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Is sex on hold in the queer community during COVID-19?

Many of us are wondering what kinds of sex we should be having (if any). Felipe Flores explores how people are evaluating risk, and making decisions that work for their own lives.

For many in the queer community (and beyond), sex is about more than getting off: it’s a stress release, it’s a way to connect with others, it’s a way to cope, it’s a way to feel good about yourself and it’s a connection to community. Right now, with social distancing and shelter-in-place recommendations in effect, many of us may be wondering what kinds of sex we should be having (if any). 

New York City public health experts recommend only having sex with people you live with or being “your own best sex partner.” But what happens if you live alone, if you’re not able to shelter in place, if you’re unhoused, or just can’t stand the thought of not meeting new partners for the next one month, two months… or six months? For many people, finger-wagging advice about sexual activities to stop or avoid isn’t desirable or helpful. 

I’m interested in opening the conversation up to explore harm reduction practices. How are people in our community evaluating risk, and making decisions that work for their own lives and experiences?

Ángel VanStark shared that they’ve changed how they’re having sex, but that it came in stages. 

“At the beginning of the shelter in place order, there was misinformation or missing information about COVID-19 that led me to believe that I wasn’t at risk,” said VanStart. “I was still meeting up with folks that I’ve been involved with previously. I thought, ‘I’m younger–it’s fine. I’m not going to be super affected.’ And then it became, ‘I’ll meet up with people, but we won’t have much verbal communication.’ There was no kissing, and when we went our separate ways, we used hand sanitizer.

I think the next step for me was reducing who I was seeing to like one or two people. Now, I’m not meeting up with anyone. With more information available around COVID-19, I feel like this is too serious for me to interact with anyone right now,” said VanStark. 

Anthony Gonzalez shared that although he’s still on apps, he’s not meeting up with anyone right now. 

“People are definitely still using apps right now,” said Gonzalez. “I’m on there once every couple of days–it’s a good time killer. And chatting with people is definitely still a good option. I’ve noticed that a lot of the apps have been adding features like video chatting, or unlocking features so that people can video chat with each other, and find ways to have sexual contact without being physical.”

“It’s difficult to not do these things,” said VanStark. “We naturally want to shake people’s hands. We want to hug, we want to kiss. We want to be embraced. There’s a lot of loneliness that comes from isolation, so there definitely is a huge desire to want to be touched and experience some sort of intimacy. And I think this is even more so for people who identify as queer, or trans, or a person of color or an elder in the community. We may experience isolation under normal circumstances, and even more so now.” 

I’ve thought about ways to minimize risk even if still meeting new people. Like Ángel mentioned, limiting the number of new partners is a good place to start. You might also consider keeping new people out of shared spaces like the kitchen or living room if you have roommates. 

Ángel also mentioned limiting or avoiding kissing and talking with new partners, which is something I’ve been practicing. Meeting one of my regulars meant setting some boundaries about physical closeness. We don’t kiss, hold each other, or embrace like we normally would.  

I also think about the living situations of the people I see, and it makes sense for me to find out more about what people’s lives are like before I decide if I want to see them or not. I ask things like, ‘Who do you live with now? Are you still going in to work?’ If the person is living with their whole family, that makes me worried–I wouldn’t want to risk exposing someone’s whole family.

I’ve also adapted some of the guidance for essential health workers and translated that to hookups. Things like keeping personal items like phones away from other people, washing your hands thoroughly before and after sex, taking off your shoes before coming into the house (and asking your sex partners to do the same) are things to consider doing. 

Keep in mind that sexual health services are limited right now–another reason why some people may choose to slow the amount of sex they’re having. 

We know it’s safest right now to stay home and not have sex with people you don’t live with. But common sense (and what we’ve heard from clients at our sexual health clinic recently) tells us that people are still meeting up for sex right now. Finding creative ways to reduce loneliness, increase connections to other people, and stay sexually satisfied–in the safest ways possible–can help us all get through this challenging time.

Additional sex & COVID-19 resources

Keep your sex life spicy during social distancing

Find a cure for your horniness and boredom with a few inventive ideas from our queer community. Resource developed by Joshua O’Neal with local Bay Area artists.

Keep it spicy

Information from the San Francisco Department of Public Health about Sex & COVID-19

The San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) recommends avoiding close contact – including sex – with anyone outside your household. If you do have sex with others, have as few partners as possible and avoid group sex. If you usually meet your sex partners online or make a living by having sex, consider taking a break from in-person dates. Video dates, sexting, or chat rooms may be options for you.

Additional tips from SFDPH: 

Limit sex to your main partner(s) or regulars that you live with and/or have sex with.  

Avoid kissing anyone who is not part of your small circle of close contacts.

Use condoms to reduce contact with saliva or feces, especially during oral or anal sex.

Wash up before and after sex. Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.

Wash sex toys with soap and warm water. 

Disinfect keyboards and touch screens that you share with others (for video chat, for watching pornography, or for anything else).

Skip sex if you or your partner is not feeling well.

If you or a partner may have COVID-19, avoid sex and especially kissing.

If you start to feel unwell or if you develop symptoms, call your primary care provider. 

Can I get COVID-19 through sexual activity?

YES!  Exposure to the virus can occur during sexual activities. The virus that causes COVID-19 has not yet been found in semen or vaginal fluid, but has been found in the feces of people who are infected with the virus. The virus can be spread through direct contact with saliva or mucus, through the air when someone sneezes or coughs, or by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. We still have a lot to learn about COVID-19 and sex.

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