Sex during COVID-19: it’s complicated

Dating is complicated enough—but add a global pandemic to the mix and suddenly you’re thinking about more than the perfect outfit or restaurant for a date. With nearly seven million cases of coronavirus disease in the U.S. alone, dating today comes with Zoom calls, social distancing, face mask requirements, and a whole lot of unanswered questions.

One big question: Is sex during a global pandemic safe?

We get it. It’s not a question anyone planned on asking, but a desire for intimacy doesn’t just go down when COVID-19 cases go up. In fact, the Everlywell sex during quarantine survey showed that there are plenty of people who are using more relaxed measures to seek out sexual partners. Nearly 1 in 4 young Americans broke the quarantine to hook up in April, and 62% of them reported taking “special precautions” like using protection, disinfecting themselves and their rooms, and avoiding kissing to try to prevent COVID-19.

Another special precaution to consider? Testing. "To put it simply, if singles want to be safe about COVID with respect to having sex, they should think about protecting themselves and their partners with testing. Get tested with a COVID PCR test and wait for a negative result before you have sex (both partners). If you get a positive result, then quarantine and do not come into close contact with others until you re-test again with a negative result,” said Dr. Frank Ong, M.D., Chief Medical Officer and Scientific Officer at Everlywell.

With health and safety being everyone’s number one priority, we wanted to dig into the subject a little deeper, so we asked Dr. Charlene Brown to answer a few questions about navigating sex safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Charlene Brown is a Board-certified preventive medicine physician, with expertise in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of sexually transmitted infections. She is an advocate for testing and treatment options that increase access to healthcare. Dr. Brown is also the Founder and CEO of CNA Simulations VR, and she earned her medical degree at Harvard Medical School.

What are some questions someone should ask their partner before they engage in sexual activity in the time of COVID?

Asking your potential sex partner about their sexual history, getting tested for sexually transmitted infections, and agreeing to use contraception—when applicable—are still extremely important before sex. It’s still possible to get herpes even if you use protection. Asking your potential partner about whether or not they’ve been experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 is a start, but it isn't going to protect you against the virus since nearly half of people spreading the virus aren’t aware of any symptoms.

How can someone protect themselves from COVID-19 exposure during sex?

The virus that causes COVID-19 is incredibly contagious, which means extreme measures should be taken to protect yourself. We know that the virus can be spread through respiratory droplets and aerosols that are released through talking, singing, coughing, or sneezing from someone who has it.

There are a lot of different ways you can be infected: you can breathe in aerosols or droplets; you can even pick up the virus from contact with fomites—those are surfaces like skin, clothes, and personal belongings that can be contaminated with the virus. If you touch your partner's skin or anything that they have touched, brushed against, or breathed on, you may contract the virus when you touch your own mouth, nose, or eyes. Evidence of live SARS-Cov2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) has also been found in fecal matter and in semen, but not in vaginal fluid. It’s just not known yet if COVID-19 can be spread between people through semen or feces.

Are there any sexual behaviors that are riskier than others when it comes to COVID? For example, is kissing potentially riskier than oral sex? Are there sex positions that might be safer?

The safest sexual position right now is in bed by yourself! Masturbation, sexting, and phone sex are excellent options. It’s impossible to socially distance during physical sex no matter what measures you may take. If you still choose to have in-person sex despite the very high risk of COVID-19 to yourself and others, keep your mask on covering your mouth AND nose, and try to avoid facing each other. Also, don’t forget that you’re still at risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and possibly of unwanted pregnancy, depending on the type of sex you have and who you have it with. That’s why using protection and talking to your healthcare provider about any tests that they recommend (such as tests for STIs and COVID-19 tests) are so important.

When it comes to cleaning up afterward, how thorough should someone be to protect themselves? Should they immediately clean their clothes/sheets/any surfaces the other person may have touched?

If you still choose to put yourself at risk, follow the CDC’s cleaning and disinfection guidelines for households closely. Wear disposable gloves and disinfect everything that may have been touched, brushed against, or breathed on—like sex toys, bed frames, countertops, doorknobs, drinking glasses, and every surface in every room visited, especially areas like the bathroom. Because the risk of aerosols and droplet transmission is so much greater indoors than outdoors, you can consider outdoor or well-ventilated spaces if they are private and legal. Keeping the windows open while it’s still warm can help with ventilation. The truth is that there will still be a very, very high risk of virus transmission through the close proximity of physical sex no matter how you attempt to mitigate your risk.

When it comes to sex with people outside your household in 2020, you have a lot more to consider than just remembering to bring a condom or a dental dam. Because of the extremely contagious nature of COVID-19, even the most thoughtful precautions will not guarantee your safety or the safety of others.

Instead of meeting your partner to hook up, consider alternatives like sexting or phone sex. If you're still planning on meeting to have sex in person, take the necessary precautions, always practice CDC recommended safety and disinfecting guidelines, and inform those around you of the potential risks so you can make a collective plan for after your meetup. Protecting yourself and your partners should always be the number one priority.

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