How COVID Has Changed Conversations About Consent

From Bumble’s Dating 101 in 2021 guide.

Any act of intimacy requires clear, enthusiastic consent from everyone involved—not just a lack of “no,” but a full-throated “yes.” However, the things you’re saying “yes” or “no” to have changed during the pandemic.

Now, fully informed consent doesn’t just mean having an honest discussion about boundaries and sexual health; it also means discussing each partner’s COVID risks, figuring out how to have the most COVID-safe hook up possible, and potentially exploring some new, safer forms of intimacy you haven’t tried before. 

If that sounds like a lot to think about, well, yeah, it is. But that doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing. Dr. Laurie Mintz, psychologist and author of Becoming Cliterate say that for years, “sex educators have been trying [to get sexual partners to have] explicit conversations about ‘what we’re going to do, and how we’re going to do it safely,’” rather than simply taking risks in the moment. When people are intentional about discussing boundaries, risks, and desires, the outcome is safer and better sex. Coronavirus has made these kinds of conversations more common, says Dr. Mintz, which is not just a net positive for our health, but also our sexual satisfaction.

Of course, just because it’s important to have a COVID consent conversation, doesn’t mean that it isn’t confusing—it’s new terrain, and a lot of us have questions about where to start. According to sex educator Dr. Sadie Allison, your consent conversation should begin with assessing your own feelings about COVID risk. “Think about what you need from the other person to feel safe,” says Dr. Allison. This could be anything from talking frankly about exposure risk, to only being intimate via video. “Try setting these demands upfront, before you begin engaging with people. This way, you won’t be swayed by heat of the moment decisions, but instead, your decisions will be based on protocols you established for yourself at the beginning.”

Once you’ve figured out your own boundaries and risks, it’s time to talk to your partner. If you do decide to go forward with an IRL hookup, in addition to discussing boundaries, safer sex practices, and STIs, you’ll need to talk frankly about exposure risks, and how you’ll protect each other. Some questions that might have previously felt off the table or private, like asking a casual partner if they’re seeing other people, are now a crucial part of the conversation.

But you shouldn’t just ask about potential COVID exposure in sexual contexts, cautions Dr. Mintz; you also want a clear picture of the people they spend their time around and the activities they engage in. This kind of information is crucial for COVID consent. You may feel interested in an in-person hookup with a match, but less keen once you learn that they have a job that puts them in frequent high-risk situations, or a roommate who recently tested positive for COVID. In that case, you might want to pivot to virtual sex, and then have a consent conversation about your virtual boundaries. And if the conversation reveals that they’re not taking the pandemic seriously and blowing off safety precautions, you might reconsider your match entirely.

No matter what conclusions your COVID consent conversation leads to, the important thing is to have it. Though the pandemic has changed a lot about how we date and hook up, it hasn’t changed the fact that the best kind of sexual encounter is one where you feel 100% comfortable with the decisions you’ve made.