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Sex and coronavirus: What sleeping with someone new might be like

I haven’t touched another human in two months so the rosy glow is really wearing off my solo quarantine. I have frequent fantasies of doing innocent things like holding hands and hugging, but I’m also a fully human animal and I hope, someday, to have sex again. But since I don’t have a partner that I’ve been swapping respiratory droplets with, I don’t even know where to begin thinking about how to hop back on that — potentially contagious — hobby horse. What does safe sex even mean after COVID-19?

“Theoretically, the virus can be transmitted from person to person via sexual relations,” says Michael Ingber, a urologist in New Jersey who specializes in reproductive health. But that’s only in theory. In reality, Ingber adds, “there has been no evidence of transmission through penis-vagina sex, anal sex, or oral sex. The most common route of transmission is via respiratory droplets.” What Ingber is saying is that even though the virus can be detected in different bodily secretions, we don’t know yet whether coronavirus actually spreads through those secretions, so don’t freak out about COVID-19 infected sperm just yet. No matter your personal proclivities, having sex usually requires proximity, so the more important criteria here is whether you feel safe getting within breath-sharing distance of someone who isn’t already a live-in partner.

To be clear: Yes, we still have to worry about making out with people. It’s those pesky respiratory droplets again. “If you want to minimize risk, you can skip the kissing and go right to the sex,” Ingber says. Well.

Of course we can do that, but do we want to? Ingber says he doesn’t imagine that we should or will have no-kiss sex. Thank you sweet baby Baphomet. But, what that means is we are each going to need a system for figuring out how safe a potential partner might be that is more extensive than the perfunctory, “Hey, you been tested?” that refers to STIs. Ingber describes the medical swabbing that COVID-19 testing requires and says he hopes that’s not what future first dates look like.

No matter your personal proclivities, having sex usually requires proximity, so the more important criteria here is whether you feel safe getting within breath-sharing distance of someone who isn’t already a live-in partner.

But, is taking your new boo through drive-through coronavirus screening even necessary? Some experts think it might be. “In the future, the vetting system could be for individuals to show their negative COVID-19 testing results to casual sex partners to prove they don't have the virus before they have sex,” says Mike Anderson, a Chicago-based psychotherapist who specializes in sex and relationship issues. “It could be that individuals would take the same-day test first to ensure they are both coronavirus free prior to engaging in sexual activities.” That’s assuming everyone has access to testing, of course.

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While these safety precautions are practical, they don’t really paint a picture of the future love life I want to have. I know this is a radical idea, but couldn’t we just have frank conversations about risk, safety, consent, and COVID-19? “I suspect we’re going to see two distinct reactions to how people approach physical intimacy with new partners that mirrors what we’re watching happen in the country right now,” says Stefani Goerlich, a Detroit-based psychotherapist. Some people, she says, are going to be more prone to having difficult conversations about what kind of sexual safety precautions than others.

While these safety precautions are practical, they don’t really paint a picture of the future love life I want to have.

“Some people will likely stick to socially distanced intimacy for a while ,” Goerlich explains. “Those people may be more likely to talk about risk regarding physical contact and more likely engage in distanced activities that would have felt risky to them in the past, like sexting, nudes, and live streaming.” In other words, some folks will try to mitigate risk for themselves and others in any way they can, and those people will be probably also be more willing to talk about risk when it comes time to actually touch.

“Other people are already chafing at the restrictions we’ve all been living under and are tired of being alone,” Goerlich adds. She suspects this group will be more likely to re-engage with in-person dates with a quickness and might engage in more hookups out of a combined sense of frustration and rebellion. These folks, Goerlich says, “are less likely to talk about risk and more likely to act on feelings ‘need’ or ‘freedom.’”

Both of these hypothetical sexual demographics will take risks in different ways, Goerlich says. “One group will gamble with privacy, the other group will gamble with health.” Goerlich is careful to note that these are assumptions based on observations and not empirical data. As we have seen in the way the coronavirus pandemic has played out around the world, people sometimes respond in surprising ways. I, for one, am gonna be on the lookout for a partner that is both conscientious and also reality-based. I told Goerlich I’d report back as data.

The truth is that there is no emotionally or physically risk-free sex. Sex makes us vulnerable in a myriad of ways. So, in some sense, not much has changed — who it’s “safe” to have for you have sex with boils down to what kind of risks you are willing to take, how honest you are willing to be about them, and finding a partner whose ideas line up with your own. People in the queer community are used to this, and a lot of us have are already accustomed to having awkward chats with potential sex partners. From my own, I offer this vetting advice: If you can’t have a difficult conversation with someone, you might want to think about whether you really want to have sex with them.