-person interactions at work and with friends. During this time of isolation, I’ve learned which friends I feel most safe with. I rarely share the depth of my anxiety with even close friends, but I’ve been much more open during this time with those I feel safe with. It wasn’t always the ones that I thought it would be either. Old friends emerged and current friends receded in importance. It has been fascinating to observe.  

As things begin to open up, I’ve learned that I have to be more open about my anxiety and my health, to feel safe engaging in socially distant meetups with friends. I communicate via phone or text each time that I meet up with a friend to negotiate the terms of our meet up. We’ll be outside, we’ll wear masks, we’ll stay 6 feet apart, we don’t hug, and we won’t share any food items or drinks. Sometimes those are the boundaries and sometimes they change as we sit together. 

It can be awkward to have these conversations. It can also be awkward to talk through a mask. It feels weird and impersonal sometimes but we have to hug with our eyes and our words for now. It’s also been a lesson in not taking it personally. It’s not that my friends think I’m infected, and therefore bad, it’s that we all just don’t know much of anything and we’re trying our best to keep ourselves and everyone we love safe with these precautions. 

As a person who has struggled with asserting my needs and my boundaries in the past, this has been an illuminating and beautiful practice to have to undertake. I find that I’m having more honest conversations, even if briefly, with friends and family who I want to be in proximity to. It feels like a larger practice in consent, in practicing and honoring my own needs whether for health or mental health reasons, and being open to renegotiating those shifting needs in the moment (which is the most difficult one to do for me). 

I always thought of consent conversations only in the context of sexual intimacy and now I see that we have always have agency to define what we want and need in our interactions with friends and family, as well. For me, these conversations have been much easier than ones with a sexual partner, so I think it’s such an important practice that will continue to shape how I show up for myself and my needs in all areas of my life.– Anonymous

“Experiencing shelter-in-place within an intentional living, all-male religious community, there have been a number of in-house realities to negotiate. For example, over time we’ve had to normalize best hygiene practices. In a community with international members, one can imagine the spectrum of sanitary norms. Honest and candid conversation is essential to navigate these realities. Yet in my experience, these conversations need to be coupled with patience, generosity and charity, certainly difficult virtues to sometimes manifest amidst the stressors of the current epidemic. 

After communicating my concerns, I’m attempting to grow in holding the response of the other person in freedom. We can participate in honest conversation and express certain concerns based on our lived experiences. However at the end of the day, I have to hope that my patient explanations will elicit a change of my community member’s behavior. I, unfortunately, can’t expect that there will be a change in their behavior but only hope that they discern an appropriate response that manifests the same charity and generosity I aspired to convey while also considering the common good of our larger community.” – Daniel Nevares, SJ, Jesuit studying theology in Berkeley

“Yes, consent is coming up a lot, but right now it’s mostly an internal struggle for me. So like:

  1. What am I even comfortable with?
  2. Do I know people who are at my same risk and comfort level, and would even be willing to start this conversation (re: socially distant hangs etc)?
  3. Can I realistically maintain good mental health without physically seeing anyone but my partner for the next year? I don’t think so. But I don’t know what to do about it, either.
  4. I feel ok as long as everyone is upfront about communicating their needs, risk tolerance, what they’re comfortable with, et. al. It gets weird and uncomfortable for me when things are avoided or remain unsaid (as someone with anxious attachment tendencies).

Now, here’s where the emotional part comes in – I feel a lot of perceived exclusion from groups, on my end. This has a lot do with my personal history of being bullied and excluded from groups continually as a child. It’s something I work on in therapy a lot, but I feel it rearing its head now. 

For example: some of my friends with kids already treat me like a little bit less than/less worthy somehow because I don’t have a family. During the pandemic, this is showing up as people with kids saying they HAVE TO hang out with other families, go to summer camp, etc, because their kids won’t be ok otherwise. Which I get. But I don’t think they would hang out with me, because I go to the grocery store once a week, and they perceive that as too risky for them and their families. But what if I won’t be ok? Who cares about that, besides me?

Then, on a regular friend level, I haven’t really started to navigate this yet. I would like to be able to take a walk, or meet up briefly at a distance with some people. But I am honestly afraid to approach anyone almost out of fear of rejection (see childhood issues, above!). Like I wouldn’t be important enough to be let into anyone’s tiny safe circle. 

Also, I think a lot of my good friends who I could see in person are as anxious and risk-averse as I am, which means meeting up is unlikely, and that makes me sad when I think about doing this for a year. I don’t know how I’m going to hold up emotionally if that’s the case, or how I will handle it. 

My parents and partner have been pretty straightforward. We talk about what we’re comfortable with and what’s acceptable to each other and stick with it. It’s the people once removed that it’s harder with, for me.” – Laura

“I’ve been noticing a lot more consent between the colleagues I staff cases with. It seems extra important at this time to be clear in what I need. Before this I might’ve texted a colleague and said ‘hey can you staff something with me?’ And now I’m giving as much info as possible for them to be able to make a decision about their capacity, for example: ‘hey I have a case I need to consult on. It’s a safety issue and will require a bit of bandwidth. Let me know if you have the capacity for it, I’m also reaching out to others.’”Lindsay Camp

“In general, I have noticed more check-ins on people’s mental/emotional health during this time.  I feel like there have been more intentional opportunities to ask people ‘how are you, really?’ and give people space to not be okay (and have that actually be okay).

Different consent practices that are showing up in my relationships can range from ‘Hey, do you have time/want to/have the emotional capacity to talk on the phone/facetime’ all the way to ‘do you feel comfortable having an in-person interaction?’  I am typically a yes-person and often agree to do things before I’m able to sit with it and check-in to make sure I have the time/emotional capacity to do so–so it’s been a learning process for me to not say “yes” immediately and be reflective on what my limits are. 

For me, [establishing consent] involves being direct with my needs and also checking-in with someone to see what their needs are (and being patient with myself and others if we don’t know!)  Part of this process has also been learning ways to verbalize my needs while respecting others who have differing ideas than me.  For example, a friend of mine who lives in Nevada and I have different ideals/expectations around safety precautions/social distancing, however, she has agreed that (if she’s able to come to Austin at all this summer), that she will wear a mask around me/practice social distancing because those protocols are more important than not seeing me at all.  These types of conversations are totally new for us (as we’ve never had to worry about proximity before) and it’s been really great to have these conversations with people who are able to hear and see you. 

I had a social distancing picnic with friends a couple of weeks ago and before we got together, we established what we were/were not comfortable with.  Rules we agreed on were: we needed to stay outside (preferably in the shade), there would be no physical contact between anyone, and we would bring towels to sit on to have a better measure/idea of how far apart we all were.  It was a really neat way to meet social needs/wanting to see people while setting intentional/safety boundaries for what made us most comfortable/feel safest.Julie Burke

“What’s been coming up for me is asking for consent before sharing my experience or asking for support from a friend or loved one. More and more we need to be witnessed in our struggle, but I am also aware of how someone’s current state might affect how they receive my request. By asking, Do you have the spoons to offer support right now? or something to that effect, I can make sure my own dysregulated state doesn’t become an undue burden for someone else.” Fanny Priest

“When the stay at home orders were put in place, both my friend and I were staying with our parents who are elderly. We definitely wanted to get together but were both nervous. We had conversations about what that could look like and what we felt safe doing. We eventually settled on a low-risk activity, meeting for an outdoor walk. We didn’t have an explicit conversation about wearing masks, keeping distance. I think we both operated under the assumption that this would not be necessary as we were doing what seemed like the same amount of self-isolation.

As things progress, and stay at home orders ease, thinking about consent and friendship is interesting. One of my friends is already feeling like they want to meet a tinder date, which makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t feel comfortable saying, if you start going out to bars and meeting people, I am not sure I feel comfortable continuing to hang out with you. It seems like a lot to ask a friend but at the same point, it seems important to express concerns. 

As far as more emotional aspects of friendships during this time, it has been more challenging. It seems like all of my friends are on a roller coaster, we are all just at different points. Sometimes it is hard to reach out to a friend when you are crying because you know they may be going through the same. I have found that it has been helpful to ask if they can handle an emotional call from me. Or check-in when I feel I have the ability to handle more. It’s a balancing act.” – Anonymous

“Calls and check-ins with friends are fewer and farther between but heartier in connecting when they occur.  With husband, similar to before.  Tuning in, tending to, and checking up on each other.  Taking turns. Returning to more mindful practices like no phone zones and not calling out to talk from separate rooms. With mom, more frequent check-in calls.

We are not having in-person social interactions with friends or family. The few times an opportunity has come up to be around others for nonessential work or unnecessary visits, there is a discussion to weigh risks and come to an agreement.  This has happened three times.  All three times there was a mutual agreement.” -Anonymous 

Contributing to a Culture of Consent

Thank you so very much for exploring communication and consent alongside me, and thank you to the folks who contributed their perspectives. Finally, I am curious about how we are contributing to a culture of consent during and beyond the pandemic.

If you’d like to share your thoughts or engage in the conversation, I invite you to comment below or write to me directly.

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