Hooking up with someone new often means discussing your sexual history and your preferred safer sex methods. This conversation can feel awkward at the best of times … and now that we’re living in a time of a global pandemic, there are other factors to consider before getting sexy with a new (or old) partner.
Safer sex advice from the last few months has ranged from the reminder that solo sex is the safest sex (coming from the New York City Department of Health) to speculation on how likely transmission is from semen or fecal matter. Leaving aside the scientific speculation on which specific fluids and acts are most risky, though, how should we talk about sex right now?
As someone who enjoys sex, I’m used to having the sexual safety talk or whatever you want to call it: here’s how I’m addressing contraception, here’s when I was last tested, for which STIs, and what I’ve been doing in terms of safety and risk since them, with however many partners. If this feels like a cringey conversation to have, I recommend practicing it in advance! Or you can follow a template, like Reid Mihalko’s safer sex elevator speech.
Since the coronavirus has arrived, however, my thinking about sexual safety has changed. If it felt mildly awkward to disclose as much of my sexual history was relevant before this, it’s only feeling weirder and more invasive now to ask if a potential partner has been appropriately observing social distancing measures, wearing masks in public, and so on. Whereas before I wouldn’t necessarily care how many bars or restaurants a week a potential partner went to, now it could be a big deal. Got a roommate? Before I might worry about being too noisy during sex, but now I worry about how much social contact that other person has had as well.
While I’m not a medical doctor or public health expert, I’m a folklorist and sex educator who specializes in the study of gender and sexuality in storytelling, among other things. I analyze how people communicate, most often when that communication happens in traditional genres like fairy tales and urban legends, but also when that communication is happening on a more personal level, like how we craft stories about ourselves and our pasts.
So how should we adjust our safer sex conversations now? I have a few recommendations, though of course, I encourage you to do your own research and to follow the latest scientific guidelines.
Learn to embrace the awkward.
Just because you’re not used to describing your social interactions in excruciating detail doesn’t mean you can’t get used to it. If we normalize these kinds of conversations, they will become easier to have. The same is true of sexual health conversations; it can feel difficult at first to disclose how many partners you’ve had recently, or whether you’ve been diagnosed with an STI in the past, but getting used to having these talks makes them easier.
Put yourself first – as in, volunteer your own information and strategies first!
Don’t spring a Spanish Inquisition on your partner by interrogating them unexpectedly. Be prepared to explain the kinds of contact you have with other people, how often that contact occurs, what your mask-wearing patterns are like, and if there are any risky incidents you’d like to disclose (though given what we know of COVID-19, if you’ve waited 14 days since exposure without symptoms manifesting, you were probably not infected at that time – which parallels how various STIs have their own infection and testing windows, and it’s helpful to learn about those too!).
Have these conversations well in advance of getting horizontal.
There is some evidence that arousal can impact decision-making negatively and that arousal can increase impatience. So try to make sure you’re on the same page as your partner (or partners) before hopping into bed. This is hopefully made easier by the fact that with many places still in lockdown, it’s more likely that you’ll make plans in advance to see someone, rather than spontaneously going out.
Understand that different people have different tolerances for risk, and that’s okay.
We’re living through an unprecedented public health crisis (or more than one, if you count the impact of systemic racism and white supremacy as a public health crisis!) and we’re still learning new things about COVID-19 on a regular basis. Some people might have a higher tolerance for risk if, for example, they live alone, while others might not be able to tolerate as much risk if they are caregivers or have immunocompromised housemates. Respect your (potential) partner’s risk assessment while upholding your own boundaries, and if a compromise isn’t possible, be gracious about it.
Ask yourself if you’d still want to be sexually active with someone who refuses to have this type of chat.
But as stated above, respect that there are different risk tolerances and approaches here. It’s possible that someone is interpreting the (limited) data differently than you are, which may or may not make them “wrong.” But if you’ve clearly communicated your practices and your accepted level of risk, and someone is acting in a way (conversationally or behaviorally) that makes it seem as though your boundaries don’t matter, maybe reconsider that interaction. I treat this the same way as in a non-pandemic situation: for example, if I express to a potential partner that using condoms is important to me in terms of health and safety, and they say they don’t use condoms, I’m probably not going to have penetrative sex with them, right? The same idea applies here: if someone is unwilling to disclose anything about their social distancing and general safety practices, I might skip hooking up with them. But that’s also a very personal decision to make; different people might arrive at different conclusions on how to handle these situations.
It can feel frustrating to not have as many answers as we’d like about how COVID-19 influences our sexual health as well as our general health. And it’s also a bummer to have to take into account not just the usual sexual safety measures but also social distancing measures while trying to figure out how to have safer sex right now. But practicing having these kinds of conversations, as well as knowing which points to highlight, can hopefully help us navigate the path to pleasure while we figure out a way forward with the rest of our lives too.
The American Sexual Health Association has a good page with recommendations, as well as links to more resources.