First Person

What Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Consent


As we navigate interactions with strangers and loved ones amidst a public health crisis, it's more important than ever to define and assert our boundaries.



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My friend walked into a small-town grocery store the other day. She wore a mask and gloves. Inside, a group of young men lingered in the aisles, bare-faced. They looked her up and down as she picked out her items. She was the only person in the shop wearing protective gear, and the only woman in the small store. When she stretched her arm, credit card in hand, as far from her body as she could, the men snickered. And when she stepped back to keep her distance from the cashier, they stepped close behind her. They were too close, and she wanted to shout: step back, give me some space! But she didn’t. Instead, she silently gathered up her groceries and hurried out.

I know these men; maybe you do too. They are the ones who wriggled their way out of wearing condoms. The men who laughed it off when we asked them not to touch us. The men who are defiant, their disregard of our boundaries in service of their own desires. And it’s not just those men who seem familiar. In my friend’s silence, I recognize a version of myself; maybe you do too. Sometimes, when we had the right words ready, we would say something to stop those men. But many times, we said nothing.

As I strap on my mask and navigate my neighborhood, I’ve been confronted by these men, I’ve been reckoning with my silence, and sometimes celebrating my speaking up. What is it about coronavirus that has me thinking so much about consent?

There’s something familiar in the shape my body takes when people pass too close: frozen, hunched, folded into myself. This quiet rage has dwelled in me many times before. So has the relief, when occasionally I have had the right words — or any words at all — and willfully uttered them aloud.

I didn’t have the language of consent when I first started having sex. Many of my earliest sexual experiences were defined by boys groping me, reaching their hands into my pants, pushing my head to go down on them—and me going along with it because that felt easier than the awkwardness of announcing an unprompted no. Ten years ago was the last time I had sex with a cis-man, and it took a while before I could finally admit that most of that sex was not something I had wanted. I was ashamed that I had allowed myself to be coerced so many times and in so many ways, and that I hadn’t even realized it was happening.

The queer sex I’ve had over the past ten years has taught me to embody the lessons of consent—and to make it hot: Can I kiss you? Will you touch me here? What do you want me to do to you? Do you like that? The queer folks I was fucking would ask me these questions, and gradually I learned to align my answers with my desires. Soon I learned to ask these questions too. Women, trans people, and non-binary folks are by no means inculpable when it comes to crossing boundaries of consent. In my experience, though, it was sex with these folks that helped me unlearn the patterns of non-consent that had become so normalized with cis-men. It was queer sex that taught me to say what I didn’t want, and to know and declare what I wanted. Learning consent was liberating—and not just during sex.

Beyond the bedroom, we are constantly coming upon the crossroads of consent. When my doctor starts to examine my body, pulling the gown down past my shoulders without prompt. Wait, can we talk first about what the examination will entail? When a friend starts to tell me a traumatic story with no warning. Actually, I don’t think I can talk about this right now. Maybe with a heads-up, I could hear about it another time. When my mother comments on my body, pressing my stomach and telling me to suck it in. Don’t tell me how my body should look and don’t touch me like that. It feels really bad. When a stranger thinks the box I am carrying looks heavy and reaches to grab it out of my arms. I’m ok, I don’t need help!

I don’t always say what I want to say in these moments. Sometimes the words play on loop in my mind, but my voice can’t grasp them. Other times, I am frozen and I can’t think clearly enough to compose even a silent sentence. Worst of all are the times I don’t realize my boundary has been crossed until later, when I am alone and feeling ashamed. I have to remind myself that it’s not my fault, that I have been socialized into silence and appeasement, and that practicing consent is just that, a practice. Written rehearsals like these help me prepare for the real thing.

Now, amidst a public health crisis that has claimed the lives of more than half a million people across the globe, we are navigating consent in new and old ways, every time we leave our homes, in the grocery store aisles, at the post office, on the streets and sidewalks. Often, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself in those all-too-recognizable postures, curved and unmoving, silent but enraged. It took me a while to figure out why those poses felt so familiar. When I realized what it was, I knew I needed more practice, to find a new shape for my body and my tongue to take.

Alone, I perfected the art of avoidance. I could anticipate someone coming near me from a block away, and I would make a quick turn, stride across the street, run up a driveway until they passed. Occasionally, alone I could compel my shaky voice to break the silence: I don’t think you’re six feet away from me. But it was in the presence of my people—just my bestie and my boo, these days—that I could more readily assert myself. Walking with my partner, it was easier to say to the runner approaching from behind: You’re going to go around us, right? Or to tell someone passing too close: Lots of space here. Can you walk farther from us? Sometimes eye contact or hand gestures were enough. But usually, words were necessary. Standing in line with my friend, us distancing from each other as we waited, an unmasked man approached and stood close behind her. In one of my proudest pandemic moments, I yelled: Dude, you’re too close to my friend! Back up! 

Was I protecting my people? Or was it their presence that protected me, that gave me the courage to utter those urgent words, previously so out of reach?

With my friend by my side, I felt more powerful, more willing to speak up to strangers—but when it came time to set a boundary with her, I found myself falling back into old patterns of silence. It felt awkward to tell her that we should have more distance on our porch-sits, that I wanted to keep our masks on when we walked together, or that we couldn’t drive together to the protest. We had built a foundation of trust, and yet asserting a boundary with her felt harder and more vulnerable than with a stranger, no anonymity to hide behind.

When I realized this I couldn’t help but think about how sexual violence is most often perpetrated by people who are in community with those they assault. This was true for me. All those guys were my “friends,” my classmates, boys I had grown up with, or men I was dating. When they crossed boundaries of consent, I kept quiet because I felt ashamed, and because I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable. I had been thinking this was a pattern of my past, and yet at the age of 34, I was still playing out the same scenarios with one of my closest friends.

Afterward, she and I talked about it. We had conversations about our needs and our hopes, our limits, and our fears. It was vulnerable and difficult; she cried and I felt awful. There must be a way we can do this without shaming each other. I told her I was embarrassed that I felt the need to be so cautious, I told her I didn’t want to police her behaviors, I told her the things she was doing that made me nervous. I asked her how it felt to hear me say these things, I asked her what would feel good within my boundaries. We were practicing consent.

Ten years ago when I learned to embody consent during sex, I thought that I had arrived, that the work was done. I thought that since my partner and I were so good at reading each other’s bodies, I didn’t have to think about consent anymore. Coronavirus has reminded me that old patterns of passivity and reticence, of letting my boundaries get crossed, still live within me. This time has been an opportunity to exercise the muscles of consent, and to remember that it is a lifelong practice. It’s easy to feel the weight of that work, and it’s true that the stakes and responsibilities are high. But I am trying to think of it in another way too — to think of consent as a living practice. Consent is about survival, and it is about affirming our lives. Consent asks us to be tapped in, not only to what we don’t want, but also to what we need and desire most — and to declare it, with reverence for our living. That’s something I can practice for a lifetime.

 

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