Can I hug you? Experts hope consent conversations stick around post-pandemic

·3 min read
People hug at the Ottawa airport on June 16, 2021. During the pandemic, people got used to checking in with others' comfort level on everything from hugging to being inside together to who else they saw.  (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
People hug at the Ottawa airport on June 16, 2021. During the pandemic, people got used to checking in with others' comfort level on everything from hugging to being inside together to who else they saw. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)

This Easter weekend, many people's plans were likely dictated by the needs of the most vulnerable in the family — whether that's grandma or kids too young to be vaccinated.

Making those plans was a conversation about consent, according to Julie S. Lalonde, a women's rights advocate in Ottawa.

"These are conversations around consent and respecting people's boundaries and bodily autonomy," Lalonde said.

"Everything about the pandemic needs to die in a fire," she added, except one thing: how we've talked about consent for the past two years.

With those conversations stripped of sexual connotations, many people have become very used to the idea that one person's boundaries aren't everybody's boundaries, she said.

"It's just natural that we run into someone on the street, we run into someone at the grocery store — we do that pause and we check in before we figure out how to greet that person," Lalonde said.

"When we're sad that we can't hug them, we articulate that," Lalonde said. "All of these things I think are life skills that I hope translate into other contexts."

Ashley Burke/CBC
Ashley Burke/CBC

Lalonde said she believes it will translate in particular for young people, who are growing up understanding that others might approach things differently than they do and that where they're coming from needs to be respected.

"There are places and spaces in our society that we're making progress, but I do think that overall we do have very archaic understandings," she said.

Before the pandemic, teaching consent in schools was very controversial, Lalonde said — especially in Ontario. But she hopes there'll be more understanding going forward that consent is about more than sex.

"It's so important that we make those links, so that when the pandemic is done and we go back to trying to have a more robust sexual health program in this country, that we might not get as much resistance from parents, if they realize that consent is not actually that scary of a conversation."

Broken communication during the pandemic

Not all of the conversations we've been having during the pandemic, however, have taught us better communication, Lalonde noted.

She said the most common kind of sexual assault involves coercion — and many people have felt coerced into social situations they were uncomfortable with during the pandemic.

"You have people who are being mocked for wearing masks. And yet we're asking them to stand their ground," Lalonde said.

Cassandra Fehr
Cassandra Fehr

Allison Ouimet, an associate professor in the school of psychology at the University of Ottawa, said as the pandemic stretches on we're seeing less understanding.

"When this pandemic started, we were all kind of, 'Hey, we're all in this boat together. We're fighting this pandemic together as a team, as a community, etc.' But the pandemic and its restrictions affected different groups of people so differently."

Ouimet specializes in anxiety disorders, and said the reaction she found most common toward people who are still anxious amid the sixth wave is something along the lines of — I'm fine now, why can't you be?

"It's hard sometimes to understand why somebody else would have such a different reaction or belief, etc., especially if that reaction might impair what I want to do," Ouimet said.

As a result of trying to make sense of those making different decisions, she said she's seen more "othering."

And because everyone experiences stress in such different ways, it can make it difficult for those with more acute mental health issues.

"If everybody has anxiety because of the pandemic, then it's hard in some ways to explain what it's like to live with an anxiety disorder," she said.

But Ouimet said she thinks some people will be more forgiving of boundaries people set — like needing to cancel events due to illness.

And some people may feel more comfortable talking about their anxiety as conversations about mental health become more common.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting