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By on October 20, 2020

Consent and Social Distancing

The COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing short of devastating, whether as a direct result of viral infection or from secondary impacts of shutdowns, social isolation, or increased risks of interpersonal violence. However, the resilience of individuals and communities continues to push on and protect each other against this virus while fostering connectivity. In a time of prolonged despair, it can be difficult to analyze lessons learned that can benefit sexual and intimate partner violence prevention.

A necessary skill for sexual and intimate partner violence prevention includes respecting boundaries and communicating consent, and the conversations around mitigating risk of exposure to COVID-19 in many ways mirror the conversations people have around sexual consent and boundaries. Sexual health educators and violence preventionists often start conversations about consent by exploring consent and boundaries outside of a sexual context. Considering that COVID-19 is a shared and omnipresent context in the lives of almost everyone right now, violence preventionists can use COVID-19 consent conversations as a skill-builder towards sexual and relationship consent conversations.

Colorful vector image of a group of people wearing face masksSex educators have weighed in on the striking similarities between effective public health messaging for condom use and what could help increase face mask wearing for COVID-19 prevention, including using positive reinforcement over shame-based solutions. Many of the consent- and boundary-focused conversations about COVID-19 prevention measures mirror those sexual partners may have about preventing STIs or pregnancy. Who else have you been within six feet of, how often and when do you use masks, have you been around anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, are you having any symptoms are all questions that mimic similar questions people may ask before engaging with a sexual partner. The difference is, we are asking these questions and having these conversation with nearly everyone we closely interact with, not limited to sexual partners. These daily conversations around COVID-19 have the potential to help build skills around sexual consent, boundaries, and communication and violence preventionists can help people make those connections.

These questions are also just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to COVID-19 prevention. Questions and conversations that are more closely related specifically to violence prevention revolve around boundary setting and respecting bodily autonomy. It can be incredibly difficult when we live in a society that does not respect bodily autonomy to then assert that autonomy and ask friends, family, and loved ones to refrain from hugs and other close contact, or to assert to a stranger at the grocery store to give six feet of space. However, to a degree, the prevention measures of COVID-19 are normalizing these assertions and the respect for bodily autonomy. Additionally, people may be engaging in sexual activities in the digital realm, leading to more conversations about consent in digital, online, phone, etc. interactions that highlight the consent conversations people have during in-person interactions.

Prevention practitioners have an opportunity to use the conversations people are having around COVID-19 prevention measures to draw parallels to sexual consent conversations, and use the COVID-19 conversations people have had as a component of skill-building towards consent conversations.

Check out these PreventConnect resources on consent and sexual and intimate partner violence prevention:

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