The practical guide to mid-pandemic sex, because abstinence isn’t cutting it
I have a confession: I’ve had sex since social distancing began. With someone I met on Tinder, someone I don’t live with. And I know friends doing the same.
With the pandemic still a major concern across the United States, people having sex or even just wanting to have sex may feel shame — even more shame than usual in this Puritanical wasteland. We’ve been told to abstain from pleasure and release at a time where we need it most.
We’ve also been given almost no guidance about how to safely have sex in the time of social distancing. As of publication, the CDC hasn’t released safe sex practices specifically about having sex during the pandemic, apparently assuming those without a live-in partner will be celibate in the meantime.
Well, doesn’t work. The failures of abstinence-only sex education have been proven and , and experts reiterate this point. “Abstinence-only education has never worked in any setting,” Holly Bullion said in a phone call to Mashable. Bullion is a nurse practitioner and director of clinical quality at Texas Health Action, a non-profit that operates a sexual wellness clinic called Kind Clinic.
“Now that we’re half a year into a pandemic, it’s definitely not going to work.” So why do authorities like the think that telling its residents that “they are their safest sex partner” is going to keep them satisfied?
It is, of course, true that solo play or virtual sex are the safest routes right now, but for many that simply is not a realistic or sustainable solution. Telling sexual adults to not have sex at a time when we’re not only socially isolated but also is only going to result in shame — and perhaps even drive people to engage in riskier behavior if they feel the need to be dishonest for fear of “being found out.”
In addition to offering masturbation as a tactic, NYC Health also offered glory holes as an option. Glory holes themselves aren’t a problem; they are actually a safe route and can get people off. The problem is that the concept of mid-pandemic safe sex practices has been largely turned into a joke, with suggestions being doled out that aren’t helpful for the average horny person who can’t drill a hole in their rented bedroom wall.
“We wanted to write this guide because pleasure is a right, and a deep need”
“We wanted to write this guide because pleasure is a right, and a deep need,” the introduction states, “and because we believe that the best way to ensure safety is to offer realistic guidelines. Telling people not to have sex just doesn’t work.”
Smarter Hookups, which launched on Thursday, emphasizes the irony in the lack of guidance. We’re more lonely and in need of pleasure and intimacy, yet no one has told us how to process it in a practical matter. We — those without live-in partners, those who may have multiple partners, those who just want to get off with someone else — deserve sex and intimacy, even in a pandemic. (Dare I say, especially in the pandemic.)
Play said the difficulty they had handling the coronavirus lockdown within his sex-positive community (14 people living in a three-family home) is what inspired the guide. “Even though we are all highly practiced negotiators of measures related to sexual health, we still struggled navigating our group living situation during the Coronavirus pandemic,” he said in a press release. “This inspired me to create a framework for navigating this challenging time for everyone else debating similar considerations.”
Here are some sensible tips to help ensure that you can also have a responsible mid-pandemic sex life.
Questions to ask yourself first
The pandemic has ushered in an era of radical honesty — not just with potential partners, but also with ourselves. In some ways, navigating sex during the pandemic is similar to what we did before. Only now the focus is on contracting coronavirus as opposed to an STI. (Though, of course, it’s still possible to transmit STIs and proper precautions should be taken on those fronts. Don’t forget to continue using your normal method of birth control, as well.) The risk of exposure, however, is even more amorphous now. So if you’re considering having a sexual partner (or multiple partners) that you don’t live with right now, here are questions Vrangalova recommends you ask yourself:
What are the actual risks? This includes rates of infection in your community; your possible exposure, which depends on your behavior; and the likelihood of you developing serious symptoms.
How comfortable are you with these specific risks?
How much are you willing to uphold specific protocols and risk reduction strategies?
Then when you factor other people into the mix, you need to consider how comfortable they are with both your behavior and attitude on the matter. Basically, what is your tolerance for risk? If you’re going to be lax about COVID guidelines while a potential partner is more stringent, you may not be a good match.
Levels of radical honesty
Smarter Hookups broke down everyone you interact with into three different levels. Level 1 is your most intimate group: Roommates and lovers, those who have highest likelihood of transmission. Level 2 is friends you see and co-workers if you have to go into the office; this is a moderate level of transmission risk. Level 3 is the wider public, those you have the lowest amount of contact with (and, hopefully, are maintaining a distance of six-or-more feet from and wearing masks around).
As you’re sharing the most infectious behaviors (everything from sharing the same air for a prolonged period to kissing and exchanging bodily fluids) with Level 1, you need to have the most open and honest communication with those people. Not only that, but you should negotiate and reach a level of consent with each member of this group.
“Regardless of what you all collectively decide to do, one thing that is clear is that there should be a form of contact tracing and transparency that occurs within this group, exactly like what would happen in regard to STIs,” the guide reads. “Essentially, if one of you gets sick with or tests positive for an active Covid-19 infection, everyone within this level should be informed, and should take subsequent precautions.”
This isn’t unlike a polyamorous scenario. Bullion said that besides oneself, virtual play, and a live-in partner, a polyamorous-type pod is your next best bet: A mutually exclusive group where everyone knows each other and everyone is on the same page about sexual contact and following guidelines.
Smarter Hookups also recommends a pod-like structure with six to 12 people — enough where everyone can communicate openly. Of course, you don’t have to be sexually involved with everyone in the pod either.
If you and a partner want to swing, the guide recommends choosing one other couple rather than changing it up each weekend.
Everyone in Level 1 — roommates, your pod, swinging buddies, etc. — should know about each other in detail. How many people are in Level 1? How often are you seeing them? What behaviors are you, and they, engaging in? If members of Level 1 have different risk tolerances, has suggestions on how to proceed.
For those in Level 2, you don’t have to share everything that you do with Level 1 folks, but you should still be honest. If you are, for example, making out with a bunch of strangers, it’s best to inform Level 2 that you’re engaging in high-risk behavior. While you don’t have to go into detail about said behavior, you have an ethical responsibility if you’re potentially putting someone at risk.
If possible, make guest lists for parties and other functions in order to establish a level of contact tracing. Again, take note of how many people you’re coming into contact with and examine your behavior. How many people are in your Level 2? How often do you see them? Do you wear masks?
For Level 3, the onus is on you to be responsible. Follow protocols and definitely stay home if you’re experiencing coronavirus symptoms.
WATCH: What will sex and dating look like after the pandemic?
A note on COVID-19 testing and sex
While one might consider getting tested for COVID-19 regularly the best route to take in order to keep their partner(s) safe, Bullion said otherwise. Rather, screening questions (and being honest about the answers!) similar to the can better gage safety. These questions include: Have you or any of your partners been recently diagnosed? Do you have any symptoms?
“COVID testing…isn’t as helpful as doing a screen that says, ‘Have you had contact with anyone with confirmed COVID in the past 14 days? Have you had any of these 20 symptoms in the past 14 days?'” she said.
Further, Bullion doesn’t recommend getting tested unless you believe you’ve been exposed. The test should be for those who are high-risk — like essential workers and their families, those who’ve been exposed, and those who have symptoms.
“Getting COVID testing done every month doesn’t matter for any day after the time you were tested,” she commented. “The test doesn’t change any of those questions that we should be asking ourselves and trying to ask people that we might be potentially engaging in any kind of sexual activity with.”
“Getting COVID testing done every month doesn’t matter for any day after the time you were tested”
Sex parties and casual sex
Just as the to party in the Hamptons, some sex parties are cropping up doing the same thing. According to Bullion, the least safe sexual encounters right now are with one or more partners you don’t know — and rapid tests aren’t to be trusted.
“You can test negative for COVID on a rapid test and still have COVID,” she warned. “It might just be that you don’t have enough of the virus in your nares [nostrils] yet for it to pick it up.” Screening is better than no screening, but it can give a false sense of security.
In terms of casual sex with someone you don’t know, the ideal would be that they’re as open and honest as you. As this may not be the case, Smarter Hookups says to assume you’re at high risk for developing COVID-19 if you engage in this behavior. Thus, let Levels 1 and 2 know about this. Using physical barriers, like wearing a mask during sex (as ), could also help prevent the spread.
What about if you’re immunocompromised?
“Just because we’re immunocompromised does not mean that we don’t deserve to have sex,” said Bullion. “It’s about setting tighter ground rules for yourself and your partners.”
In addition to being more stringent about their partner guidelines, Bullion also said the ideal scenario is a small group of known partners. She recommends “mask sex” or positions that limit face-to-face contact if you go maskless, like doggy style and reverse cowgirl.
Immunocompromised or not, sex is an important outlet for many people. We’ve been isolated for months and at this point, perhaps quarantine fatigued. “For people who are out there thinking about having sex again, or who are already having sex, it’s just about knowing where your resources are and making informed decisions,” said Bullion.
You don’t have to feel shame for wanting or having sex amid the pandemic, but you should be armed with good information and do your best to follow best practices. As Bullion commented, “The joy of sex — and everything we do, right — is about making informed decisions.”