Intimacy in the Purple Bubble: When COVID meets College

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One of the things we hear people grieving the most about the “before” times is the ease, the seamlessness of our interactions with one another: a hug in greeting, the electric excitement of kissing someone, hours passed in study nooks and common rooms conspiring — etymologically, breathing together — to bring about our futures. 

Now, though, all we can see are the seams and edges of our connections to other people in this community. To say “the pandemic has profoundly shifted how we interact with others” is obvious, but it also elides both the preparation our community had for this moment and the possibility that lies ahead of us.  

For the last few years, we have talked extensively with many of you about how essential it is that we move beyond consent conversations as something that happen only moments before sexual intimacy. One reason for this is that those moments, for most people, just aren’t happening often enough to gain practice pushing through the clumsiness and vulnerability in order to become really skillful at navigating them. 

Instead, we’ve tried to create a culture of consent: a place where the norms of consent — of recognizing where one person’s needs and boundaries meet another’s — are infused in all aspects of campus life. If we thought concretely about how we live into our values around consent in our living spaces, our practices and rehearsals, and our meetings, we could practice the language and habits of sharing space with each other in ways that deepen our relationships and, hopefully, prevent harm caused by transgressing boundaries. 

Life on campus under COVID-19 has brought this task into the fore and prompted us all to engage with it, practicing saying things like, “What is your comfort level with outdoor dining?”, “Would you mind pulling your mask back over your nose?”, “I’m not doing indoor hangs with non-podmates right now.”

The pandemic asks us to do something that seems basic but often proves to be quite challenging: identifying our own needs, communicating them to others, and working together to see where we’re on the same page. 

Another of the raw, exposed seams in this moment is how we navigate the needs and interests of people outside of our immediate interactions, especially when those needs and interests are out of sync with our own desires and longing.

For example, what was previously an individual decision about whom we spent time with and how — along a spectrum of intimacy — is now a decision that has implications for the micro-community of our pods, our classrooms, our neighbors, and our families. Consent on a pod- or community-level means that the boundaries of those around us become part of our decision-making matrices in ways they likely weren’t before.

Transitioning a connection from one of friendship or flirtation to one of physical intimacy now requires folks to talk about the possibility of deepening intimacy before it happens — checking in about personal limits, pod expectations, and possible risks if the relationship includes a breach of public health expectations and policies. This means that somewhere before things cross the 6-feet mark, folks have to express their intentions and desires aloud. We often hear about how challenging this is under normal circumstances because, in stating our hopes outright, we risk the possibility of rejection. This moment demands a level of candor in our communication that may feel unfamiliar to many of us.

Given that the bar for navigating intimacy safely is so high, it leaves a lot of room for potential harms to happen this semester. This is also why the college created an amnesty policy to ensure that public health guidelines don’t become a barrier to seeking support if something goes wrong. A student who seeks resources for harm that they experienced in the context of a situation that violates public health guidelines will not be referred to the disciplinary process. As a reminder, confidential resources like the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office and Sexual Assault Survivor Services, Chaplains, and Integrative Wellbeing Services remain available throughout the semester.

In a socially distant world, we are still committed to the heart of our prevention work: building personal, interpersonal, and community-wide skills for how to meet this moment. We’re here to workshop ideas with you for how to deepen relationships distantly, to facilitate a dialogue with your pod, or to Zoom with your affinity group as you hash it all out. 

Just as there was a before this moment, there is also an after. If we spend this time tending to the seams of our relationships, strengthening and reinforcing them along with our own skills, think how sweet that time will be.

Meg Bossong ’05 is Director of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response and Health Education. Hannah Lipstein is Assistant Director for Violence Prevention.