Consent and COVID-19

Wondering what consent has to do with COVID-19? Plenty!

The conversations we’ve been having with people about whether and how to socialize are incredibly similar to safe sex conversations. Of course, the last time we had these was last week; by now we hope it’s clear to everyone how important it is to stay home for a while! But you might have a few friends or another household that you “coronabond” with (now you can have all the shared responsibility of fluid bonding at a distance of three feet!). More on that in a moment. Regardless of whether you’re having these conversations now or after quarantine has lifted, some key consent skills could help you out.

Most importantly, remember consent must be INFORMED. For sex, this means sharing STI testing status, birth control needs, other partners, and potential implications for the relationship. In a pandemic, it means telling anyone you’re thinking of coming in contact with about your risk factors for being a carrier: How many other people have you been in contact with in the past two weeks? Have you or they traveled? Have any of them become sick recently? Have you had any symptoms? What precautions do you take at the grocery store? Remember transmission is possible even when asymptomatic, so think of it like assessing a new partner’s risk if they hadn’t had STI testing in a few years (because testing wasn’t available).

Consent is also specific. What will you be doing together? What agreements are you making to safeguard each other? If you want to create a quarantine pod (#coronabonding), what limitations are you agreeing to regarding interactions outside the group? Are you in agreement about how often you are each washing hands and surfaces? How about using elbows to open doors? What are your boundaries of tolerable risk? Again, please, please, please remember it is not just your health you are talking about, but that of literally everyone on the planet, starting with your own community. If you are increasing your risk through contact with others, how are you agreeing to mitigate that risk to everyone else?

Consent is freely given and reversible. Do not let anyone pressure you into more contact than you think is safe, and remember you can always change your mind. We encourage you to change your mind as more data comes out and our understanding of what’s happening improves. Do not pressure people whose risk tolerance is lower than yours or whose understanding of the data suggests greater caution. Be easy to say no to! Remember we are all trying to find our role in protecting each other. Let this be an opportunity to practice not taking “no” personally.

Finally, consent is enthusiastic. In sex, this means only having sex you really want. In a pandemic, it’s different. We all really want to socialize, shop, return to normal life. Instead, ask yourself, “Is there a really good reason to do this?” Mental health may be a really good reason, just check if there are safer ways to meet the need first, and think about precautions you can take in doing what you need to do.

These conversations can be awkward at first. Be gentle with yourself as you practice. Model by sharing your own information before asking others to share theirs. Think about what you want to know and ask what others want to know. Err on the side of over-communicating. And please pay attention to the latest science when deciding what’s relevant and what’s risky. We’re all in this together. Be kind. Be safe. Communicate!

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