What COVID-19 has taught us about intimacy and prevention

It’s January 2021, a year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’re still in its grasp.  While our rational minds tell us that the best way to avoid infection is to stay home and distance from one another, the reality is we’re also hot-blooded humans who crave physical contact with others… and for many, that includes sex. But, how do we engage in sex safely during a time like this?

Official guidance from the NIH and CDC and many state governments encourages solo masturbation instead of sex with a partner. Is staying at least 6 ft away from other humans the most reliable way to prevent transmission? Yes. Is it realistic to ask people to indefinitely avoid the biological urge to get down? I’m not so sure. For anyone who has had sex education in the US, the discussion around abstinence isn’t a new one. Only now, we have COVID to contend with along with chlamydia, gonorrhea, and other STIs (the original pandemic, if you will).

It all starts with clear and open communication. If you are meeting with a partner for sexual activity (“sexual activity” is defined as any in-person intimate behavior, from kissing to mutual masturbation and penetrative sex. There are many forms of sex out there but we are talking about any activity that makes it hard to maintain a 6ft distance and generally involves clothing and protective barriers being removed), you should talk with your partner(s) about their recent exposures in the last 2 weeks prior to your meeting and have an honest conversation regarding what your risk of an asymptomatic infection is. You’ve got to ask questions like:

What is your level of comfort meeting in person?

Would be ok with wearing a mask during sex?

Have you met with any others in the last 14 days?

To your knowledge, have any of the people you’ve been in close contact with contracted or tested positive for COVID-19?

And most importantly… when was your last test and what were your results?

If these questions seem intrusive and intense, it’s because they are new additions to what people typically discuss with partners. These aren’t conversations that we are used to having, but the more we can engage in these discussions directly, honestly, and without fear, the more comfortable it will become to have them. Think about it this way—you have a right, as well as a responsibility to the people in your life, to seek the answers to these questions. Your partner’s ability to be open and honest will also be telling. How considerate are they with their own safety and their responsibility to others?

I did want to share a specific note about rimming (for those you are unfamiliar, rimming is mouth-to-anal stimulation). While all sexual activity carries a risk of transmission, many people don’t realize that rimming does as well. Using a dental dam is recommended to prevent transmission and if you don’t have a dental dam on hand, some people use a condom cut lengthwise as a substitute.

Another option people are exploring is intimacy from a distance. This can include virtual dating, phone sex or facetime sex. Using toys (there are even remote-controlled toys) or exploring a long-distance fantasy can be a way to bring you and a partner closer. 

It’s also important to know that, if you simply don’t feel comfortable getting intimate these days, that’s totally fine and perfectly normal. We’re often inundated with sexual imagery in the media and it can sometimes seem like everyone but you is having a ton of sex. Don’t buy into it. There’s a lot to be stressed about these days and you should be kind to yourself if you feel like your sex drive isn’t where it usually is. Please know that you don’t have to have sex-- you can take time to yourself and put sex on pause until you feel ready and comfortable.

Ultimately, I’m glad we’re having to talk about our risks with COVID-19 infections.  I hope these conversations extend beyond COVID and continue on throughout our sexual lives.  Talking with a partner about past and current STI status is a conversation that can protect both you and your partner (and both your future partners!). For women especially, the conversation about STIs and routing screening is critical for protecting your future fertility.  If we can talk about putting on a face mask to have sex, we can talk about putting on a condom to prevent STI’s.  Sharing your present STI status should be as simple and routine as asking your partners COVID status—“have you been tested recently?”. No shame or embarrassment necessary.