How to Have Sex in an Epidemic
That was the name of a pamphlet distributed in New York 37 years ago. The epidemic in question was HIV/AIDS, which had only recently been confirmed as a sexually transmitted condition, and its focus was on men having sex with men—though it didn’t take long before we realized the virus that causes AIDS didn’t bother to ask how someone identified or, for that matter, what gender they were. I was in college during the advent of AIDS—it changed the rest of my life in too many ways to count.
Now it’s a new century and we’re facing down another epidemic, this one culturally different in most ways–though there has already been concern expressed that LGBTQ people might be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, and plenty of people are wondering whether this disease, too, is sexually transmitted. Oh, and Anthony Fauci is still here, trying to deal with a relentless disease and the government.
So far it is clear that sex isn’t the primary or only way we can get exposed to COVID-19, so it isn’t an STI as we usually define the term. But you don’t get a pass on social distancing protocols when you take your pants off. For now, let me try to clear this up—since this is a new disease that we haven’t yet learned everything about.
At this point it doesn’t appear that COVID-19 is blood-borne, like HIV or hepatitis. It’s not thought to be transmissible through, say, the vaginal mucosa. (Might it show up in bodily fluids? Possibly; it seems to be present in fecal matter in at least some coronavirus cases, so it might not be something we can rule out in the case of other body fluids, but neither is it appropriate to say it can be found there. ) The primary means of transmission of COVID-19 is evidently just like its cousin, the common cold, and its slightly more distant relative, influenza. It’s an upper-respiratory disease that disperses via droplets propelled out of our nose and mouth when we sneeze, cough, or even talk.
But this means that in a way, colds and flu can also be considered sexually transmitted diseases. It’s pretty hard to avoid getting infected with any of these bugs when you’re having body-to-body sex; in this way, COVID-19 can be transmitted by having sex. (Sitting all the way across the room while masturbating together? That might get a pass. In fact, while I was writing this, NYC Health came to the same conclusion! https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/imm/covid-sex-guidance.pdf )
As is the case with HIV and other STIs, if a person isn’t showing obvious symptoms, you can’t tell if they have the infection. This means you don’t know, when you have sex with someone, that they definitively don’t have it—if you’re a frisky sort who likes to have sex partners delivered via Tinder or Grindr or whatever platform you favor, you won’t know whether or not they’re coronavirus-free. This isn’t only relevant to hookup enthusiast—it’s relevant to the monogamous, as well. Unless you and your One & Only have already been self-isolating together for two+ weeks and not going out in public, you won’t know if they are free of the virus, and vice versa. Just like colds and flu, this thing easily circulates.
So for starters, no matter how sexed-up you or your new online friend (or your old booty-call friend, or your spouse) are feeling, if you have any upper-respiratory symptoms or an elevated temperature, keep your pants and your Vogmask on and stay home/in separate bedrooms. Can you use internet-enabled sex toys with this person? Absolutely! Can you video chat with them and start a show and tell? Please do! Can you fantasize about them and solo-sex yourself til you’re exhausted? Yes you can! There are many sexy options to enjoy… just not the face-to-face, breathe-the-same-air option.
Oh, and if they don’t have any of those symptoms? Still might have the coronavirus. Some percentage of those who have it are asymptomatic carriers.
I’m not the only sexologist or similar who thinks that social isolation is a great opportunity for sex partners to have sex, but I do want to encourage you to have the broadest possible range of definitions for that simple, slippery term. This is also what was required to slow down HIV/AIDS: “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” helped introduce us–to use a term I hope you’re already familiar with—to safer sex. Learn what’s unsafe (in that case, the rather vague “sharing of bodily fluids”—in this case, kissing, face-touching, being in close physical contact) and decide to do something different. Still sexy, but different.
If you’re not already a happy and shame-free masturbator, I have some homework for you: Explore your arousal potential, learn how you like to orgasm, get some toys if you want to explore those, don’t forget the lube. Then you have a couple of choices:
Get through home quarantine like a sexed-up introvert.
Or: Wash your hands, get out the hand sanitizer (do NOT confuse it with lube), stay six or more feet away from your brand-new or existing partner, and put on a show!
In other words: If you’re going to connect sexually with another person, explore varying levels of intimacy in a way that doesn’t put your bodies into direct contact. In all romantic/intimate/frisky cases, that means it is safer to talk, and to see and be seen, than it is to touch.
Touching practically equals sex and romance to many people, so this might be challenging. But think of it as exercising more sexual or intimate creativity. Stepping into this creative zone is also the way sex therapists (and sexologists like me) recommend couples avoid sexual boredom; it’s great for people who are dating or newly into a relationship, too, because it increases communication and the process of getting-to-know, not to mention the ability to negotiate your limits and desires. If you’ve never had the chance to declare your limits (or even figure out what they might be), this is your chance to practice that extremely useful sexual skill.
So regardless of your degree of intimacy, taking communication into digital and telephone space is wise. From getting-to-know-you talk to phone or computer sex, technology gives us options to curb isolation while staying safe. It gives us erotic options too–sex toys (including some that connect via Bluetooth), erotic stories, masturbating together while apart. Thinking about the relational space that does not require proximity and physical contact is the way to protect hookups and significant others alike from COVID-19.
Look, I know you’re scared. (If you’re not, I encourage you to get at least a little bit concerned. Zero scaredness is not realistic at this point in the coronavirus pandemic.) We were scared in the 1980s, too. And we came together to help each other, we yelled loudly at the government, Dr. Fauci and all the heroes of medical research went to their labs in spite of having next to no funding, we got in trouble for starting needle exchanges and did it anyway, we talked about condoms in our damn sleep, and besides helping bring the epidemic under control, a lot of people found that doing something helped with their fear. So in addition to making your own appropriate decisions about sex right now, think about what else you might be able to do to help us—yourself and everyone else–get through this.
When I wrote Exhibitionism for the Shy (partly inspired by the safer sex community’s focus on alternatives to unprotected intercourse—and if I do say so myself, not a bad textbook for the present day), one of the book reviews called me “a sex-positive big sister.” Awww! Now I’m closer to the age of a sex-positive grandmother (though I have cats, not offspring)–and not too far from the age range where COVID-19 could do some real damage. My partner’s a medically vulnerable individual. And guess what, if you’re reading this after getting back from Ft. Lauderdale and the “drunk and invincible” buzz hasn’t even totally faded? Someone in your world is vulnerable too. So let’s all step back across all the lines that have been drawn in our world, give a damn, and just be humans together.
So wash your hands, clean those toys, and remember–whatever you’re wiping them down with, do not throw any sort of wipes into the toilet. (Even if they say “flushable” on them.) Condoms either. No matter how excited you are about recreating a classis porn plot, the plumber does not want to come to your house.
Be safe, play safe, and stay well!
– Dr. Carol Queen, Staff Sexologist