Safe ways to have sex as COVID-19 quarantine limits lift


Christen A. Johnson

Chicago Tribune |

Jul 07, 2020 at 5:37 AM

Sex in the time of COVID-19.

Sex in the time of COVID-19. (japatino / Getty Images / Getty Images)

In March, we got real. We talked about how we knew you all were having a lot of quarantine sex even though you were supposed to be social distancing (because what else was there to do after watching Tiger King?). And the best part? The experts weren’t even mad about it.

“If you have someone you’re quarantined with — your spouse, your partner, or whoever — I don’t think there is any problem with having sex because you’re face-to-face all day anyway,” Dr. Lauren Streicher, founder and medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause, said in March.

But there are always a few who don’t follow the rules.

Everlywell, maker of at-home lab testing kits, recently conducted a national survey examining the sexual behaviors of young adults in the U.S. during quarantine after seeing an “explosion” in sales of its at-home sexually transmitted disease tests.

Of the young adults surveyed in Chicago, 53% broke quarantine to have a sexual encounter compared with 25% of the respondents in Los Angeles and 17% in New York City. These three cities made up nearly a third of the more than 500 people ages 20-31 who were surveyed across the United States. The survey asked about their sexual behavior between April 2-30.

Now, more than three months later, many lockdown restrictions have lifted and we’re settling into a new phase. Naturally, more people will want to date and have sex, and with this comes new questions on how to navigate those safely.

Dr. Charlene Brown, a public health expert and former medical officer for the Food and Drug Administration in the division of antivirals, doesn’t think you should be having sex. “It’s really hard to have safe sex during the worst pandemic of our lifetimes,” she said in an email.

Depending on your risk tolerance, risk level for COVID-19, and the people around you, Rae McDaniel, a certified sex therapist, said there are a lot of ways people can start dating and having sex again that honor safety precautions, and “help the feeling of connectedness and just bring a nice, fun, warm energy into a life that right now can feel a bit heavy.”

The two experts answer some of the most pressing questions around sex and dating while the risk of contracting COVID-19 persists, but the state lockdowns loosen.

Can I have sex with people I don’t live with?

“I don’t recommend leaving home for nonessential activities,” said Brown, who currently works as a medical adviser for Everlywell. “Being in close proximity with someone you don’t live with puts you at especially high risk. The truth is that you can even contract COVID-19 from someone who you do live with since they may have contracted the virus outside the home. So no, I wouldn’t recommend it.”

If I do have sex with someone outside of my home, should I screen them for symptoms?

Symptom screening and temperature checks may provide necessary information, but Brown says those results alone are not enough, even if your sexual partner truthfully answers your questions. “If just being within 6 feet of one another and breathing is enough to transmit the virus, imagine how much the risks are multiplied during proximity of any form of physical sex. Thinking about catching a virus the entire time you’re being intimate with someone doesn’t sound too sexy to me.”

Someone I’m planning to sleep with tested positive for COVID-19, but has fully recovered. Is it safe to engage in sexual activities with this person?

“There is no way to know that you will be safe from COVID-19 if you have sex with that person,” said Brown, especially since the virus that causes COVID-19 can be present in the semen of patients who have recovered from it. “We don’t yet know enough about COVID-19 immunity to understand whether having the virus once means you’re protected from having it again.”

What should I keep in mind if I have multiple sex partners?

“Consent, consent, consent,” said McDaniel. “I think folks in the polyamorous community might have a leg up on more monogamous folks these days because they’re used to over-communication about consent and safer sex practices. I think it’s the same principle for dating in the time of COVID. Any sort of romantic, or sexual, or even proximity connection should be disclosed to the other people in your life so that they have the opportunity to determine their own risk comfort level.”

If kissing is potentially the most dangerous right now, are there other forms of foreplay that can help set the mood?

There’s a lot you can do that doesn’t involve kissing, said McDaniel, like body contact that doesn’t involve the face, such as: massages, holding hands, cuddling with your faces far apart, verbal foreplay (talking about what you want to do to each other), sexting and sending sexy photos. “All of these are ways to build tension when you’re starting to date somebody but don’t feel safe doing something like kissing.”

Are certain sex positions safer than others?

There are sex positions that don’t involve really close face-to-face contact, like sex from behind, said McDaniel, as well as sexual activity that doesn’t include the exchange of bodily fluids, like hand sex. “There are lots of ways to have sex with somebody that doesn’t include penetration or doesn’t include penis and vagina sex,” said McDaniel. In addition to condoms, there are other barriers you can use to provide protection, too, like dental dams for oral sex.

“Get really educated about kinky sex,” said McDaniel, who explained that kink play, or bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism (BDSM), also includes sensation play; it’s not just about pain. “Kink or sensation play means taking into account all of your sensations and really amplifying those.” It could be spanking, but it could also be a feather, a blind fold, tying someone up, or a mask over your face, “which is sensory deprivation, which is very sexy and has been happening for a long time.”

I’m usually really good about cleaning myself and the area post-sex. But now, are there certain sanitary precautions to keep in mind?

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If you have sex despite the COVID-19 risks, disinfect everything: sex toys, countertops, bed frames, bathroom, or anything else that you and your partner might have come into contact with before, during and after sex, said Brown. After sex, Brown says to wash your bedding and clothes too. She recommends quarantining and considering COVID-19 testing.

I want to be sexual, but don’t feel comfortable getting back out there yet. What are my options?

Get to know someone via phone, video call, sexting, or sending sexy photos, suggested McDaniel. Have “very distanced dates,” like being 10 feet away from someone in a park versus walking right beside somebody.

I want to go on a date, but still social distance. Do you have any ideas?

Why, yes we do. Check out this list we wrote for quarantine date nights. There are options for every relationship stage, from couples who live together, separately, or long distance, and outdoor options.

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