Consent Is About More Than Sex

Respecting personal boundaries is important in all interactions. The pandemic has made that clearer than ever.

Two people wearing masks stand face-to-face on a dock, with a body of water in the background.
Andreas Solaro / AFP / Getty

For many people over the past year and a half, every social event—hugging a relative, eating with a friend—has become a complex and sometimes-awkward dance. They’ve determined their safety needs and wants, then verbalized them to others. They’ve had to ask permission for more things, after considering other people’s comfort and boundaries. Whether people have realized it or not, everyday pandemic-era interactions have frequently turned into consent conversations.

At its most basic level, consent is at least two people agreeing about what they’re going to do together, Dorian Solot, who co-founded the sex-education organization Sex Discussed Here!, told me. We might most often associate consent with sex, and for good reason: Consent is crucial in all sexual interactions. (In some states, explicit “affirmative consent” is the legal standard for all public colleges and universities.) Still, Julia Feldman, who runs the sex-education consultancy Giving the Talk, told me that when consent is taught in sex education, it is sometimes presented as “a hoop to jump through.”

But consent factors into every aspect of our social lives. It is not a transaction. It’s an honest, deliberate, ongoing dialogue about how everyone can have their needs met—a key element of healthy sexual and nonsexual relationships. It is, essentially, good communication. People have long had these conversations, whether asking if they can use someone’s restroom or requesting that a guest take off their shoes indoors. Violations of consent are unfortunately common too: someone touching a person’s hair or pregnant stomach, say, without permission.

For those abiding by safety guidelines, the coronavirus pandemic has meant even more daily choices about what kind of consent they give and request. People have needed to disclose elements of their personal life, such as vaccination status, having immunocompromised family members, or recent exposures to the virus. They’ve had to ask others whether they’ve gone to clubs or weddings or have traveled recently. And some might have had to withhold agreement to a handshake or attending a birthday party. (The fact that COVID safety measures have become a politicized issue hasn’t made matters any easier.)

Calling these interactions consent conversations could feel unfamiliar. In part, this might be because many Americans are unfamiliar with the concept in any context. In the U.S., according to the Guttmacher Institute, just 39 states and the District of Columbia require sex education, and within those, only nine require lessons about the importance of consent. A Planned Parenthood study published in 2016 showed that among 2,012 adults, only 14 percent reported that they’d learned how to ask for consent, 16 percent had learned how to give consent, and 25 percent had learned how to say no to sex.

Even before the pandemic necessitated mask wearing or six-foot distances, Feldman, Solot, and other sex educators advocated for earlier education about consent in all relationships, beyond the realm of sex. “I think when people hear, like, ‘Oh, you do consent education with kindergartners,’ they assume I’m doing sex education and I’m talking about sex. And I’m not,” Monica Rivera, the director of the Women and Gender Advocacy Center at Colorado State University, who also consults on consent education in K12 schools, told me. “What I’m attempting to do is to get us as a culture to disentangle the topic of consent from sex, so that it becomes a part of the air we breathe.” She noted that adults might create situations that “unintentionally undermine” consent in interactions with children; a common example is when adults expect kids to give hugs to family members or friends.

Rivera said she has observed how the pandemic has brought consent conversations more intentionally into people’s day-to-day interactions. “The pandemic has forced us to talk about consent in a way that’s not about sex and is sometimes about our closest friends,” she said. But talking about consent with close friends can feel trickier. “The second we’re talking about the people in our immediate circles, that’s where we tend to have defensiveness about somebody wanting to set a boundary or social pressure,” Rivera said.

Solot told me that consent conversations have the potential to “drive a wedge” between friends and relatives who take differing levels of COVID precautions, or none at all. “We all make those risk decisions and, in day-to-day pre-pandemic life … we didn’t have to worry about it too much,” she told me. “Now we’re all forced to confront it all the time, which is both wonderful for relationships in terms of more communication but can also be really stressful.”

Asking about your friends’ vaccination status or requesting that they wear a mask in your house, however, can help lay the groundwork for a culture in which people feel more empowered to say what they’re comfortable with, Rivera told me. In a situation where consent is communicated, she explained, “when someone is having an interaction—whether it is having lunch on a patio or having sex with someone—that someone is doing it because they want to be doing it and they’re doing it in the context in which they feel safe.” Marshall Miller, who co-founded Sex Discussed Here! with Solot, told me that ultimately, when all parties agree on what they consent to—say, that they should be vaccinated before hanging out—they build reserves of trust for future interactions.

When the pandemic eventually subsides, experts predict that people who have exercised their “consent muscle”—as Solot calls it—will have a chance to rethink the norms of social behavior, such as “having the expectation be one of personal space and less physical touch unless it’s invited, which is a good thing overall,” Miller told me. Solot said she hopes the norm of defaulting to the boundaries of the most cautious person can be applied in contexts other than COVID safety. “If one person wants to use a condom, then use a condom,” Solot explained. “If one person feels uncomfortable with the situation, it doesn’t matter if you feel okay about it.”

Keeping in mind different levels of power and privilege is also crucial. Consent conversations among friends, for example, are very different from ones that might happen in the workplace. “Part of the skill of infusing consent into our everyday lives is being able to do a power analysis,” Rivera said. She gave the example of a boss and an upset employee. Instead of the supervisor saying “Can I hug you?” they might ask “Would you like a hug?” “It’s such a subtle shift in language, but it allows someone the ability to say no differently,” Rivera said.

In many cases, consent conversations will likely continue to be daunting, clumsy, and difficult. “It’s awkward in a COVID context. I think it will remain awkward in a sexual context,” Solot said. Perhaps, though, the pandemic has created an opportunity to push through that discomfort. An ever-present public-health threat has necessitated a daily process of empathizing with all the ways other people might feel uncomfortable, or even unsafe, and explicitly communicating about them. The pandemic has been a crash course in respecting people’s boundaries. But we should have been doing this all along.