Depending on the latest social distancing guidelines, risk levels for you (or your partners), and other continually changing factors, you may need to adjust sexual activities to stay safe — but change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In the best of times, sex can be complicated, but in a pandemic, even more so. With mandatory social distancing and mask wearing, accompanied by excessive hand washing, acts of intimacy come with their own set of new rules, too.
Experts have learned a lot about COVID-19 since stay-at-home orders first hit the United States last spring. During that time, health officials in New York City, Washington DC, and elsewhere released guidelines on how to have safe sex during the pandemic.
Although widespread vaccination is under way, these new guidelines regarding safe sex are unlikely to go away anytime soon, since no one actually knows when the pandemic will officially come to an end. As experts continue to learn more about the novel coronavirus and its variants, the advice they give may change. Here’s what experts want you to know about safe sex and the pandemic right now.
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Your Sex Life and Healthy Sexual Activity Remain Critically Important
A survey conducted during the early stages of the pandemic, published in June 2020 in the journal Leisure Sciences, found that nearly half of online survey participants reported a decline in how much sex they were having compared with their prepandemic sex lives.
Not only is sex a great workout, safe and consensual sex can help us feel relaxed, ease anxiety and tension in the body, act as a natural sleep aid, and cause the brain to release hormones, including endorphins (the body’s natural uppers) and oxytocin (the so-called love hormone), says Shannon Chavez, PsyD, a sex therapist based in Beverly Hills, California.
“That chemical is what makes us desire cuddling even after sex,” explains Dr. Chavez, adding that this flood of hormones can also create a bond that triggers feelings of safety.
“Any physical connection, especially a 20-second hug or a lingering kiss that lasts around 10 seconds can also release those same feel-good chemicals,” says Chavez. During these stressful and uncertain times, we could all benefit from mood-boosting experiences, she notes.
“We have to acknowledge that skin hunger is real,” says Sara C. Flowers, DrPH, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood. “Our needs haven’t changed during the pandemic, just the way we meet those needs.”
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How to Practice Safe Sex During the Pandemic
According to Dr. Flowers, an important part of having sex during the pandemic is making sure you and your partners are on the same page, just as you would while forming a COVID pod.
“Making sure people are adhering to the same practices is important,” says Flowers. “There are questions we can ask folks around the way they have been distancing and making sure you have a shared value system around what safe distancing looks like.”
Scientists are still working to understand a lot about how the original strains of the coronavirus spread, but new variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are now spreading across the world, including in the United States. This complicates things a bit. According to Tara Smith, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University in Ohio, scientists are still working to understand exactly how the new variants behave. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the new variants appear to spread faster and easier than the original strains.
“We know at least the U.K. B.1.1.7 variant, which is present in the United States, does seem to be more infectious, but we don’t know exactly how much so,” says Dr. Smith, noting that because scientists don’t yet understand new variants such as B.1.1.7, it’s unclear if current safety measures are enough.
“Does close contact now mean within six feet of someone for five minutes instead of 15? We just don’t know,” says Smith, who advises people to take even more caution to prevent themselves from getting or spreading the coronavirus. This means understanding the ways in which it can be spread.
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Can COVID-19 Be Transmitted Through Body Fluids During Sex?
The main risk factor is that COVID-19 is highly contagious through the saliva and mucus of an infected person, and sex traditionally requires people to be within six feet of each other. Being in the same room as an infected person significantly increases the likelihood that the virus will jump from one person to another, even without touching each other, especially if one person is carrying a mutated form of the virus.
In addition, a study published in May 2020 in the journal Gastroenterology determined that the virus is detectable in fecal matter, in some cases even when respiratory tests were negative, and can be transmitted to an uninfected person through the mouth. A more recent small retrospective study, published in January 2021 in the Journal of Medical Virology, found that in people who had severe cases of COVID-19, viral RNA could be detected in the fecal matter of some up to 46 days after they were exposed to the virus. Depending on your beneath-the-sheets habits, this could be an issue.
A study published July 2020 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that the coronavirus does not appear to be present in vaginal fluid and several studies have found no presence of the virus in semen of recovered people. However, a study published May 2020 in JAMA Network Open found that SARS-CoV-2 can be present in the semen of patients with COVID-19 and while recovering.
Who’s a Safe Sex Partner During the Pandemic?
“As with sexually transmitted infections, sex with a new partner always brings with it some amount of risk. The best we can do in such circumstances is to assess this risk honestly and make an informed decision,” says Kumi Smith, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.
“Practically speaking, though, a partner with whom you live or with whom you have been coisolating is probably the safest person to have sex with for the time being,” says Dr. Kumi Smith, as long as these people do not have symptoms of COVID-19.
As for people who do not work from home, Kumi Smith says that it’s difficult to provide blanket guidelines, since different people who work outside the home are exposed to different levels of risk. If you or your partner is worried that they may have been exposed to COVID-19, it’s a good idea to keep your distance as much as possible for the following two weeks until you can be sure they do not develop symptoms.
“Asking cohabitating couples to abstain from sex for months on end does not strike me as a sustainable disease control method,” says Kumi Smith.
Generally, the same basic household rules apply: Thoroughly wash hands during work as well as upon returning home, frequently disinfect surfaces and objects like your phone and keys, closely monitor symptoms, and create a preparedness plan that includes isolating an infected person as much as the home permits for as long as they are suspected to have COVID-19, says Kumi Smith. If you’re using your computer or phone before or during sex, make sure that’s disinfected as well, she says.
According to Tara Smith, having had the coronavirus doesn’t make you immune to getting it again, or to unknowingly spreading it to others. While most people do seem to develop an antibody response that helps fight off future infection, Tara Smith says that this isn’t true for all cases, and scientists still can’t pinpoint exactly how long this antibody response lasts. A study published in January 2021 in the journal Science found that people can have antibodies up to eight months after recovering from the coronavirus. However, previous studies, such as one published in July 2020 in Science Daily, have suggested that timeframe is much shorter, and that antibodies fall dramatically after three months.
“We’ve seen a number of reinfections in people who have already experienced COVID-19, and we don’t know much at all about their ability to spread the virus if reinfected, but it’s likely they can,” says Tara Smith. “The general advice is to act like you’ve never been infected because there’s still a lot of information that we lack.”
People who have had the vaccine also need to keep wearing a mask and following physical distance guidelines since it’s still unknown if vaccinated people can still carry and spread the virus, the CDC warns. We’re also far from reaching 240 million vaccinated Americans, which would provide herd immunity, so plan to keep following coronavirus safety measures through 2021.
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Connecting From a Distance — What if You Live Apart?
If you’re in the throes of a safe and healthy budding relationship, is it okay to be intimate with your new partner if you aren’t living together?
The short answer is no, since guidelines from the CDC specify that you shouldn’t be getting closer than six feet to anyone who isn’t in your household. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still build a relationship while being responsible.
“Relationships aren’t solely physical or sexual, and even in a new relationship, there is an opportunity to build on developing trust, intimacy, and authenticity using digital technology,” says Logan Levkoff, PhD, an American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists–certified sexuality educator.
Dr. Levkoff recommends that distanced couples watch a movie, eat dinner, or even exercise together through video calls. “Many relationships are regularly long distance, and in those situations, people don’t have physical access to their partner. It’s time to apply some of those dating techniques,” she says.
Your sex life can go virtual, too; just make sure that you trust that it will stay between you and your partners.
“Send photos discretely or engage in dirty talk — these are great places for erotic play. There’s also mutual masturbation. If you are apart, you can still stimulate at the same time either [by] video or on the phone,” says Chavez
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You Are Your Own Safest Sex Partner
Especially for people isolating without a partner, this is a great time to explore self-stimulation and gain a better understanding of what your body likes, Chavez says.
“If you’ve never used a device before, now is a great time to try one,” says Chavez, who says to think of vibrators for masturbation as you would gym equipment for your workout.
Vibrators, Sex Toys, and More Useful Tools
“Vibrators add so much variation,” she says. In fact, sex toy sales, especially vibrators, skyrocketed during stay-at-home orders, according to a report published in April 2020 in AdWeek. Make sure you wash and disinfect any toys or electronics that you use during your session. Not only can COVID-19 live on surfaces for hours or even days, you also run the risk of spreading bacteria and fungi to your intimate parts.
Flowers also recommends taking this time to brush up on fertility and sex education, especially since less than half of the states in the United States require sex education in schools, according to Planned Parenthood. Flowers recommends Afrosexology, Sex Positive Families, and Dr. Lexx the Sex Doc for people seeking credible online resources for sex education or reeducation.