In the Covid-19 era, health officials are urging lovers to don masks, embrace monogamy, stop kissing, and start improvising. But will we listen?
The coronavirus pandemic will change the way we live for many more months, if not years. Concerts now seem like potential hot zones. Gyms and restaurants are cutting capacity in order to operate. No one’s rushing to go back to their open-plan offices anytime soon.
We may also have to rethink everything about the way we have sex — maybe wearing a mask or maybe with the aid of a partition, should we want to do it at all. Health officials say refraining from in-person, human-to-human contact — abstinence, as many of us remember from sex-ed — is the only sure-fire way to cut the risk of transmitting Covid-19. Each person we come into contact with raises that risk, and it’s still too early to tell what antibodies mean in terms of reinfection.
But, in this case, when one door closes, another kinkier one may open.
New York City’s health officials, in their new “safer sex” directives issued this month, heartily endorsed glory holes, masks, and sexual positions in which partners are not facing one another. How blunt and saucy these kinds of directives are vary by state or city: Oregon has a cute emoji-laden infographic, while Austin Public Health’s advice, contrary to the city’s “Keep Austin Weird” motto, is pretty straightforward and demonstrably not weird.
Either way, “Have all kinds of sex except in all the prudish ways you were taught,” is what officials seem to be saying. And some people are cocking their eyebrows and double-checking the bullet points to make sure the blush-inducing decrees aren’t a typographical error or the work of a hacker.
But the recommendations are real, sex-positive, and for our own good. The coronavirus spreads through respiratory droplets and close contact, making partner-facing sex and kissing risky. Sex with people you don’t live with, one-night stands, and friends with benefits all heighten that risk. And while it was relatively easy to not see anyone during the early stages of the pandemic when shelter-in-place rules were in effect, it seems less and less feasible as months go by and the cravings for human intimacy kick in.
So, how do we balance the urge for sex and our care for our own health? Should our feelings about sex change? Do our habits change, too? Are leg-cramp-inducing positions and stuffing genitalia through wooden holes really our sexual future?
What Experts — doctors, epidemiologists, sex therapists, sex workers — have seen during the pandemic and what they believe the future of sex and dating will be? Their answers, edited for length and clarity, are below.
Justin Lehmiller -Research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and author of Tell Me What You Want says:
The research on how this pandemic is affecting people’s intimate lives reveals that some people are less sexually active than usual right now, others are reporting no changes in behavior, and some are actually more active than they were before and are pursuing new partners. There are a lot of reasons for this variability in sexual behavior, but it does seem to stem, at least in part, from the fact that not everyone has the same level of concern about contracting Covid-19.
What this means for the future is that we’re going to see a wide range of reactions as we come out of lockdown. For those with low levels of concern, we’re likely to see them going about their intimate lives as usual, with some perhaps even becoming more sexually active for a while in order to make up for lost time.
“A POTENTIAL SILVER LINING TO THIS PANDEMIC IS THAT IT DOES SEEM TO BE INCREASING SEXUAL COMMUNICATION OVERALL” For those with higher levels of concern, however, sex — and casual sex in particular — may well become a totally different ballgame. They may view sex as particularly risky for their health and, therefore, abstain for a while or perhaps approach it more cautiously, such as by having more extensive conversations beforehand regarding health status and symptoms and/or becoming more selective about their partners.
Covid-19 may become a long-term stressors in their lives, and one of the things we see in our research is that the more stressed people are about the pandemic, the less desire they report for sex at all.
There’s also a delicate balancing act to follow when it comes to how we think about Covid-19 and how we think about sex.
We need to be careful when it comes to heaping even more stigma on sex because there’s already so much shame as it is — and the effects of sexual shame are not good. The more shame people feel about sex, the less likely they are to communicate about it, the more sexual problems they experience, and the less likely they are to get tested for STIs.
Long-term abstinence, especially when it’s not by personal choice, is something that most people find very difficult to stick to. We need look no further than how teens respond to abstinence directives in their sex education courses: Those policies do little to curb sexual behavior, and some research has shown that abstinence-only education actually leads to even riskier sexual behavior.
Rather than simply saying “Don’t have sex right now,” maybe we should be encouraging people to use this time to explore their sexuality, to educate themselves about sex, and to learn more about their bodies so that when we come out of this, perhaps we’ll be in a position to have even better sex than we were having before.
Also, for those who don’t see long-term abstinence from in-person sexual activity as a viable option, there are things we can do to encourage safer-sexual practices during this time, including having just one consistent partner, regularly checking in with each other about symptoms, and considering lower-risk activities, such as masturbating together.
One of the things we’ve seen in our data is that people who are consensually non-monogamous are adapting their relationships to fit their concerns about the pandemic by adopting various strategies to reduce risk. For example, some are temporarily limiting physical contact to the partners they live with, while relying on virtual activities to maintain other relationships.
A potential silver lining to this pandemic is that it does seem to be increasing sexual communication overall. Our participants tell us that they’re communicating more about risks and how to reduce them; however, they’re also telling us that they’re having more conversations about sex and sexual desire more broadly. To the extent that this situation gives us the prompt we need to start having more conversations about things like risk and desire, that could be a very positive development for our sex lives going forward if the trend persists.