How to Have Sex in the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic
Ideas for sexy social distancing -- because sex that's good for you is good for you.
[Image description: A lavender square image with green tropical leaves in each corner of background. Black letters on it at top: @TheCranky Queer. Middle black letters : How to Have Sex in the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic. There’s a tan cartoon of cat on the bottom with a red outline heart on its tail and an overlay that reads “Donate to Chronic Illness Leadership for COVID19 Mutual Aid Network: bit.ly/cilfetfunds.]
update: NYC health department released COVID-19 pandemic safer sex guidelines. But read on: these suggestions are quite compatible with their guidance.
If sex is good for you, well, it’s good for you.
Good sex is a cornerstone of my illder life. I get exercise from it. I bathe my weary joints and muscles and bones in happy chemicals. I have something I get to do without overthinking. I’m good at it. And I continue to learn more about the power of pleasure to clear my heart and mind, steadying myself for the more difficult aspects of this life.
So, if we are going to have to rethinking what we’re doing, not have folks over, not get out to sexy places and events, and overall may just have a difficult, awful time of it, how’s the sex going to even happen? Is it even a thing in a pandemic?
Yes. It is a thing.
And what you may choose to explore in this time, or have to explore, may enhance some lifelong, pre- and post-apocalypse-worthy skills in sexual delight and satisfaction.
(Which reminds me: One time I was in a could-have-been-really-bad-but-we-were-lucky car accident with my then-partner. It was scary. And when we got back to where we had been heading, we immediately had quick, hot, easy sex that was so incredibly helpful. I’ve never forgotten it. It was also in a forest clearing of thick ferns. That was great.)
There’s also a lot of super sexy people who who already have a mostly-home-based life, or who must think extra carefully about pathogens, or who have beautifully adapted sex toys and ideas to be more accessible. For example, just look at all the things that were discussed at this conference in 2017! I know I could have learned so much there, (and if there are any recordings of it, please let me know.)
Also, let me just add that there are various types of asexuality, and it is real and beautiful. I have learned a lot and have a lot more to learn about pleasure and health from people whose pleasures are not sexually-based or who have specific takes on it that differ much from my own.
Romance and Sentimentality are not Disinfectants
In 1983, the first real HIV-era safe sex guide was released: a typewritten 40 page pamphlet called How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach. It was written by Michael Callen, a singer and songwriter who’d enjoyed many a bathhouses and backroom, and Richard Berkowitz, a BDSM/kink sex worker — not public health professionals or clinicians.
Want to pay tribute to the birth of safer sex through the wisdom of sex workers? How about making a donation to the Lysistrata Collective, an emergency fund to support sex workers in crisis? Or to the Woodhull Sex Worker Support Fund?
Now it’s time to innovate again.
I’m in the United States. Testing isn’t happening for most people and likely won’t, for most, anytime soon. In some ways that makes it very simple: Many of us have it already and there is no way to tell who has it unless they have a severe case with typical symptoms.
Very few people in the media or public health are stating the obvious. To minimize transmission of COVID-19, we need universal precautions, and short of that, we need harm reduction.
That means measures like not kissing, including your partner, your kids, and not even having our faces close together. For many people, that’s not going to happen 100% of the time. But almost no one is making this clear for you. In fact, in the first version of this story that I posted, I didn’t either. So, here is what we know, as far as I know. (But please read on to what else we can do to be sexually healthy in these times):
The media is saying it’s not yet known if COVID-19 is sexually-transmitted, or saying it likely isn’t. They are talking about “sexually-transmitted infections” - STIs also known as STDs (sexually-transmitted diseases). As the Mayo Clinic explains, “the organisms (bacteria, viruses or parasites) that cause sexually transmitted diseases may pass from person to person in blood, semen, or vaginal and other bodily fluids.”
That is not the point. COVID-19 is clearly transmissible during what many people do in physical intimacy, foreplay, sex, etc.
Vice has the only article I’ve found online that does a decent, reasonably thorough job of thinking it through. Share others if you have them.
Look, mono is caused by Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). People can get it from having sex - because for many people, sex involves a lot of kissing, heavy breathing in another person’s vicinity, etc. So, mono/EBV it’s not a “sexually-transmitted infection (STI), but it is transmitted during some kinds of intimacy and sex.
The flu isn’t sexually-transmitted. So it’s not a sexually-transmitted infection (STI) That is to say, you won’t be “protected” by using condoms or whatnot — it’s irrelevant because it’s not transmitted by semen, anal secretions/feces or vaginal/front hole fluids. But people get it from kissing, making out, and many kinds of sexual activities - because then you are exposed to breath and saliva.
[Note - Not as relevant for this story but: Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is very common, it’s hard to not get, but it often doesn’t cause illness. But it is a factor in a lot of chronic conditions like ME/CFS if people have chronic infection.]
Here is what I think we know/don’t know: COVID-19 is in, and transmitted via, breath and saliva. It is thought that is in the “droplet range” - meaning the virus is in breath that comes out and drops onto a surface and stays on that surface for various times depending on what it is. It may be in feces and thus may be transmitted through anal contact but we don’t know. And we do not have evidence that it’s in blood, urine, semen, or vaginal/front hole fluids. I do not know if anyone is looking at “female” ejaculate. If you have data on any of this, let me know.
So. As you make your plans and have your fun, please recognize this: That which may seem vanilla and everyday — like kissing — is actually riskier for COVID19 than much of what what may be considered kinky or fetishy — like putting on amazing outfits and watching each other do things to ourselves, and exploring everything we can do to get each other off that doesn’t involve hands or faces.
So that’s your lemonade. This is your opportunity to try some stuff out, in the name of public health. Go flatten the curve with your most creative, sexy self.
Here's some thoughts:
1) Your desire can be your guide, and you can be guided in knowing your desire.
As with political and public health policy in a pandemic, it’s best to go with people who know what the hell they are talking about - so if you are going to have some time on your hands, you can dive into some sexy books and podcasts from some rad-ass queer sex people and deepen our understanding of the most sexy person in our lives: ourselves.
You've read Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown, yes? Now you can read it again! Or for the first time! I couldn’t find my copy so I read a digital copy from the public library the second time around!
And, in case you haven't yet met, allow me to introduce you to Dr. J’aime Grant, one of my favorite promoters of queering sex - putting out the vision and the reality that each of our journeys gives us a unique path to our own distinct sexual desires.
Her podcast Just Sex will introduce you to brilliant humans who have been a part of her Mapping Desire workshops and the legendary Sex Track — I’ve been honored to be one of the faculty now and then — at the annual Creating Change conference.
I dare you to listen to any one of the episodes and not have a revelation about yourself that will continue to resonate as we get through this pandemic and on to the next set of challenges in this apocalyptic time.
You may just end up making, or adding to, a sexual desire/to-do list that you can unleash at less-dangerously-microbial social times. Let me know how it goes.
2) Is this the time you get to say what you’ve been meaning to say, but just haven’t bothered to, in your sex life?
I hope you live with people who love and respect you in all the essential and beautiful ways.
We help each other through our intimacy, physical and otherwise. We may all be about to spend a lot of time with our intimate folks. And it may include helping each other through some intense illness and loss and pain.
I don’t think this is necessarily the time to dig in and work on the most vexing and thorny parts of our relationships -- though we absolutely have to be ready for dealing with what arises, and to support members of our community who may be facing any violence or abuse that could be exacerbated in this time.
(That also reminds me that I haven’t seen much out there about how to be prepared to support people in complex relationships that can include violence in stressful times. Please send me anything I can share with others.)
But, paradoxically, this may be a time where some, well, smaller bothersome things may be good to get out of the way. Because those are things that can add up when you’re spending a lot of time with someone.
Also, sometimes nothing can give us a boost than having something that’s easy to fix, when so much fucking else is so fucking impossibly hard. So pick something smaller, and go for it.
For example: maybe you really hate when people stick their tongue in your ear during sex. And, well, you just haven’t known how to tell your otherwise-great partner. They don’t do it all that often, and it comes and goes pretty quickly.
Now may be your chance to say, “Hey babe, we’re holding so much hard stuff right now - I have something to say that may seem pretty funny in the face of all that. I just never knew how to bring it up before but…”
Not sure what to talk about first? Remember, you don’t need to fix every small thing right now! Also, if you don’t like kissing all that much, now is a very practical time to be out about that.
Here’s what I’d suggest: Make a list of the things you’ve held off on talking about. Circle the three you’d most like to talk about. This is for you, so you get to pick. Then either see which one floats to the top as you consider it, or randomly pick one. And then, go back to the list and see if there’s anything on it you can do for yourself.
For example, if you would love to have more rounds of hot action at one time, but your partner is more of a one-and-done person, check out this next topic:
3) If you take care of yourself first, everyone else might just be more fun.
While I hate the constant surveillance and monetization of my every thought and move, I do appreciate how current technology has made it possible to order in some really great sex experiences with other humans via hookup apps.
But here’s what I learned after a year or two of feeling vaguely (or not so vaguely) dissatisfied after a seemingly cute, no-strings-attached encounter: causal fun is fun, except for when it’s not fun, but for me, it doesn’t often really satisfy.
So, whether you’re already your own best partner… or if we’re needing to reduce our contact with other humans and their delightful blends of microbes… and/or whether we may find ourselves in the position of loving the ones we are with, here is what I wish for you:
May you have the space for a little or more than a little time alone (even if that means shower time or a discreet walk, if not a private bedroom) to really learn — and do — what you like best.
You can search online for “mindful masturbation” and you’ll find guidance. Or set up a video consult with a “sexological bodyworker,” the experts in this who have great ways of coaching us and who may be losing a lot of work right now…
The basic idea is to slow down and explore our bodies, finding out what we may miss when getting off quickly in our predictable ways. Set a timer and go slow.
A central part of MM is savoring. Our brains and bodies remember bad experiences, even if they happen very quickly. That’s a survival thing. But I’m told that pleasurable experiences resonate in our memories and lives if we can take the time to pause and notice them. And this includes taking a minute or two to just rest at the end and remember the feelings we’ve just had. Or even journaling or taking some notes to recall what we did, and what it was like.
Here’s some of the (more surprising) things I found out:
It was really important to allow myself not fantasize - but to let myself focus on the actual physical and emotional sensations at hand, so to speak.
I really like rubbing my hands over my ears to make ambient seashell noises. Like, a lot. I didn’t really want to stop.
I also have really sensitive calves!
And, if I go long enough and am present enough, I really can be quite satiated all on my own.
So I know I have the capacity to be very, very pleased all by myself. And if then someone comes over later, or if I am with someone I am hunkered down with for the duration, I’m more likely to be fully present for whatever that may bring - rather than dependent on another person to be my satisfaction.
If you find this post useful, please contribute to emergent U.S. network of people with chronic illness responding to COVID19.
4) Phone sex is real sex, and video sex is real sex
Human touch is a powerful thing. But so are human voices, photographs, videos. (If they weren’t, porn wouldn’t be a thing! And it is, and it built the internet, and it set things in motion for the kind of technologies. that are getting this essay to you right now.)
In the next few weeks, a long-distance relationship may even be one that’s just down the block, if we are in the position of sheltering in place to reduce our own or our cohabitors’ exposure to illness.
It is clear that we can use harm reduction to strive to reduce risks from in-the-flesh sex . To make it plain: If someone is fucking you from behind and coughs on your back, that’s a different droplet game than if they do so while on top of you from the front. It would take a large amount of attentiveness and vigilance to approach anything like universal precautions from a standard “doing it” scenario. It is likely, in most cases, not possible, because of hands that have touched a face touch other things that touch hands that touch faces.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to have sex on the phone or over video, this may be your moment. Yes, you’ll feel weird at first. Maybe you’ll even feel weird the whole time! But maybe that weirdness will start to feel really hot…
Just remember, when it comes to cam / video — especially on public sites — nothing is guaranteed to stay private. So while you are stocking up on all that cat food and Cafe Bustelo, you could decide to throw in some wigs and hoods and other transformatory objects (and while you’re at it, consider using a VPN when you go online.) If you have a favorite article on the best sites and privacy tools to use, send to me and I’ll drop in the links.
I would really like to be a part of a collective or club where queers send each other our homemade porn or set up cam dates. Surely someone is doing this. You know how to find me.
And if you have some capacity to pay for it, this may be a time to experiment or broaden your experiences with cam sex with a professional — there have already been so many terrible and purposeful restrictions that threaten the safety and lives of sex workers in this FOSTA/SESTA era - and now social distancing will make making a living even harder for many. So if your desire includes cam sex, and you can pay for it, please do (and if you know which sites have the best policies and rates for performers, send that to me, and I’ll update.)
This is where I put a cute little conclusion that is nevertheless insightful and useful for what we’re facing. I don’t have one and you’ve perhaps already clicked over to somewhere else. So I’ll just hit send instead.
Thanks for knowing our history. My experiences in sex work had a huge impact on writing "How To Have Sex in an Epidemic." Good article.
I have to disagree with the other comment. This article was really helpful and I'm glad you took the time to write it. Thank you~