– From Masks to Kissing, a Guide to Your Risks
By Carly Severn
Let’s get this straight: during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no “safe way” to have sex with someone you don’t live with.
But humans are humans, and we know some folks will still make the choice to get physically intimate with other people, despite the presence of a highly contagious disease in our midst. So we asked for your anonymous questions, and created this guide to sex and dating during the coronavirus pandemic.
Because there’s no 100%-safe way to date or have sex outside your household right now, you’ll see the super-unsexy — yet super-important — phrase “harm reduction strategies” throughout this guide. That’s because when it comes to engaging in social and physical intimacy, it’s all about weighing your risk factors, assessing them against the risk factors of the person (or people) you’d like to have sex with and doing everything you can to further reduce the potential harm.
We’ve consulted with these sex and health experts:
- Stephanie Cohen, medical director of San Francisco City Clinic
- Nenna Joiner, owner of Oakland sex store Feelmore and former adult filmmaker
- Julia Feldman, Bay Area sex educator and consultant at Giving the Talk
What bodily fluids can carry COVID-19?
So many aspects of the coronavirus remain mysterious to scientists, and that includes the full scope of COVID-19’s relationship with sex. But here’s what we do know.
If someone has COVID-19, they can transmit the virus via particles in:
- Their saliva
- Their mucus
- Their breath
The coronavirus has also been found in the semen and feces of people with COVID-19. It hasn’t been found in vaginal fluid.
Can COVID-19 be spread through sex, whether vaginal or anal? The scientific community actually doesn’t know for sure yet. What we do know is that “sex is the definition of close contact,” as Stephanie Cohen puts it. So if you’re close enough to get physically intimate with someone with COVID-19, you’re definitely close enough to have a high risk of being infected via those particles they’re exhaling.
How dangerous is kissing?
Kissing someone outside of your household is one of the most risky things you can do right now, Cohen says, because of how much exchange of saliva it involves.
For this reason, she says, kissing might actually present a higher risk of transmission than vaginal or anal sex. And anything that increases your respiration and your respiratory rate “will likely result in the release of more respiratory droplets,” thus increasing the risk of transmission — think heavy breathing.
Are certain types of sex riskier?
Because the coronavirus has been found in feces — and because gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea can occur sometimes with COVID-19 infection — Cohen says there’s a likely chance that anal sex or oral-anal contact would pose more of a transmission risk than other forms of sex such as penile-vaginal contact, for example.
That said, medical professionals just don’t know for sure. COVID-19 transmission risk would also be impacted by a number of other factors, such as the degree of face-to-face contact and how infectious the person with COVID-19 is at the time of the sexual encounter. Right now, there just isn’t enough data to be definitive, Cohen says — so it’s all about assessing those various risk indicators we do know about.
If I do have sex, what are some things I can do to reduce my risk of catching COVID-19?
If you’re utterly determined to have sex outside of your household right now, these precautions represent harm reduction strategies:
- Wearing a mask: Remember, a mask protects the other person in how it limits the spread of your respiratory droplets. For masks to truly reduce the risks of either sexual partner getting COVID-19, both people would have to wear a mask: a mutual masking, if you will. “It might not be a strategy that works for everyone,” Cohen says, “but certainly I think it’s one that could reduce risk.” Remember though: as Nenna Joiner reminds us, masks are like condoms in the sense that you “still need to know how to put [them] on correctly.”
- Choosing positions that minimize face-to-face contact: Spooning sex, doggy-style, reverse-cowboy/cowgirl/cowperson — consider agreeing to stick to sexual arrangements that keep your faces far apart, and ideally with one person faced completely away from the other. (It’s a bit of a spontaneity-killer, yes, but it’s a good idea to agree to this one before you start having sex, to avoid ‘the heat of the moment’ making the decisions for you.)
- Remember cleanliness: “Washing up really well, both before and after sex” is another way sexual partners can potentially reduce their risk to each other, Cohen says. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you don’t have soap and water on hand, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol and rub your hands together until they feel dry. Don’t use sanitizer anywhere intimate — it will really irritate that delicate skin. If you have someone else’s bodily fluids on your body, be sure to wash them off thoroughly. You cannot “absorb” the coronavirus through your skin, but you might touch your skin and then touch your face. If you’re using sex toys, wash those with soap and warm water.
- Using condoms and other barriers: Wearing a condom during sex will decrease your exposure to saliva or feces. For oral sex, using a condom or dental dam similarly provides a barrier. This is especially important for any anal contact.
- Keep it quick: Minimizing the length of a sexual encounter is a harm reduction strategy in how it’s reducing the amount of time you’re potentially being exposed to the virus.
- Consider things that don’t exchange fluids: Mutual masturbation could be considered a harm reduction strategy, Cohen says. But don’t forget that if you’re simultaneously making out, “that could actually be higher risk than a quick session of oral sex,” she says.
And remember: Don’t forget to practice the safe sex you usually would before the pandemic.
With all this in mind, we’ll say it again: right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no way of having sex with someone outside your household that carries zero risk of transmitting or obtaining the virus.
“Everyone’s looking for a magic loophole,” acknowledges Julia Feldman, “and it doesn’t really exist.”
And here’s another tricky thing. Even if you and your partner agree to abide by all of the above harm reduction strategies in the cold light of day, things can shift in the heat of the moment. Previously agreed-upon plans can fall apart when inhibitions are lowered and you’re turned on, especially if alcohol is involved — and in these circumstances “you’re less likely to use your prefrontal cortex to really analyze the risk involved in the situation,” Feldman stresses. “Especially if you haven’t had sex in a long time and you’re very excited to do it.”
So if you’re concerned that your safety boundaries might be in any way reduced or made negotiable during sex… back away, and prioritize your health.
OK… I had sex anyway. How long should I wait to get a COVID-19 test?
If you aren’t sure whether your sexual partner had COVID-19, the best time to get tested for the coronavirus would be between five and 14 days after the encounter, says Stephanie Cohen.
That’s because the median average time from exposure to coronavirus symptom onset is five days — so testing any earlier than that might not yield an accurate result — but the incubation period (the amount of time you can be infected before showing symptoms) is up to 14 days.
Is isolating for 14 days between sexual partners a good idea?
Here’s the idea: you have sex with someone, and then wait for 14 days to see if you develop symptoms of COVID-19. If you don’t, you’re good to move on to a new partner safe in the knowledge you don’t have the disease and aren’t passing it on — right?
“It’s a good strategy; it’s a harm reduction strategy,” Cohen says, but “it’s not a zero-risk strategy.” That’s because of the large numbers of people who get COVID-19 but never show any symptoms.
What about sex with more than one person?
Having multiple people that you have sex with is a definite risk factor for transmitting COVID-19. These kinds of overlapping sexual relationships with different people — going back and forth between people, basically — is called “concurrency” in the sexual health world, and it’s something experts say will heighten your risk of spreading the disease.
“To minimize that concurrency,” Cohen says, “decrease the network size — which decreases the spread of coronavirus.” Basically, consider reducing the number of people you’re having sex with during the pandemic.
Where does that leave you if you practice polyamory, which is all about having multiple sexual relationships?
Nenna Joiner says that yes, some folks are deciding to take a break from polyamorous intimacy during the pandemic owing to the heightened risks of having different partners right now. But other poly people are choosing to isolate together “as a poly family,” they say, and agreeing to only have sex “within that sphere of people.” Ultimately, it’s about finding the solution that works best for your health, and that of others.
What about group sex?
If group sex (having sex with multiple people at the same time) was your thing before the pandemic, Stephanie Cohen has a message for you: “The fewer people, the better.”
That’s because with every additional person in a situation — social or sexual — you’re adding a potential COVID-19 case, whether they know they have it or not. In a group sex situation, that person is then potentially transmitting the coronavirus to multiple people at one time — who could then go on to infect others, who then go on to… you get the picture.
If you do continue to choose group sex, New York City’s public health department advises you to “Go with a consistent sex partner” in such a situation, and “pick larger, more open, and well-ventilated spaces.”
What about sex workers? How can they make it work right now?
Is there a way to safely engage in sex work in the midst of a pandemic?
It’s “a profession that certainly carries risk,” Cohen stresses, due to the amount of close physical contact involved. In addition to the other strategies discussed here, some additional harm reduction strategies sex workers might consider are to limit the number of clients they see during the pandemic, to opt for a smaller circle of regular clients and “more spacing out in-between partners.”
Who is ‘safe’ to date right now?
As if finding a match with someone you’re emotional and physically compatible with in all the expected ways wasn’t fraught enough — you now have the coronavirus risk compatibility to consider, too.
This is, Feldman admits, “a really unfortunate layer to add to dating.”
Get ready for some frank communication with partners, both current and potential ones, about your circumstances and behaviors around contact with other people. How many people are they seeing, socially or sexually? How does their daily life look in terms of interactions with other people? Are they an essential worker? If so, what kind of traffic does their place of work experience?
In a nutshell, this is not the time for mystery — and in many ways, you’ll have to be your own contact tracer, says Nenna Joiner.
How much do I need to talk about COVID-19 with potential partners?
Open, honest communication about your health has never been more crucial than right now. And, as Julia Feldman notes, if you’re getting sexually intimate with somebody, you should already be talking to that person about your health and sexual health status. COVID-19 is now another communicable disease for you and your sexual partner(s) to be discussing, without holding anything back. (Remember though: somebody can have the coronavirus and have zero symptoms. Just because somebody thinks they don’t have COVID-19 doesn’t mean they are definitely COVID-19-free.)
Starting these conversations can feel tricky, especially with someone you barely know, so Feldman advises you initiate the conversation by leading with your own experience — a time you were concerned you might have been at risk for contracting COVID-19, perhaps, or a recent decision to seek out a test for the disease. Leading with your own vulnerability, she says, can really open up a conversation without putting your prospective partner on the spot. You don’t want them to feel grilled, or accused. “That definitely doesn’t set the mood, and it doesn’t build trust,” Feldman says.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day, people are trying to figure out how to get all of their needs met as safely as possible,” reminds Feldman. “That’s a lot to navigate! This is brand new stuff. We are going to be messy.”
In being thoughtful though, don’t forget to acknowledge your own boundaries — and forget about anyone who doesn’t respect them, especially during a pandemic.
Being an advocate for your own safety — and working to limit community transmission of the coronavirus — means not letting any potential partners pressure you into meeting up in person, or engaging in any sexual contact you don’t want to have.
I live with other people. What do they need to know about my dating and sex life?
If you’re sharing your living situation with roommates or family, sorry: your business is now their business, especially if their own health places them in a vulnerable category.
That means you should be as transparent as possible with the people you live with about your relationship(s), and the types of activities and the type of risks that you’re involved in, Feldman says.
The first step in navigating this should be talking with the person you’re dating or having sex with, to establish their level of risk. You need to work out the potential COVID-19 risk their behavior and circumstances pose not just to you, but therefore to the people you cohabit with.
You should be prepared to discuss how you propose to minimize your roommates’ risk, whether that’s avoiding shared spaces in your home, relentless sanitizing of your living environment — or whether your cohabitees are prepared to not do this and accept the heightened risk, and the potential consequences of that.
Basically, get used to communicating because “you need to have some very frank conversations about how you’re going to try to keep everyone safe, and prioritize everyone’s health and well-being,” Feldman says. It’s that big a deal that ultimately, Cohen says, your roommates or family “should have veto power in terms of you engaging in risky behavior and bringing it back to them.”
Is ‘distanced sex’ a thing?
Totally, says Joiner: social distancing and forgoing physical touch does not have to be a barrier to sexual intimacy. Sex toys which use Bluetooth connectivity can be used or worn by one partner and activated remotely by their partner from six feet or more away, without any physical contact. If you want to increase that distance, Joiner says you could use these kinds of toys in conjunction with phone sex, or voyeurism.
It might sound impersonal, but Joiner says distanced products actually require just as much effort and communication, if not more.
“You’ve got to turn on a person to make them feel confident and comfortable and warm like you’re there,” they say. (Joiner’s pro tip: If you’re purchasing this kind of remote toy for the first time, try it out solo first to really get to grips with it — and minimize any awkwardness when you come to use it with your partner.)
I know I am ‘my own safest partner.’ How can I make the most of that?
Nenna Joiner reminds that some people might actually welcome the break from active dating that COVID-19 enforces. Some people with anxiety can often find the machinery of dating — conversation, sex with someone new — stressful and anxiety-provoking. If that’s you, Joiner says to take advantage of this “buffer,” to get some respite. They also want to remind you that not everyone in the world is into self-pleasure — and if that’s you, that’s totally fine.
If limiting your physical intimacy with others is something you’re committed to, you may be considering acquiring sex toys to concentrate on your personal pleasure instead. Joiner says many sex shops, including their own, offer online chat services, where you can consult with an expert about exactly what you’re looking for. Joiner says some of Feelmore’s live chats can get “crazy,” so don’t worry about being frank with the professionals. Online deliveries or courier services are also available in many stores, to enable you to maintain social distancing.
Joiner’s entry-level advice with your purchases: “Stay on the lower end (on price), figure your body out for yourself and then progress from there.”
What about taking everything online?
If you decide to take your sex life fully online to eliminate any close contact or in-person elements, New York City’s public health experts advise that if you normally meet your sexual partners online (or make a living on the internet), “video dates, sexting, subscription-based fan platforms, sexy ‘Zoom parties’ or chat rooms may be options for you.”
If you choose this option, don’t forget to keep your environments clean in a way you would if someone else was present, and disinfect any keyboards and touch screens you’re using that you share with other other people.
Also, don’t let the possibilities of the internet (and let’s face it, lockdown-induced frustrations) override your normal judgment around your online privacy and personal safety. Especially when it comes to sending nudes or other intimate material to someone you don’t know and trust.
How can I ‘have’ intimacy if it’s not safe to touch someone right now?
Don’t be deterred or dismayed by how new all this feels either, Joiner says. The pandemic means many of us have had to learn new ways of living in general, and these adaptations to our sexual lives are in many ways “an opportunity to create a new life sexually for ourselves as well,” they say.
Joiner believes that this might even be a spur to regain intimacy for many people, because of the extra imagination and effort required. It’s a chance, they say, to make sure that you’re really focusing on your own emotional needs.
Julia Feldman advises that this is also a potential moment to redefine what intimacy means for you, beyond mere physical touch: “We can’t say that intimacy is dead!” she says. “It just has to function slightly differently.”
I live with my partner but we’re not having much sex. Help!
It’s not just single folks who aren’t necessarily having the quantity or quality of physical contact they’d prefer during quarantine. For a couple who lives together, even a previously harmonious relationship can be severely tested by 24/7 cohabitation during COVID-19 — and result in a drop in intimacy.
It’s all about switching up your timing to reinvigorate a dynamic, Joiner says. They recommend taking separate breaks outside of your shared accommodation — like a solo lunch break at the park — but also occasionally meeting up in a fresh setting that’s not where you live together. Joiner recommends trying a joint picnic, or a driving date — shared experiences that “will actually lead you to have to know why you’re in a relationship with your partner, and then to lead towards more intimacy, which leads to more sex.”
Don’t forget the power of dressing up slightly too, Joiner says, who warns against “the rut of seeing each other in certain clothes” (e.g. your work-from-home sweats.)
Even making a little effort for regular activities can go a long way, they say. “Like my partner: Yesterday we went to church online, and she puts on a dress. I’m like, ‘shit!'”
My live-in partner is really bad at social distancing, and I’m worried to kiss or have sex with them. What can I do?
If you’re covering your face in public and maintaining social distance, but your partner doesn’t, they’re not only heightening their own risk of contracting COVID-19 but bringing their risk home to you. How can you have that conversation in a way that makes change?
In a sense, this conversation is an extension of the dialogues you and your partner have already (hopefully!) had about trust and fidelity of all kinds within your relationship, and the things that matter to you, whether that’s strict monogamy or communication around other partnerships you may have. Agreeing to even be in a relationship is about declaring an intent to care for that other person’s wellbeing and safety in certain regards, and any breach of that — like bringing home a risk of COVID-19 without discussion — represents a decision to disregard that agreement.
So if you’re in this situation, try explicitly framing this with your partner as a fidelity issue, Feldman recommends: “We made a commitment to protect each other through the good and bad, and right now this is pretty bad.”
She advises aiming to come to a reaffirmed agreement with your partner about “what level of risk you’re both willing to take on, and to really sign onto that.” Then, if there’s still a breach, you really need to talk about respect within your relationship, and whether you’re both really committed to each other.
When opening up these dialogues with your partner, Feldman also advises emphasizing that these are not “normal times,” and this is not forever. These restrictions and limitations for which you’re advocating on the grounds of your shared health — and the trust in your relationship — are temporary. “You’re not saying your husband can never, for example, go play poker with the guys ever again, or whatever it is that he wants to do.”
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