My heart ached when pandemic protocol put a pin in hugging, high-fiving, and shaking hands with the people I love and respect. But unwelcome touch from strangers? I didn’t miss that one iota.

You know what I’m talking about. The uninvited embrace from someone you barely knew or used to know — like an ex — assuming a familiarity that doesn’t exist. The unsolicited caress of a pregnant woman’s belly. The overfamiliar pat of a Black woman’s natural hair. The kind of presumptuous petting that makes us feel icky because it disrespects our boundaries and invades our personal space.

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For too long we absorbed these microaggressions and treated them as the price we pay for being out in the world. But a year of social distancing protocols freed us from a lot of unwanted touch. We’ve found agency, that quite honestly, we didn’t realize we never had. And many of us want to keep it.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has afforded us a new opportunity to build new social structures that will define how we operate in society moving forward,” said LaQuisha Anthony, counselor at WOAR Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence. “This opportunity to think about consent beyond sex will help us understand the definition of what consent really is: obtaining permission to touch another person’s body.”

This opportunity to think about consent beyond sex will help us understand the definition of what consent really is: obtaining permission to touch another person’s body.

LaQuisha Anthony, counselor at WOAR Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence.

Healthy boundaries aren’t all equal

Mental health and mindfulness experts say that now is the time to set healthy boundaries, especially if we want to maintain the space, time, and energy we discovered when we cocooned during the pandemic.

But when it comes to requiring consent on how and where we can be touched, many of us — especially women — never learned how to create these boundaries. Historically, we’ve had very little say in the matter. Speaking up was rude. Being polite was preferred. The wrath of men was feared.

“Women, many women, don’t have the luxury of feeling an ownership over our own bodies,” said Adrienne Ressler, vice president of professional development at The Renfrew Center’s foundation, which helps women navigate eating disorders and develop self-esteem. Traditionally and historically, people viewed women’s bodies as objects that were meant to please others. “The result: Other people’s judgment becomes more important than what a woman is feeling,” Ressler said.

When Black people defended ourselves from any form of unwanted touch, the penalty was — and sometimes still is — death.

Black people have had even less autonomy over our bodies. Enslaved bodies were property and had no rights. And in the following decades, when we defended ourselves from any form of unwanted touch, the penalty was — and sometimes still is — death. That deference carries on to our present-day life in different ways. Some of us are quick to saucily say, “Back up off me.” While others will shrink from fear. Neither are healthy coping mechanisms.

Imagine being a Black woman.

Resetting our personal space

In recent years the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements have started to make agency over our bodies a mainstream conversation. It’s become more accepted to stand up and use our voices, politeness be damned.

But it’s taken a pandemic to really and truly let many of us set new boundaries because, frankly, no one was there to oppose them. We figured out what our own individual comfort levels are. For some of us, that’s six feet; for others, more. Some of us missed social touch. Others didn’t. We defined our own comfort levels. We didn’t have to be loud about it. We were able to just be. And we sat quiet and firm in our truths.

“We were able to step back and see what it’s like to define our personal space,” Anthony said. “Now we have this new and wonderful opportunity to reset and take the small steps that might possibly rewire our brain so we may intuitively start to do what’s right, what makes people feel safe, what makes people feel heard and that makes them feel seen,” Anthony said.

Bringing consent into the new normal

We’re in a touchy-feely post-COVID-19 conundrum because many of us miss connecting through touch. Touch is such a key form of unspoken communication: It can convey love, respect, and confidence, and we want those messages to still be heard said Ravi S. Kudesia, assistant professor of human resource management at the Fox School of Business at Temple University.

“It’s why we find ourselves asking for hugs now,” Kudesia said. “It’s hard to give up this connection.”

So, how can we use this reset to create a better culture around consent? Here’s some advice.

If you are the initiator/:

  • Ask permission. It’s the most important thing you can do, Anthony says. Everyone is in a different space. Some may still be afraid of the virus. But others — especially those who live alone — may get jarred by a sudden handshake or high-five. “You can’t take for granted that your experience is their experience,” Anthony said.

  • Don’t take lack of permission personally. A lot of people are dealing with trauma, and you might not know about it, even if you’re friends. And being around people again may be a trigger for some people, says Anthony. If you go in for a hug and the person recoils, or, much better: ask and they say no, step back and don’t take it personally. “Fears they have pushed down will begin to reawaken,” Anthony said. “It’s not always about you.”

  • Read body language. Body language speaks volumes, Kudesia said. If something about how another person is moving is telling you to back up — a grimace, a loss of eye contact, they step back — respect it.

  • Operate under the auspices that touch is not allowed until you are given consent. “When it comes to other people’s bodies and spaces, we need to learn how to abandon our sense of entitlement,” Anthony said.

If you are on the receiving end:

  • Think of your comfort first. Think of your body as your home. How comfortable would you be letting this person run around your house? The space around your body is just like that. “You don’t have to let people you don’t know or trust in your space,” Ressler said.

  • You are in charge of your body. It’s not up to the other person to set your boundaries, Ressler said. You don’t have to be fair. You don’t have to be polite. “You get to decide that your personal safety and peace of mind is more important than what someone expects of you,” Ressler said.

  • Be prepared. Have some go-to lines ready to help you avoid any unwanted touch: You know we just got out of quarantine, I don’t feel quite ready to be this close. Or: Hey it’s great to see you. Instead of a handshake, offer a fist bump. Or you may simply say: I’m still in pandemic mode. That requires no explanation. Or be straightforward, I don’t really want a hug, thank you.

  • Think of your childlike self. Look at a picture of yourself when you were 3, 4, or 5 years old. Know that person still lives inside you. Then, Ressler said, ask yourself: “Am I going to let her be invaded? Am I going to let anyone just grab their hand and hug her because they feel like it?” “Honor that person,” Ressler said.

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