Sickness and Consent

Sickness and consent - Meg-John & Justin

This episode of the podcast was a Coronavirus special where we reflected on the issues that the virus raises for consent, from the micro level of self-consent to the macro level of wider culture and societal systems and structures, and everything in between.

The podcast should be useful whenever you’re listening to it though as most of our points are generally applicable to sickness and consent rather than specific to Coronavirus. We also recorded an episode about Stress and Coronavirus.

We began with the point that with sickness – as with so many things – it’s best to take the starting point of what’s best for the most marginalised and vulnerable people in our communities and recognise that doing that will likely be better for everyone else as well.

It’s something we explore in our book, Enjoy Sex, in relation to sex. The kind of sex people should have to be best for a disabled partner, a trans partner, or a partner who is a survivor is the kind of sex which is better for everyone (in terms of pleasure and consent). A similar thing applies to sickness.

It’s been common – with COVID19 – for people to reassure themselves and others with the fact that it’s probably mostly older people and other vulnerable people who will die or be severely affected, as if the lives of older people, disabled people, people with chronic health conditions or undergoing cancer treatments, homeless people, poor people, etc. matter less somehow. Instead we should be asking what we need to do to protect those groups the best, which will also be better for everyone.

We explored the ways in which Corona is encouraging people to relate differently with each other around physical touch, work, cancellations, etc. and how – in many ways – these cultural and relational shifts are things that would be better for everyone in general, not just at this time. Relating it back to our handshake exercise with consent, we explored how we could be negotiating different forms of greeting – perhaps drawing upon cultures and communities with non-physical greetings.

We also spoke about the kind of flexible work practices which are being brought in, the ways people are exploring multiple ways of doing particular tasks instead of going with the default script of physical meetings, and how cancelling may be reframed as a positive thing (helping prevent other people getting sick) instead of a negative thing to be avoided unless we absolutely have to.

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Cultural shifts could help us all be more self-consensual around sickness. As in so many areas, with sickness it’s important to tune into our needs and limits, and to communicate those to others. That can be incredibly hard when we’ve learnt cultural messages that being sick is a weakness or failure, that we shouldn’t ‘let others down’, that it’s best to ‘push through’ or ‘step up’, etc.

If we can recognise that the best thing, when sick, is to care for ourselves as well as possible – both for ourselves and for others, then the fear and shame around sickness can lift, leaving us with an experience that is much more manageable. It might be useful to explore the messages you received around sickness growing up from your culture, community, and family, and what those messages around you are like now (a bit like we encourage that exploration around sex in our book).

You could also make a ‘user guide’ to yourself around sickness – for yourself and others – about what’s best for you when you’re sick, what support you do and don’t need, maybe a list of books, podcasts, TV shows, etc. which you can store up for when you need that gentle care around sickness. The book How to be Sick is useful on the kinds of things we can learn from self-consent and self-care around sickness which is useful for our everyday life.

We finished the podcast thinking about community care and interdependence. Justin used the example of panic buying as being an individualistic response to Corona which is actually detrimental to everyone – including the individual. If shops run out of handwashing stuff because people have stocked up on it for themselves, then there are more people out there without access to handwash, and more likely therefore to be infectious.

We also spoke about how countries with no public healthcare and/or zero hours contracts and many workers without sick leave were more likely to struggle with Coronavirus than those which had free healthcare and/or protections for workers. It can be useful to think, in our communities, about how we can support each other in sustainable ways through sickness, and to think as societies about what systems and structures work best in times like these – they may well be the ones which would be better for everyone, all of the time.

© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2020