The Importance of Consent in Everyday Situations

by Cara on April 15, 2010

in disability, rape and sexual assault, women’s health

Yesterday, I had my hair cut.

As the stylist called my name, she asked if I would like a shampoo. I politely declined. She then noticed how thick my hair is and she said she was going to take me back to the sink to wet it. And being incredibly used to this, I readily agreed and followed.

But just as she had finished wetting my hair and I expected her to turn the water off, she started squirting stuff on my head.

I froze. I’m not great with confrontation, especially with strangers, and have difficultly forming exactly what I want to say in just a short moment. She kept rubbing my head, then squirting some more, rubbing and squirting, rubbing and squirting.

The salon smell was all around me, and finally when she’d finished rinsing, only to squirt yet more stuff on my head, I blurted out “so what’s all this stuff you’re putting on my head?”

“You don’t use conditioner?” she asked incredulously.

Once she’d finished lecturing me on why I should use conditioner, I opened my mouth again to say, “I mean, before, too. You put a lot of things on my head.”

“Oh, that? It was shampoo. Don’t worry, I’m not going to charge you for it. It just makes my life easier.”

The problem was that it made my life a whole lot more difficult.

You see, I’m allergic to almost all artificial scents. Quite a few popular natural scents, too. I can’t walk down the shampoo aisle, or the soap aisle, or the laundry detergent aisle in the store. I have to go to natural food stores and actively seek out all natural, unscented products, which is usually not an easy task. I can’t use normal cat litter or home cleaning agents, I can’t borrow a friend’s lotion, and I cringe at being around someone who is wearing cologne or perfume. If these products are actually put on my body, it’s a very unpleasant thing, indeed.

So I sat there through my actual haircut just waiting for it to be over, and begging for it to end soon. I tried to take breaths as shallow as possible, to keep as much of the scent out of my nose as I could. When she asked, this time, whether I would like any product put in my hair, I declined and said “I’m allergic to most products, actually.” Her “oh” was a guilty one, and I dropped other plans to rush the 20 minutes home and hop directly in the shower. My third shampoo and blow dry for the day complete, I could finally breathe again.

Contrary to how this post looks, I’m not writing it because I want to complain about a bad experience in customer service. I don’t doubt that the stylist was genuinely trying to make her own life easier, and genuinely thought she was doing me a favor in the process. I’m writing this post because of the simple fact that a favor to one person is not a favor to another. I’m writing this post because such situations are so common and can be so very, very easily avoided.

In the end, it could have been a lot worse. While I’m allergic to just about everything, my allergies aren’t particularly severe in the big scheme of things. My nose itches and runs, my eyes burn, and my head hurts. But I don’t usually break out in hives or a rash. I don’t get migraines and need to lay down for hours after exposure. My eyes don’t water, my skin doesn’t puff up, and my airways don’t close. I don’t have chronic pain issues that could be triggered by certain scents. I don’t have sensory issues that make it difficult to be touched. And surely there are many, many other problems I don’t have that I don’t even know enough to be aware of.

Though I don’t consider my own personal allergies to make me disabled, this is in part a disability issue. It’s in part about the way that most people seem to assume a “norm” and forget the huge number of people who don’t fit it, and who can be harmed by the assumptions. It is in part about the way that certain conditions are made invisible, forgotten about, or assumed to not exist until or unless told otherwise.

But ultimately, while accessibility, accommodation, and awareness are huge issues, and I think that every one of us should do our best to learn about those disabilities that we ourselves do not have, the problem I had yesterday was not even an issue of someone not being aware enough of what precise impact her actions could have on me. Though it certainly could have solved the problem in this particular instance, the ultimate cause of it was not her failure to consider that not all people can well-tolerate just any product being put on their bodies.

The issue was consent.

Consent is not just an issue in sexual situations, though we tend to talk about it largely as though it is. Consent is something that we negotiate or fail to negotiate in all of our interactions with other people, every time we touch or ask if we can touch. In this case, I consented to having my hair wet down. I didn’t consent to having product put in my hair, or to having my scalp massaged. My consent was assumed, and falsely. And while quite likely most people would have easily consented if asked “is it okay if I shampoo your hair free of charge,” I wouldn’t. The only way to know whether or not a favor is really a favor is to ask.

It’s wrong to take a person’s consent to one activity as consent to all related activities. And while those of us in anti-violence work already recognize this, it’s more than time to extend the principle beyond sex.

Many feminists and disability rights activists have made the argument long before I have, but I think it’s worth a repeat and a revisit. What if we didn’t assume our right to touch in everyday, non-sexual situations? What if we didn’t just take for granted that a certain touch will be okay? What if we were to not consider our own desires and thoughts about a certain touch, but those of the person we’re touching? Many would undoubtedly argue, and have argued, that the world would be a much colder and less intimate place. But I argue that it’d be a far more communicative place. It’d also be a world much safer to a wide variety of people. It’d be a world with a far more genuine respect for bodily autonomy and personal rights.

And yes, it very likely would transform the way that we view sex and sexual assault. If we viewed all touch as not a right but a privilege, all physical contact as requiring consent rather than acquiescence, our views on what a sexual interaction looks like and on what constitutes rape would also undoubtedly transform. But even if they did not, bodily rights matter in all circumstances, and reclaiming them in all situations, including those that are non-sexual, quite simply just matters. Our autonomy does not begin and end in the bedroom, or center around our erogenous zones. Our bodies belong to us, and every part of them has value.

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{ 36 comments }

1 Eddie Current April 15, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Cara:

EXACT same allergy issue. And if you try to feed my cousin Shaun peanuts in some form because “the allergy can’t be that bad”, I will deck you (well, not YOU, you wouldn’t do that, this is a rhetorical you– I’m over explaining in a parathencal again…)

And you have hit the nail on the head about consent; we need to broaden its context quite a bit in a number of cultures on this planet.

2 Kathy April 15, 2010 at 6:13 pm

This post hits really close to home. Scented products and any sort of head/neck manipulation are major migraine triggers for me. Having my hair cut is a system of bartering and pleading with the stylist. I always go “pre-washed,” which is usually not much of an issue; however, I had one stylist who was personally insulted when I refused a “complimentary scalp massage.” Migraines aside, I think that’s too much touching just for a hair appointment.

3 lauredhel April 16, 2010 at 6:10 am

Great post.

I’m glad you mentioned massage, also – I was quite taken aback the first time a hair stylist started to massage me without mentioning it first.

(And I can’t be the only one who’s wondered about the stylist or shampoo-er or physiotherapist who happens to be pressing their pelvis against me in the course of the service.)

Medical consent is another area of non-sexual body consent that is so frequently glossed over – both in terms of the specifics of examination for all people seeking care, and especially for examinations of children, where consent and explanation is often not even attempted.

4 Jo April 16, 2010 at 6:14 am

I can totally understand issues with this, too. I’ve never complained to a stylist about it, largely because I have no problems with allergies or migraines, so the scalp massage ‘just’ makes me uncomfortable… but I ended up switching my hairdresser to a much cheaper, much less fancy place where they don’t linger over customers with the hair washing. Being treated briskly is far more reassuring to me when generally the only people who stick their hands in my hair are me or a lover.

5 demeter April 16, 2010 at 9:08 am

Wonderful post. I run into this same issue (highly allergic to most scents) often.
You’ve framed it in a whole new light. I think next time I have to decline, I will do so without feeling awkward.

6 Judith April 16, 2010 at 9:20 am

Cara, this is *such* a good point. Yes! It’s so interesting (and sad) to see all the places a non-consent culture is evident, not only in the sexual arena. I see it brought up a lot with things like environmental harm to indigenous peoples, but something as simple as what you put on people’s hair or in people’s noses (department store perfume spraying people, I’m allergic to most perfumes) would be a great place to apply a consent model.

7 Fiona April 16, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Exactly! This is what I’ve been trying inarticulately to tell people for ages! Thanks for writing this post.

No allergies, but I’m hypersensitive to touch. It boggles the mind how many people interpret “please don’t hug me, I’m not comfortable with that” as “obviously, I’m just a silly little person who doesn’t know what she wants! please, wrap your arms around me and squeeze until I’m crying from misery!” egads.

8 Solitary April 16, 2010 at 1:34 pm

All I can say is ‘me too’. I hate being touched, despise it with a fiery passion and even simple touches from strangers – a waitress putting her hand on my shoulder while I give my order, someone reaching around me for something off a shelf and brushing my arm, even a child or older person using me as a brace or a crutch – has been known to trigger panic attacks if I’m in a bad place emotionally or mentally. I have a huge area of personal space and I guard it with all the finesse of a junk yard dog, lol. I also avoid touching other people and when I do, I always apologize, sometimes to the point that it’s rather silly, but there you go.

9 Jen April 16, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Excellent post. Thank you.

We learn about touch and consent as children. If we are learning the wrong lessons, ask yourself why. Be the change you want to see in the world: ask before you pick children up, before you adjust their clothing. Children can have allergies too, and children can be sensitive to touch or smells or textures and have NOWHERE TO TURN. The measure of our morals is how we treat people who can’t fight back.

“Many would undoubtedly argue, and have argued, that the world would be a much colder and less intimate place. But I argue that it’d be a far more communicative place.”

Intimacy requires consent almost by definition, and should certainly not be a cultural default. I’d argue that a colder and less intimate place is not only likely but desirable, and not only desirable but, for many of us, necessary.

10 ohands April 16, 2010 at 4:45 pm

This was a really good post, thank you.

Handshakes, for example. Some people do not like handshakes (whether because it causes physical pain or they don’t like touching in general or some other reason), but it is very hard to socially not shake someone’s hand,, especially in a business setting.

11 reahues April 16, 2010 at 11:37 pm

Much appreciation and agreement.

Last week I got a haircut, and I really liked my stylist and was having a good experience. She talked up her coworkers who did eyebrow threading, kept bringing up that I should do it, so I did.

I went to the threader and she did the eyebrows, then she asked if I wanted the area above my lip threaded. I asked her if it was painful, and instead of answering, she jut started to do it. After a few seconds I told her I couldn’t go through with it, and she laughed and kept going. It *was* painful.

Clear violation of consent, obviously, and add in the pressure to fit in with common notions of how a woman’s face should appear. I left full of complicated feelings and thoughts similar to yours.

A world in which these “casual” violations didn’t happen would be ethically better; ensuring the basic right of a guaranteed breathing space.

12 notemily April 17, 2010 at 2:14 am

Great post. Thank you.

13 Sunset April 18, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Great post.

I would especially emphasize the importance of asking children for consent as much as possible. I grew up in a household where privacy was *not* respected. I also experienced sexual assault in a dating relationship at 18-19. It took me a while to connect why I felt so angry about what happened at home to the sexual abuse.

What I realized was that my time at home had taught me that I did not have rights to my own body. I learned that wanting to control who did what to me was silly and I needed to stop being oversensitive. What happened at home was not explicitly sexual, so no-one saw anything wrong with it. I still cannot hug my mother without feeling like I want to scream.

Even the non-sexual can leave deep, deep scars.

14 Sam April 18, 2010 at 12:46 pm

This article made me really really upset because it legitimized and reframed all these instances where I felt downright abused by touch that I don’t have the -right- to feel abused by because it “wasn’t sexual”. My uncle sitting on me while I napped and then spanking me and laughing about how he ‘didn’t see me there’ (he did, it was a ‘joke’). Or when the nurse at my grandfather’s nursing home spent five minutes with her arm around my shoulder while she talked to the people in the room. I had never met her before. I have a terrible phobia of doctors… like I would rather die than ever see a doctor ever in my entire life kind of phobia. And I really relate the whole doctor experience to being worse than rape. I am so sorry to anyone who finds that incredibly offensive for me to say (I don’t know if it will help to say that I’ve been sexually assaulted as well… after all these other issues have taken place though so its not a reaction to that). But the reason I say “worse than” in because it would never be perceived as wrong by anyone but me. And that assumed right, and my assumed insanity, is a horrible feeling.

Anyways, thanks for this post!

15 Lachrista April 18, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Excellent post! I have also dealt with a similar experience at a hair salon. Mine was the issue of the hairstylist choosing to style my hair straight without asking me (as my hair is naturally curly). You can read it here, if you like: http://lachristagreco.webs.com/apps/blog/show/2936673-the-politics-of-curly-hair

16 Dr. Psycho April 18, 2010 at 3:02 pm

As a professional massage therapist, I remember how I bristled the first time I heard someone listing “shoulder massage” as an example of sexual harassment. But of course, I had never, even long before I became a professional, touched another person without permission.

I also have something to say about the importance of consent (and the right to withhold or to withdraw it without facing a guilt trip) as a sometime practitioner of BDSM, but I think it has already been covered above.

17 Gilda April 18, 2010 at 11:53 pm

I’m glad I came across this article. As someone who looks forward to being shampooed and having my hair touched when I go to the stylist (and someone who enjoys perfumes and incense) I’ve never really thought that someone might not enjoy it. It definitely makes me more aware that there really are people out there to whom a touch or a scent can be irritating or even frightening, and it made me remember some times that people had touched me in a way I didn’t like (my uncle randomly massaging my shoulders really hard when I was reading) or had used scents that really bothered me (my roommate and her maple-flavored tea…yuck) and made me sick.

I also remembered a time when a stylist tried to get me to get my eyebrows waxed. I have thick black eyebrows that I actually like, so I said no, but she kept insisting. She was like “I really want to do this for you!” as if she just couldn’t stand the way I looked, and that it was going to bother her if she didn’t. I never went back to that salon again. :p

Anway, thanks for spreading awareness for all the different kinds of consent out there….it definitely opened my eyes a bit. :)

18 aislingeach April 19, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Thank you thank you thank you. I’m usually okay with being touched accidentally, but I always notice it and casual touch can make me really uncomfortable. I certainly avoid touching others casually without consent, and apologise when I accidentally touch someone.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my coworkers twice (2 times!) in a morning touched me, deliberately and without warning, high on my chest and close to my neck. The first time, she reached out and grabbed my necklace to admire it. That made me flinch, but I let it go. The second time, she reached out and started fussing with my nametag, so I pulled her aside.

“I would really appreciate it if you don’t touch me without permission.,” I said.

She looked at me like I’d told her that I enjoy kicking puppies for recreation. “Well, I’m a mom, so I guess I just –”

“My mother doesn’t touch me without permission,” I interrupted. I was a little more sharp, mostly because I have very low tolerance for being condescended-to, and being told that there is somehow an equivalence between me and HER CHILDREN qualifies.

So, long story short, now I’m the crazy lady who doesn’t want to be touched.

19 Dawn. April 19, 2010 at 11:23 pm

Really excellent post, Cara. I 100% agree. I actually haven’t thought much of consent in non-sexual situations much before, except when I’m in that uncomfortable, anxious moment when someone is touching me (non-sexually) without my consent. Then it’s very much on my mind and infuriating.

It’s interesting that in our culture, it’s usually considered rude to decline a platonic physical touch, i.e. a hug or a handshake. I think this points to how little people truly consider consent in our culture.

20 dzent1 April 19, 2010 at 11:55 pm

And how about taking the time to mention your allergies and issues to the people who provide these services? Is that out of the question?
Although you have a point, people are responsible for their own health and safety, and can do a lot to protect themselves by speaking up before the standard treatment and procedures easily tolerated by most people are applied.

21 KB April 20, 2010 at 2:18 am

ok so yes, i agree that the stylist should not have assumed that declining the shampoo was, in fact, declining to PAY for the shampoo. but, on the other hand, where do our own responsibilities lie in terms of vocalizing our needs? how do we vocalize them politely, but firmly?

“oh–hey–i might not have been clear. yeah, i’m allergic to a lot of products.”

or:

“you know, i know you’re being friendly, but i’m not into touchy-feely stuff. no biggie; just not my thing? so maybe just let me know if my nametag is off or my necklace is backwards. i totally appreciate the heads up though!”

i mean, i agree that people should not expect consent is assumed. but how can we effectively state our boundaries without being rude? ideas? anyone?

22 Cara April 20, 2010 at 8:31 am

And how about taking the time to mention your allergies and issues to the people who provide these services? Is that out of the question?

I should be expected to tell people about my allergies even when I have no prior expectation that my allergies would be an issue? Even when I’ve been getting my hair cut while having allergies for some time, and it has never been an issue?

Am I expected to by psychic? Or am I expected to introduce myself as “Hello, my name is Cara — I have lots of allergies, could you please not squirt or spray scented products on me?”

How difficult is the concept “you don’t go around squirting things on poeple’s heads without asking them first?” Is that really so radical?

23 Lampdevil April 20, 2010 at 11:06 am

“Many would undoubtedly argue, and have argued, that the world would be a much colder and less intimate place. But I argue that it’d be a far more communicative place.”

Hell to the yeah. If we’re all communicating and if we call care enough to be on the same page, then this WOULD make the world a better place.

The concepts of consenting to touch bring to mind the code of conduct for the Live Action Role Play group that I participate in. It’s right there in the rulebook, that there is to be no touching in-game. Do Not Touch Anyone is the default state of being. Players may choose to dip out of character for a moment and request permission to touch, as in a handshake or a pat on the back or a hug.

I love this. Absolutely love it. There are folk that I’ve played with that I would feel uncomfortable having touch me. (There are folk that I play with who have a bad case of the Excessively Grabby Hands out of game, and it drives me up the fuggin’ wall.) And in the same way, there are friends that I play with who I may not mind spontanious touch from… and they ask each time, anyway. Which is awesome. Maybe I’m having a jumpy day. I KNOW there are other players that DO have issue with unexpected contact. It helps make gamespace somewhere comfortable.

24 Sunset April 21, 2010 at 12:47 am

KB, I’m not sure how far our responsibility to be polite extends. The proper response on the part of the stylist would have been “It makes it easier for me to use shampoo, I won’t charge you for it though.” Not to do it anyways. Imo that was just rude on her part.

I have issues all the time with people wanting to know “why I don’t like being touched.” Especially family. In my experience the demand for a reason tends to have the implied subtext of “you have to have what we deem a ‘good enough’ reason to not be touched for it to count.” I’ve even had this followed up by being told I should get therapy because I’m not comfortable with a certain level of physical contact!

So, honestly, I’m not that concerned about politeness once someone decides to ignore my wishes.

25 Karl Tiedt April 22, 2010 at 1:09 am

Re: Dzent1
Why should the obligation fall on Cara? Everyone has their right to privacy and nobody should have to justify why they feel a certain way or why something bothers them. As a consumer (regardless of allergies/phobias/mental state), I want the person I am paying for product/services to be as clear and concise as possible.

If they feel something is a good idea, then sell it to me (not in the monetary sense but, convince me). In that moment, where this hair dresser was attempting to “sell it” to Cara, I’m sure the issues of her allergies would have came up and undoubtedly been respected. If they don’t feel that strongly and they just let it go, then they should do exactly that and no take that train of thought any farther, with or without further input on the consumer’s part.

I believe everyone else has pretty well stated every other point that has been made, so I’ll leave them be. The fact that the liability should fall on the person who has personal issues just disturbed me.

Great post Cara, extremely well said.

26 AmandaLee April 22, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Someone mentioned consent in Medical situations, which is something that has been a big problem for me in my past. My general phycian is an older male. I’m in his office pretty often for a chronic cough/allergies that I have. The first 3 times I went in, he stuck his hand under my shirt to listen to my lungs, and also un-hooked my bra strap to do the same thing. Every time it made me really uncomfortable, but I didn’t know what to say. I finally confronted him on it the last time I was in, and he apalogized profusely, saying he was de-sensitized to the human body, being a doctor. I polietly explained that I wasn’t, and it hasn’t been an issue since then. Consent it just an issue that needs to be talked about as often as possible.

27 Zan April 26, 2010 at 11:56 am

See, here’s the thing — Cara said she didn’t want her hair shampooed. That should have been the end of it. She said don’t shampoo my hair. Her hair should not have been shampooed. There was no obligation to explain WHY she didn’t want it done.

I get stuff like that all the damned time and it makes me crazy. I have FMS and I CANNOT HANDLE TOUCHING. A little pat on the back will leave me in agony for hours. A friendly shoulder punch? I’m having to pull out the Vicodin. And when I tell people not to do it, they “forget” and do it anyway. So I get to be the bitch, in pain, growling at people when they look like they’re going to touch me because they can’t “remember” that I said I don’t want to be touched.

Dammit, no. If someone says Don’t do That (whatever That is) then DON’T DO IT. It’s not a hard concept!

28 Kait April 26, 2010 at 2:17 pm

I’m glad I’ve found this. I grew up in a family that doesn’t touch at all. As a result, a casual touch can surprise me and even freak me out a little. I often forget that others do not have these issues, and have had confrontations with my dates about why I am not as “friendly,” when in reality I find touching to be way too intimate.

I agree that it is awkward to try and communicate these feelings without seeming rude. More often than not, I probably come off as cold or distant because I pull away. It is just too close for me.

A world with more consent would be a great world for me, indeed.

29 ajani57 April 30, 2010 at 6:37 am

Okay, so I’m in labor with my first child; I have no idea what is happening to my body but it hurts, so I’m holding on to and biting down on the handle of a hairbrush, one of those brushes with metal bristles. The doctor appears and does his digital thing. I’m okay. Then he quickly takes a long coke spoon looking thing and sticks it in me. There wasn’t pain but still, what the fuck? I took the hairbrush, the one with the metal bristles, and raked it violently across his arm. Then I spoke a few words. After that he explained everything and asked my permission before touching me. BTW, he was breaking my water.
BTW II: That was one of only a handful of times where I asserted myself. Usually I’m a wimp to the nth degree. Now doing headwork on PTSD due to multiple rapes, abuse, etc., and so I’m glad I found your blog. Reading words such as ‘unrapeable’ and ‘slut-shaming’ and seeing them used in really good sentences has enabled me to articulate what I have been doing to myself and to call bullshit. So, thank you for your blog.

30 dzent1 May 14, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Which part of YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR OWN HEALTH and well-being do you not understand, Cara?

Are you just so freakin’ lackadaisical that you can’t be bothered to communicate KNOWN ALLERGY ISSUES to those who are going to be conducting intimate personal services on a part of your body?

YOU ARE ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE FOR PROTECTING YOURSELF. Deny that BASIC FACT OF A LONG AND HEALTHY LIFE, and you will find your life to be neither. The world doesn’t care. You’d better.

31 Cara May 14, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Aw, that’s cute, dzent1! I can only wonder what you’d say about people who have endured far more heinous violations of consent and bodily integrity! I say “only” because you’re banned now, and so thankfully we’ll never have to find out.

32 Social Worker May 14, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Ouch, lil harsh, Cara. I would have liked dzent1 to hear more about this topic to help widen his/her lens.
HOWEVER, I completely agree with the post and issues it raises.

To make the point perfectly clear, let’s move this into the sexual arena, shall we?
Obtaining Consent is on the part of the action-taker, not the receiver, since said receiver does not know what X action will be until asked.

To paraphrase the above, for example:
“Hey, I’m kinda not okay with you putting your penis in my vagina right now. No biggie, but if you could put it away and let me put my clothes on, really appreciate that, buddy. Oh, and before, when you were grabbing my breasts, sh’yeah, I wasn’t really feeling that either. We good though, right?”
I wouldn’t nicely accept the invasion of my boundaries in that context, why should I allow it in others OR feel that I’m being rude to set them?

I’m all for being polite and not hurting anyone’s feelings, and part of that is because we (most of us, anyway) are en-cultured to think of it as rude to set limits in advance and to re-direct others who don’t think to do so.
We are socialized to assume (and accept non-given) consent, rather than to request it, and it feels odd or rude to set our personal boundaries.
It’s the cultural norm that needs to be shifted.

33 Cara May 14, 2010 at 10:05 pm

Social Worker, when you’re the one being attacked, you can decide who to educate and who to not, okay? Yes, I’m still being harsh, but I think that rape victims who are being told that they don’t have the right to expect that others respect their boundaries have every reason in the world to be harsh, no matter what the context of the boundaries in question.

34 SW May 16, 2010 at 2:07 pm

I’m sorry. Your blog, your rules, you’re right.
And how ironic that in making our very point, I accidentally step on yours.
Again, my apologies, Cara.

35 Cara May 16, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Thank you, SW.

36 Songstress May 17, 2010 at 11:59 am

Social Worker,
I love the way you summed the point. Your “hey, no biggie” part had me crying laughing. I’ll have to try that on the boyfriend and see what he does. “we good though, right?”
ooh my god!

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