Are you invited to a risky Easter gathering amid COVID-19? We asked a sexual health expert how to say no

From setting personal boundaries to saying no respectfully, an experienced sexual health educator offers some advice for discussing possible weekend plans with your family.

Public health officials have asked people to avoid family gatherings this long weekend

Sexual health and consent educator Samantha Bitty suggests people set clear boundaries about what they are comfortable doing, and to avoid feelings of guilt if family members feel disappointed. (National Speakers Bureau)

With novel coronavirus variants swirling in the community and local hospitals in crisis, the coming long weekend is threatening to further derail Toronto's battle against COVID-19.

So, how can a sexual health educator help?

Perhaps in some ways that you might not realize.

Samantha Bitty has spent her career teaching people about consent and boundaries.

As politicians and public health officials plead with people to avoid family gatherings on Easter weekend, Passover and Ramadan, Bitty's advice might help you navigate some of those tricky family conversations.

She says those talks can be especially difficult when people have differing positions about their responsibilities, tolerance for risk and willingness to follow public health guidelines.

Bitty's interview with CBC Toronto has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

Nick Boisvert, CBC Toronto: If you just had a minute with somebody who's expecting to be fielding calls or texts from family about plans this weekend, what are the main things that they need to do when having those kinds of interactions? 

Samantha Bitty: I think the most important thing is to know what your soft and hard boundaries are. And knowing what that means for you is going to help you to be more confident when you're articulating that to family members. 

And from that place, you can then negotiate or try to take care of your feelings and their feelings. Saying, "I'm not comfortable coming", or, "Yes, I am, but it looks like this." 

NB: Are there mistakes that people make when they try to have those conversations?

SB: I think that the biggest mistake is not knowing where you stand on those different things.

Because we have a tendency to activate co-dependency in our families. That's the way that the family structure is kind of built, the hierarchy that parents or elders know best. We're responsible for each other's feelings, all those things. 

And so I think the mistake we make is feeling like we're responsible for other people's feelings about our boundaries.

You're responsible for thoughtful consideration, but you're not responsible for someone's feelings. 

So once you can kind of know within yourself: "I'm not responsible for how this has made someone else feel," then there's a lot of liberation in your decision. 

Even if you feel guilty or icky about it, that's for them to process.

'Better days are in sight,' said Toronto Mayor John Tory, asking residents to avoid Easter gatherings. 'We can get our lives back if we don’t screw this up.' (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

NB: How do you deal with feelings of guilt or possible resentment from family members? Is that just something you have to live with?

SB: I think so. Therapy's so useful! [Laughs]

But again, it's practice, right? It's uncomfortable because we're not used to it. 

I think that there are useful tools for going about those conversations in ways that can take care of people's feelings. And what we know about empathy is that it's critical. Right? So when people have more information, they tend to have more empathy.

The conversation doesn't have to begin and end with. "I'm not coming" or "I'm coming, but I'm not staying for dinner." 

Whatever it is, you can explain the reasoning behind that and then people can usually connect with that.

NB: Can you explain a bit more about your advice to use "I" statements when talking to family?

SB: I feel like the easiest way to go about that is to use "I" statements. 

Like, "I can come, but I'm not hugging right now." And you can offer reasoning for that and say, "I'm taking these guidelines really seriously." 

Public health officials say previous holidays, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, led to a surge in cases due to increased gatherings and interactions. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

And while my proclivity, and I think a lot of people's proclivity is to lie, to be like, "Oh, I can't make it because X, Y, Z," I think being honest can actually be really effective.

And so using "I" statements, being honest, being vulnerable and understanding that when we're negotiating consent, the negotiation starts with ourselves.

It's about knowing that feeling guilty doesn't necessarily equate to having done the wrong thing. 

NB: Do you think that there will be many families that come out of COVID stronger and maybe more open with each other?

SB: I think it depends on the family, right? There has to be a willingness to grow. And I think that this has pushed a lot of people to reflect on things like boundaries and in a way that maybe they hadn't before. 

And so, yeah, I ultimately feel that a lot of a lot of positives can come out of this.