Consent, COVID, & Dating
Last Updated: February 3, 2023
By: Sloane Ferenchak, #WeLoveConsent Coordinator; Gina McGrath, Consent Culture Initiative Founder/CEO; & Ashley Stafford, Consent Culture Initiative Executive Director
If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that life during a pandemic is difficult to navigate! The risks associated with COVID have required us to use communication skills that are specific and detailed when discussing contact with friends, family, coworkers, roommates, etc., which is a very new practice for many. Although these conversations may feel awkward, thinking of them like “safer sex” conversations (or conversations about consent) can highlight their importance and help them make more sense – especially when we consider how to navigate COVID in our romantic and sexual lives.
This winter, #WeLoveConsent and Consent Culture Initiative combined forces to answer burning questions from the nightlife, flow arts, electronic music, and creative communities about general consent, informed consent around COVID, and dating during a pandemic. Incorporating your most frequently asked questions around consent, this Consent, COVID, & Dating toolkit takes a deeper dive into this complicated and essential topic.
Learning Consent Culture
Consent has always been a socially taboo topic to talk about, but the lack of publicly-available tools for consent-focused discussions has been made all the more obvious by COVID. Living in the time of a pandemic provides a prime opportunity to start practicing the same consent conversations that are required for safety, mutual respect, and boundary setting in everyday life!
It’s important to start with an understanding of what boundaries really are, since consent is almost entirely based on communicating and respecting the autonomy of self and others. For example, a familiar situation that’s been magnified by COVID is asking for a hug. A year or two ago, you may not have asked first – you might have even self-identified as a “hugger.” Now, there is a social understanding that most people aren’t accepting hugs without consent. You might have heard (or personally asked) more questions like “Can I hug you?” or “Are you hugging people right now?” before making the wide-armed approach.
If a person says no (or asks you to step back because you are too close), they are informing you of their boundaries, not being intentionally offensive. Flexing our boundary muscles may be uncomfortable at first, but they will become stronger and more natural to use over time.
Working through this discomfort, however, can be difficult. How do you stand for your boundaries once they’re set and feel okay about it? It’s important to start by internalizing that your need for respect and autonomy is valid and your boundaries should be honored. Setting boundaries is different for everyone, including determining when and how to express them, so be patient with yourself as you learn. You might say something like, “Hey! I’m happy to hang out, but I’m going to stay over here. I’m not hugging right now.” and then participate within your boundaries.
RESPONDING TO BOUNDARY RESISTANCE
It takes practice to self-soothe when met with a negative reaction in response to your boundaries when you assert them, but your strength will build quickly: this practice is a muscle, so remember to warm up! If your boundaries are resisted, take a moment to breathe and center yourself first before responding. Engage, DON’T react. You are taking care of yourself, which is an honorable act, and anyone shaming you for standing in your agency probably isn’t thinking of you and your needs.
Setting boundaries with loved ones can be difficult, but it helps others see who you are in the context of your needs. This means that, as contradictory as it may feel, boundary setting is a gift. The work we do when we set our boundaries and respect those of others can be challenging, but it almost always results in more intimate and safer connections and spaces.
The practice of building your ability to manage difficult emotions – otherwise known as emotional resilience – is one of the most powerful tools in the kit of an ally. Practicing resilience is something we’re all doing these days, particularly in the context of hearing “no.” This is important if you want to respect another person’s boundaries, but communicating your “no” is critical for your own safety as well.
Setting emotional boundaries can feel heavy at times, so saying the simple catch phrase “thank you for taking care of yourself” can be helpful for the boundary receiver OR deliverer as a form of self-soothing. Reminding yourself that you are setting these boundaries to take care of yourself and prioritize your safety is crucial if other people have negative reactions to your boundaries.
Remember to feel the emotions and thoughts that come up when you set these boundaries, and observe them with compassion. If you are met with resistance, take a breath, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach, and say or think “thank you for taking care of yourself” to recognize the hard work you’re doing in setting that boundary.
Some phrases to use to create an emotional boundary:
- I want to hear you, but I am distracted. Can we talk once I’m emotionally available?
- I am not able to hold space for you on this, but it is very important, and I think you should find someone who you can talk to about this.
- I can’t provide the support you deserve right now, can I help you find someone who can?
A sense of safety is critical to creating consent in our culture, and relies on your awareness of the emotional, physical, or social impact you have on others. Emotional labor occurs when a person has to regulate their own emotional response because of another person’s actions or interaction with them. Emotional consent is a major part of avoiding unjust emotional labor, accidental coercion, or difficulty in respecting identity. Acting consensually involves intentional consideration of how you can prevent others from doing unwanted emotional labor for (or because of) you.
SOCIAL MEDIA & DIGITAL LABOR
This sort of practice becomes particularly useful when setting professional boundaries and practicing digital consent during the pandemic. A common experience when working from home is exhaustion from “constant availability.” The expectation from employers that a person is available if they are online or at home is a violation of the person’s space (and possibly professional contract) that requires a discussion about consent.
Additionally, feelings of urgency surrounding the expectation of timely responses through social media can be destructive to our sense of peace and autonomy. These behaviors have been deeply reinforced through hustle culture and capitalism. It’s time to begin unpacking habits that have stemmed from abuse of the psyche, and defending our right to privacy and rest. Refusing to participate in the rat race that enforces this kind of “always-on” behavior is a win, not a disappointment – cultural and social shame around saying “no” at work (and in many other spaces) is oppressive. Remember: When you or someone else presents a boundary, it is a gift and should be treated as such.
COVID & Consent
Avoiding uncomfortable feelings is a common tendency that’s socially ingrained from an early age in Western society, even when direct communication is really, truly important (such as in instances concerning sexual and physical health). This fosters a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” culture; asking about whether your partner(s) have been tested or disclosing information about your sexual health can seem scary when we are taught to associate STIs with shame, and treat those who have them like they’re unclean, irresponsible, or unhealthy.
This is reflected in the social culture around COVID, wherein people are afraid to have frank conversations about safety due to fear of judgment, guilt over precautionary practices, worry about causing upset, or feelings of discomfort about asking clarifying questions. This issue has been fueled by unclear regulations and the barrage of misinformation released in 2020 about how to stop the spread.
The controversy over responding to COVID is representative of larger cultural trends in America. Our collective difficulty with asking each other to respect and establish boundaries has created an environment where people would rather assume than ask about things like past exposure, comfort with touch, preference for spending time inside/outside, etc. lest we face difficult emotions when our expectations are not satisfied.
We can never be 100% sure that being exposed to someone is safe without a negative COVID test result and sufficient quarantining, but we can have thorough and open conversations about our safety practices that are based on mutual respect, trust, and care. This kind of communication allows us to make informed decisions.
If we think of COVID in terms of informed consent, this means that we’re making informed decisions about what we consent to being exposed to based on the risks involved, the precautions that will be taken, who will be present at a gathering, and so on. Having these conversations helps you figure out ways to maximize your safety and comfort by deciding how many risks you expose yourself to. You can avoid needless anxiety by collecting information about all of the risks involved in an interaction, allowing you to exercise autonomy over your choices about your health!
Questions to ask include:
- Are you vaccinated?
- Who are you around without a mask?
- Are you around them indoors, outdoors, or both?
- Are you engaging in social distancing?
- How long are you interacting with them and what is their exposure like?
- Have you been tested for COVID recently?
- Do members of your household get tested regularly?
- Do you work from home, and if not, what precautions are there at work?
- Do you have any high risk medical conditions that I should be aware of?
- What types of public places are you going to, and what precautions are you taking?
To participate in informed consent, we need to disclose our COVID health practices with those we plan to interact with. It may help to think of it like this: As a community member, you have a responsibility to your “neighbors” while also having bodily autonomy. You can exercise this freedom and do with your body what you will, so long as it does not infringe on the safety or autonomy of others, especially in non-consensual ways. This means that it’s important to take precautions in community spaces to avoid causing harm to yourself or others, including disclosing about your COVID precautions, symptoms, and test results. If you do put others at risk and are unwilling to address the potential consequences, you shouldn’t be in public community spaces.
DISCLOSURE AND EXPOSURE
You have the right to privacy while still having the responsibility to provide information to others when you might put them or their loved ones at risk. For example, if you’ve taken necessary precautions and are still COVID positive, it isn’t your fault – but it IS your responsibility to tell people you’ve been in contact with. Nondisclosure not only puts others at risk of serious harm, but also destroys a special kind of trust that demonstrates that you care for their wellbeing. While you can’t be forced to disclose, you still should for the safety of others. Transparency is not about control; it’s about mutual respect for boundaries.
Additionally, disclosing your practices to others does not mean that you need to change them. You might ask yourself, “Is it up to me to disclose, or is it up to someone else to ask?” And the answer is, both! In informed consent, both parties have the responsibility to disclose and gather the information they need to make healthy decisions for themselves.
HOW-TO: INFORMING OF A POSITIVE RESULT
If you’ve been exposed or have found out you’re COVID positive, you may be anxiously wondering how to tell those you’ve had contact with. This anxiety is completely normal, AND you still need to inform others. Here are some tips to make this easier:
- Take notice of and identify your feelings. Accept that you are feeling them and continue to do what is right by telling others.
- Are you feeling guilt or shame? Practice self compassion to work through these feelings and use them to guide how you respond in a positive way (i.e. telling others, taking more precautions)!
- Keep it direct and honest, and provide the details that you know.
- Understand that not everyone will react the same way & prepare to answer questions.
- It’s up to you to decide how much you disclose, but understand that others have a right to be informed. If you don’t disclose enough information, the choice to not share physical space with you or have any form of contact with you is a valid boundary!
- While you can’t control how others react, focus on what you do have control over:
- Taking responsibility and disclosing honestly
- Conveying the information you have truthfully
YOUR OWN SAFETY PROTOCOLS
Determining your personal comfort levels with various tiers of exposure can help you decide whether you will spend time with others, and will reduce anxiety that may arise if you decline an invitation. When considering whether you are making a good decision, take a moment to reflect on whether you actually want to say yes or if you’re only doing so to appease the other party.
The best decision is one that is optimal for your own health and that of those you spend time with, not one that protects someone’s feelings – which is not freely given or enthusiastic consent! You have the right to say no if you are uncomfortable, and the right to choose who you spend time with based on your safety and comfort. This is practicing your right to bodily autonomy, and constitutes harm reduction in action!
Socially distancing and wearing masks are two of the most important precautions that you can take, and if taking these precautions is what you need to feel comfortable, people need to respect this boundary to be around you. Your friends, family, coworkers etc. can choose to not wear masks or engage in social distancing, but you have the right to ask them not to do so near you because it puts you at risk. If they can’t respect this, they don’t deserve to have access to your space.
HOW-TO: SETTING COVID-RELATED BOUNDARIES
When we feel informed about how to set and stick to our boundaries, we feel more prepared to communicate them to others. When setting COVID-related boundaries, stick to the following:
- Brief: Keep it short and simple; you don’t need to over-explain or justify yourself!
- “I would love to see you, but I’m not doing in-person hangouts right now.”
- Informative: Clarify what your boundaries are, what can be done to make you more comfortable, and what the consequences of violating your boundaries are. Honesty is the best policy! Don’t say that you are too busy when you really just don’t want to be hugged by your family of cuddlers; they won’t have a chance to accommodate you if they’re not informed of your limits!
- “I will definitely come if everyone commits to wearing a mask and we keep the windows open.”
- Friendly: When discussing boundaries, frame them from a place of care for the safety and wellbeing of both parties. Emphasize that this is part of making informed decisions about health.
- “I want to make sure that I am doing everything I can to protect myself and you.”
- “I would love to come in when this is all over! I miss sharing space with you; maybe we can have a video date in the meantime?”
- Firm: Remain respectful but steadfast when it comes to your boundaries. If someone continues to push or pressure you, you have every right to say no to having them in your space. Respecting someone as a person also involves respecting their comfort and their health.
- “I want to spend time with you, but I need us to be socially distanced. If you keep touching me I will have to leave.”
- Suggest: Suggest an alternate hangout option that will respect everyone’s boundaries and make them more comfortable.
- “How about we all sit around a bonfire tonight so we can have fresh air?”
If you are uncomfortable with touch during COVID, you can swap out hugs and handshakes for elbow bumps, waves, nods, foot shakes, or even greeting with a hand sanitizer squirt! When greeting others, focus on eye contact and smile; we smile with our eyes even behind masks. Always ask about a greeting that involves touch prior to trying it. Going in for touch without checking first can make someone feel pressured into doing something they don’t want to do.
Dating & Consent in COVID
Like we’ve mentioned, you can never be 100% sure about a person’s risk factor for either STIs or COVID. What you can do is take steps to collect information and make the best informed decision for your own health. Dating during COVID is a new playing field for all of us, and it’s a learning curve!
When masks are the condoms of the COVID world, asking about a person’s COVID exposures is a lot like having the “when did you last get tested for STIs” talk. It’s a necessary conversation that doesn’t need to be awkward, nor should it be something that you fear talking about with your new potential partner.
One way to approach the conversation is to disclose your risk factor first: “I would love to meet up, but I need to let you know that I have a job where I am exposed to people all the time. I wear a mask at work and make sure to wash my hands often, but I feel that it’s important to disclose all information about my exposure before agreeing to put you at risk. My roommates also work in the industry, but we don’t have guests over unless we discuss it first. They said they don’t have a problem with you coming over, but want to stay masked and ask that you are too. What about you? What are your risk factors?”
This kind of informed consent will also help you make other decisions if things progress to a physical relationship. Did you know that there is a chance that you could contract COVID through intercourse? The virus has been found in the semen and fecal matter of those who are infected – though we’re not positive what this means for transmission, it does pose an added potential risk to be considered.
Discussing this topic with new potential partners will set the groundwork for better communication and boundary setting in the future. For instance, asking your new partner if they are seeing other people (or planning to) can transition the conversation into one about shared boundaries and responsibilities. One way this might manifest is in asking what their view on COVID testing is. Questions like “Do you get tested when you may have been exposed?” – or, if they have been tested, “What factor led you to getting the test done?” – can be great ways to gauge another person’s exposure levels to COVID, as well as their potential response to STIs.
When you have extra factors at play, such as other potential partners, it’s important to have a working understanding of those partners’ risk factors, too. You might ask, “What precautions do your other partners take?” or “What are some precautions you expect from your partners?”. From there, it’s up to you to determine whether you’re comfortable with their precautions or you feel at risk.
To lighten things up during what can be uncomfortable conversations, you can always practice some COVID pickup lines, like:
- “Is that hand sanitizer in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”
- “Are you an N95 mask? Cause I want you on my face.”
- “Can I ship you a drink?”
Have fun with it and let us know what you come up with!
HOW-TO: SOME DATE IDEAS
Now that you’ve established a dynamic and boundary that you’re comfortable with, the next major hurdle is deciding what kind of date you’re going to go on. Chilly weather, closures, and high price tags have closed a lot of traditional date opportunities – but there’s still plenty of room to get creative!
- Dog park coffee date
- Take a walk from a local coffee shop to your nearest dog park. Dogs are reliable neutral territory, and they’re adorable. No one loses.
- Blanket fort
- Set up a blanket fort and make mocktails or cocktails in theme with a time period (or favorite story).
- Mini art gallery for your pet(s)
- Do you have a pet/familiar? Set up a mini art gallery for them to go through! You can make the art for them, or have their cute selves make it for you (this will involve some cleanup). Then set it up in the hallway of your home and discuss the artwork.
- Check out going to a museum or art gallery, which tend to be open at limited capacity.
- Get out in nature – go for a hike, explore more of your area, or connect with your inner child and go sledding!
- If you’d prefer to stay inside, you can always try a board game night, build something, or hit the crafting supplies.
ONWARD AND UPWARD!
Amidst the sea of changes, it’s so difficult to navigate an entirely new set of social and cultural dynamics while we adjust to life in a pandemic. There is, however, a silver lining: we have the opportunity to emerge from this time period with an enhanced understanding of what it means to be good to one another.
Practicing consent is always worth your time, and it can be done every single day in so many contexts. It starts with you!
Always rooting for you,
The DanceSafe Team & Consent Culture Initative