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Sexual health

Glory holes, anonymous sex & safer cruising during COVID-19

Queer people have always have and always will find creative ways to get our needs met. So it’s no surprise that people are developing innovative harm reduction strategies to have safer sex as we live with COVID-19.

This year, Terrence Higgins Trust rolled out their “Coronavirus Lockdown No Hook-ups” campaign to spread the message that we should all “stay home, stay safe, and enjoy [ourselves] – but No Hook-Ups.” 

“Reducing body contact and having less sex really will make a big impact on reducing the onward transmission of the coronavirus,” said their medical director, Dr. Michael Brady. 

Rolled out early in the pandemic, this campaign offered a useful public health message as we were learning how easily the coronavirus spreads. Six months into lockdown–with no clear end in sight–it’s become obvious that just telling people to say “no” to sex during COVID-19 just isn’t realistic. 

Terrance Higgins Trust image
Image: Terrance Higgins Trust

In fact, we see underground sex parties happening in the Castro and other parts of the city, and people are continuing to hook up through Grindr and Scruff. And unfortunately, people are being shamed for having sex with new partners right now, which can drive people to flout risk reduction advice and make it more difficult for people to seek our support and sexual health resources. 

“In general, there already is so much shaming that goes along with sex and sexuality,” said my colleague, Jonathon Salinas, a PrEP and HIV benefits coordinator “When people started saying, ‘You shouldn’t be hooking up right now,’ some people were like, ‘F- you! I’m just going to do this in private, then.’ And that creates more unsafe situations because there isn’t going to be that dialogue happening about harm reduction.” 

Dino Foxx, who is part of the QTPOC at Strut advisory board and describes themself as “passionate” about cruising, shared their thoughts as well. “No one’s talking about touch starvation,” said Foxx. “At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, I just lost all sexual desire. There was a lot of fear. But then by the third month, that desire just started to creep up. And you realize, you haven’t touched a human being in three months and you just start to feel like you’re wilting. We need to figure out how to reduce harm so that you can act on your desires–otherwise you’re just going to have a breaking point.” 

Effective harm reduction strategies recommended by public health

We know that abstinence-only recommendations and programs aren’t an effective way to change behavior and prevent disease transmission from many years of experience responding to the HIV epidemic. That is why public health organizations have released additional guidance about how to have safer sex during the COVID-19 pandemic, which can help you reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission if you are choosing to have sex right now. 

Man wearing mask
Photo: Getty Images/Tomwang112

At the end of this article, we’ll share tips for safer sex during COVID-19 from the San Francisco Department of Public Health and also from the BC Centre for Disease Control. Keep in mind–in addition to preventing COVID-19 infection, it’s always a good idea to think through HIV and STI prevention too. 

Creative recommendations from community members 

Queer people have always found creative ways to get our needs met. So it’s no surprise to me that people are finding innovative harm reduction strategies to have safer sex these days as we live with COVID-19 risk. Some of the old-school tactics that Queer people have used for discretion can be applied these days as harm reduction measures against COVID-19.

Here are some creative ideas from the community that also may help reduce your risk of COVID-19.

Outdoor cruising 

Outdoor cruising in San Francisco seems like it has become more popular in recent months due to COVID-19 and tools like Sniffies, a website that allows users to find cruising spots (and see who might show up there). We know that in general, if you’re going to be around other people, it’s safer to be outside than stuck inside without any airflow or ventilation. We’re seeing dining and bars move outdoors–why shouldn’t sex? (It’s important to note, however, that public sex is not legal in California.)

There are a few things you might try if you’re planning on meeting up with people outdoors. 

  • Plan ahead and get tested for COVID-19 before you go. There are many places in San Francisco that offer free testing. If you have symptoms or get a positive result, stay home. (BTW: If you’ve received a positive COVID-19 test result already, you can use Tell Your Contacts to notify anyone you’ve had close contact with, even if you don’t have symptoms.)
  • Keep your face mask on when you approach a new person and during sex (if you’re not using your mouth for sex). 
  • Start a conversation, and set boundaries. Let the person know what safety precautions you’ve taken, and ask for theirs too. 
  • Bring hand sanitizer, and use it before and after your encounter.   
  • Avoid kissing, and keep your face mask on. 
  • Be open to voyeurism. Some people may go to outdoor cruising spots to watch and engage by themselves, which is less risky if you’re keeping your distance from others.
  • Share your plans ahead of time with a friend for safety reasons. Ask that they follow-up with you if they don’t hear from you in a certain amount of time after the encounter.
  • Be discreet. Since public sex and nudity aren’t legal, make sure you’re well-concealed if you choose to hook up outdoors or in public. 
  • Keep up with STI and HIV testing, PrEP and other sexual health routines. Be honest with your provider about the sex you’re having, so you can get the care you need. 
man on phone in car
Photo: Getty Images/Artem Peretiatko

Foxx said that one way that cruising is different now–in the age of coronavirus–is that there’s another conversation that needs to happen. “You check in about STIs, and HIV, and PrEP, and now you’re also negotiating what’s going to be the safest way for you and this other person to engage. For me, I ask things like, ‘Who are you sheltered with?’ and ‘Are you working from home?’ You ask, but also recognize that engaging in this type of intimacy is where things might start to be a bit higher in risk.” 

Getting creative with glory holes

You can find glory holes on Sniffies (and also probably by asking your friends for recommendations). Glory holes are great right now because they prevent face-to-face interaction and can help block the aerosol droplets that can transmit the coronavirus (you still might want to wear a mask, though, if you’re in a room without good ventilation). 

You might also consider making your own glory hole. This is a creative option for people who may crave anonymity, and also want to be able to control the environment where they’re having sex. Making a glory hole can be as simple as buying a large, heavy sheet of fabric, hanging it from the ceiling, and cutting a hole in the middle. (Please note, however, that we don’t have evidence about how effective this may be to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.)

Salinas recently helped to facilitate and share information during a sexual health webinar, where glory holes were discussed. 

“It’s good and empowering to have a glory hole in a space that’s under your control and part of your own environment,” they said. “You can think about–where has the person’s hand been before they’re touching and unbuttoning their pants, and touching their junk? You can put out hand sanitizer on the other side of the glory hole, and have hand sanitizing be part of the experience.”

Salinas also said that glory holes can be an exciting way to mix things up with a regular partner.

“In cruising culture, reducing the number of partners you have isn’t ideal. Being with new people is part of the excitement. But if you use a glory hole, you can get some of that excitement back since you can’t see the person and there’s a bit of mystery about who is on the other side.” 

Embrace the kink

Seeking out sex in an outdoor space, wearing a mask during sex, or avoiding face-to-face contact altogether during sexual contact may feel subversive. My take is–embrace the kink–especially if it helps reduce your risk of COVID-19. 

Sexual health services at Magnet

Our services are open during COVID-19! If you have symptoms of a suspected sexually transmitted infection, would like to be screened for STIs, or have had a recent HIV exposure, please call 415-581-1600 and select option #3 to be connected with the nursing team at Magnet. 

If you do not have symptoms of an STI, but would like to receive a sexual health screening with STI testing, make an appointment Wednesday – Saturday by calling 415-487-8037.

For PrEP or HIV treatment care or services, email prep@sfaf.org or assist4HIV@sfaf.org, or call 415-437-3450.  

Sex during COVID-19 video resources

Check out these videos created for QTPOC at Strut, about sex toys, dirty talk, and kink play during quarantine. 

Tips for safer sex during COVID-19

(From San Francisco Department of Public Health)

Breathing, panting, shouts and groans, mouths, lips, eyes, spit, semen, anal play, and shared toys are all ways that COVID-19 can spread. 

Keep in mind: 

  • There haven’t been any direct studies of sexual transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 yet, but:
    • COVID-19 genetic material has been found in semen, in saliva, and in the throat, and the virus has been found in the feces of people who have tested positive for the virus 
    • The virus has not yet been found in vaginal or front hole fluid 
  • Panting, groaning, moaning or shouting may increase the spreading of the virus 
  • Being near to someone (within 6 feet) for longer periods of time increases risk of transmission 
  • Being in small, poorly-ventilated spaces with someone who has the capacity to spread COVID-19 is riskier than being in larger areas with good ventilation 
  • Keeping the number of partners you have to a small, stable group could reduce risk 
  • The virus can spread through direct contact with saliva or mucus. Licking, tasting, rubbing lips, or putting your mouth on spit-covered toys can spread the virus. 

Steps on protecting yourself from COVID-19 during sex

(From the BC Centre for Disease Control 

  • Ask your partner(s) if they’re feeling unwell or have any symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Consider keeping contact information for your partner(s) so that you can reach them if one of you develops symptoms.
  • Before and after sex:
    • Wash your body with soap and water.
    • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
    • Wash sex toys thoroughly per the manufacturer’s instructions. Most, but not all, can be cleaned with mild unscented soap and water. Do not share them with multiple partners.
  • Wear a face covering or mask. Heavy breathing during sex can create more droplets that may transmit COVID-19.
  • Avoid or limit kissing and saliva exchange.
  • Choose sexual positions that limit face-to-face contact.
  • Use barriers, like walls (e.g., glory holes), that allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact.
  • Using condoms, lubricant, and dental dams may help to further reduce the chances by minimizing contact with saliva, semen, feces, blood and/or internal genitalia/vaginal fluids during sex.

COVID-19 harm reduction tips for sex workers

This fact sheet is a resource for sex workers, clients and allies, with tips selected from a number of excellent resources and guides on this topic written by and for sex workers.


Download guide

About the author

Felipe Flores, BA

Felipe Flores, BA

Felipe Flores, BA is the associate director of PrEP and HIV Positive Services at San Francisco AIDS Foundation.