We wanted to write this guide because sexual pleasure is a right and a deep need, and because we believe that the best way to ensure safety is to offer realistic guidelines. Telling people not to have sex just doesn’t work. After decades of study of sex education that emphasizes abstinence only, we know that this type of education only leads to riskier behavior in the end ((Breunig, 2017; Hall, McDermott Sales, Komro & Santelli, 2016; Hoefer & Hoefer, 2017; Kantor, Santelli, Teitler & Balmer, 2008; Santelli, 2017). While not all public health advise that is being given out suggests complete abstinence, much of it advises people to only have sex with a monogamous partner, someone they live with, or one person outside the household only. Many people don’t have a partner, and their only option for any sex is casual sex, sometimes with different partners if they don’t easily find someone to repeatedly have sex with. Additionally, for people who have more than one intimate partner, there is a serious lack of guidance out there. Suffice it to say, we notice that the advice being given is unrealistic for many, and knowing that unreachable guidelines often lead to a complete disregard for all guidelines altogether, we would like to help fill the gap.
Essentially, while the world is immersed in a crisis, people need pleasure and intimacy more than ever, but we’re being given very little advice on how to have it. What would responsible pleasure look like in a post-coronavirus world?
There are some health and decision making guidelines concerning sexually transmitted health infections that can also be applied to coronavirus. These come from Dr. Zhana Vrangalova and are as follows:
- What are the actual risks? This involves 3 sub-factors:
- The current rates of an infection in your community
- Your exposure to the infection (i.e. the kinds of behaviors you are engaging in and the safety protocols you’re following)
- And in the case of COVID-19, also the likelihood of you developing serious symptoms
- What is your level of comfort with these specific risks?
- How good are you going to be about actually following the specific protocols/risk reduction strategies available?
The 3 above guidelines are primarily to do with yourself. When you add in others, who may be exposed through contact with you, there are further questions that need to be asked, which are as follows:
- How comfortable are the other people with your behavior? How well-matched are you two in terms of the types of practical decisions you are making?
- How comfortable are other people with your attitudes toward risk tolerance?
Notice that this is split into two different things; your subjective feelings about risk and your practical behavioral guidelines. There is the level of comfort with risks being taken, and the actual risks. The most compatible situation is when both align.
In the case of Coronavirus, a major factor in defining behavior relates to the position of the person in your life. The risk of transmission relates directly to the level of physical contact you have with the people you are interacting with. Certain relationships are composed of interactions that are more high-risk (meaning that it is more likely that you will pass on the coronavirus infection to them) and others are composed of interactions that are more low risk (it is less likely that these people will be infected through interactions with you). We have subdivided the level of risk (based on the level of physical contact you have with people) into 3 levels. Each relationship is unique and will have a unique risk profile, but they can be roughly divided into basic levels of risk as follows:
- LEVEL 1: People with whom you have a high level of physical contact, like roommates, cuddlebuddies and lovers. This is the most intimate group of people, with the highest likelihood of transmission – people whom you can assume, that, to a relatively high degree, you are likely sharing viruses and bacteria with. Of this level, people who you have sex with are the most high risk of the entire group, because while the entire group will likely be exposed to respiratory droplets from your respiratory tract, the people who you kiss are going to be swapping spit with you, and the level of viral load individuals are exposed to matters. People who you make out with will be exposed to a higher load of the virus if you carry it, meaning they are more likely to get sick, and more likely to get more sick, than others in this same group.
- LEVEL 2: People with whom you have a moderate level of physical contact. For instance, those with whom you casually socialize, workout buddies, and co-workers. While you are probably not swapping spit with these people, you might have a drink without masks on outside, or something else of the variety, and you likely spend a larger amount of time with them on a more consistent basis than strangers.
- LEVEL 3: People with whom you have a low level of physical contact, like the public, people you see on the subway, people you pass on the street, or someone you saw at a protest. These people are those that you share the lowest level of physical contact with but with whom you likely use the highest form of protocols, hopefully wearing masks at all times and remaining most socially distant.
The next thing that needs to be decided is how any of the decisions you make will affect each of the 3 groups and what your responsibilities are to each group. Here are the guidelines that we suggest:
- LEVEL 1: This is the level where you need to exercise the most honesty and communicate the most. This is not only a matter of informing people, there should be some amount of negotiation and consent within this group. There should be a clear communication of both behavior and risk tolerance, and ideally, all parties should agree. When there is a mismatch on either behavior or risk tolerance, there are some decisions to be made, and we will offer some guidelines for what to do in that case below. Regardless of what you all collectively decide to do, one thing that is clear is that there should be some form of contact tracing and transparency that occurs within this group, exactly like what would happen in regard to STIs; essentially, if one of you gets sick with or tests positive for an active Covid-19 infection, everyone within this level should be informed, and should take subsequent precautions.
- LEVEL 2: While it is obviously not practical to get consent from everyone in this group for everything you do, you do need to let them know what you are doing so they can make their own decisions about what they would like to do around you. You do have an ethical responsibility to inform people if you are engaging in extremely high risk behavior so that they can choose whether or not they will be inside with you, wear a mask or not around you, or how far away they might stay from you. While you might not want to be super specific with co-workers about your sexual behavior, if you are having a lot of casual sex with strangers and kissing lots of people, you might need to come up with a way of conveying that you are in a high risk category, and you might consider staying a safe distance from people who are at a higher risk of transmission, like older adults or people with underlying health conditions. Basically, if you can’t inform someone for whatever reason, it falls on you to modify your own behavior. Additionally, if you choose to do something like have a barbeque, you should ideally create a guest list so that you can engage in a similar type of contact tracing and informing that we mention above in the event that someone gets sick with coronavirus. Now, in an ideal world, everyone would either inform everyone in their LEVEL 2 of their activities or modify their own behavior. However, it is also the responsibility of each individual to ask the people that they interact with at this level and make their own decisions about what to do based on that information. So if you are concerned about what your friends, coworkers, and workout buddies are doing in their spare time, please take it upon yourself to ask! If you don’t communicate, assume people are high risk and proceed accordingly.
- LEVEL 3: These people are neither consenting nor being informed of your behavior, it’s on you to establish what your ethics are and what your risk reduction strategies for not transmitting the virus are, as well as how you can make them comfortable. The higher risk you are, the more responsibility you should take on in this regard, and the more vigilant you should be about the protocols you establish.
So, what exactly should you be informing the people in LEVEL ONE and LEVEL 2 about? Well, you should be doing your best to tell them specific things about your interactions with the members of each of the groups we mentioned. Here are some guidelines for the types of information you should disclose about every group:
- IN REGARDS TO LEVEL 1: You should inform everyone in LEVEL 1 about everyone else in LEVEL 1: How many people are you seeing, how often do you see them, and what are the risk factors and behavior of other people in this group?
- IN REGARDS TO LEVEL 2: How many coworkers, social events, and workout buddies, (or other people in this category) are you seeing and what are your protocols? For instance, do you wear a mask when you work out with your friends or when you go biking and jogging? How many people were at your socially distanced picnic? What is your work environment and how many co-workers do you work with? Is your work indoors or outdoors?
- IN REGARDS TO LEVEL 3: What are your behavior patterns in public? How many people are you exposed to and what are your protocols?
This brings us to another point: What happens in GROUP 1 if your risk tolerance is very different from your roommate’s or lover’s? The common assumption that everyone in the group should automatically lower their risk tolerance level to the person with the lowest tolerance is not accurate. Not only does this often coincide with or result from an assumption that people with high risk tolerance are somehow “bad people”, but it also just doesn’t work on a practical level. People have quarantine burnout and forcing people into things they don’t want to do for long periods of time leads to reckless behavior. Giving people no access to pleasure and connection at all leads to more risky behaviors in the end: this is why abstinence only sex education doesn’t work (Breunig, 2017; Hall et al., 2016; Hoefer et al., 2017; Kantor et al., 2008; Santelli, 2017). However, just because your risk tolerance is high, doesn’t mean it’s alright to expose others who haven’t consented and aren’t at the same level of risk-tolerance as you are. And, of course, it’s totally wrong and unethical to shame or peer pressure lower-risk-tolerance people into something they are uncomfortable with. This applies to people in all groups; don’t make someone feel weird for not hugging you back, or wearing a mask around you at a social gathering if that is what makes them feel comfortable but no one else is doing it.
So, what do you do when things just aren’t lining up and you’re not compatible with someone in your LEVEL 1 group? Well, there are 4 basic approaches to consider:
- The high risk person can accept changing their behavior and protocols to what the low risk person feels comfortable with.
- The low risk person can accept the high risk person’s behavior, and take on the risks that this comes with. They can either change their own behavior to match with the high risk person, do exactly what they were doing before, or become even stricter and take more precautions to ensure that the high-risk person’s behavior doesn’t affect them. So, for instance, if a roommate is uncomfortable with their roommate’s sexual behavior, the roommate could choose to wear a mask when outside of their bedroom, in shared areas.
- Both parties could meet in the middle. Compromise.
- You could just decide that you are not compatible as roommates or lovers or cuddlebuddies or whatnot. Maybe it is just not worth it to act differently than you feel. In many cases it will be, but sometimes it’s just not. In the ideal world, we’d have roommate swaps, where we could form high and low risk households, and cluster together with people who share our natural predispositions and opinions.
Now, assuming that you have thought all this through, talked it all out with those that are important to you, and you’re trying to make some choices about how to have sexual pleasure in your life, here are some ideas:
- IF YOUR MAIN OPTION FOR INTIMACY IS CASUAL SEX WITH DIFFERENT PARTNERS: If you have casual sex with someone you’ve never met before, this is the time in your life to start being honest and transparent in a way that might be foreign to you. You should still apply basically the same strategy as you did for members of your LEVEL 1 group, but it might be harder to have that conversation with someone you just met. Think of it as practice for all the very responsible STI conversations you will have in the future, and as a way to develop your skills of communication and honesty. It might even make you feel more comfortable or closer with this new sexual partner. Now, of course, we’re talking about an ideal world here; optimally people in hookup culture would share all of the information pertinent to health that is related to coronavirus, and also to STIs. But since we already know that this doesn’t always occur even in the context of STIs, what should you do if, for whatever reason, there is no information being shared? Well, if you are in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” category, you must assume that the person you are having sex with is in the absolute highest risk category imaginable, and therefore YOU are in the highest risk category as well. And you should take precautions to protect others in every level (1, 2 and 3) from this high-risk situation.
- IF YOU ARE IN AN OPEN RELATIONSHIP WITH ONE PRIMARY PARTNER OR A HOOKUP BUDDY: If you are mostly having sex with one person but don’t live a monogamous lifestyle, and you’re itching for some novelty, find one new fuckbuddy or another couple to swing with. The idea is to keep even your novelty needs contained within a relatively closed circle, if possible. So, instead of having an indefinite amount of casual sex partners, group sex with another couple or a third person that you two both have sex with (together or separately) will contain the amount of possible exposure between people who haven’t already been exposed to eachother. If possible, keep doing your same couple-swap or unicorn add-on, rather than finding a new group each weekend.
- IF YOU ARE ALREADY COMMITTED TO MORE THAN ONE PERSON OR WANT TO TRY THAT OUT: If you’re seeing more than one person already, whether in consensual non-monogamy or just because you’ve been dating a few people at once, this is a great time to try to make your dating pool into more of a community. In other words, try making a sex-pod! If you are in a non-monogamous relationship, maybe this is the time to introduce your partners, and your partners’ partners! Or maybe you already know each other, but will end up spending quite a bit of time together. Some of our friends are calling this group their “germ-bonded” group, the same way we used to talk about “fluid-bonding”. This idea resembles something like what they are calling a “double-bubble” or “quarantine-pod” for families, which you can read about here. This article actually has quite a bit of good advice that can be applied to sex pods too! You’d want to aim for 6-12 people… enough that you can communicate easily with all members. You don’t have to have sex with every member of the pod, of course! It will be friends, lovers, and companions; a source of pleasure and intimacy combined.
- FOR ANYTIME YOU ARE HOOKING UP WITH A NEW PERSON THAT IS NOT A PART OF YOUR USUAL LEVEL 1 GROUP: No matter which of the above categories you fall into, if you are hooking up with a new person and want to protect yourself or other members of your LEVEL 1 group from the virus, a very practical idea (that could even be kind of fun if done right) is to wear a mask with casual sex partners! Dutch sex workers are doing it. Strippers are doing it. Sex workers are often very strict about safer sex procedures while working and we can use their protocols as models for our own safer sex practices (Van Wesenbeeck, 2001). While this might take some creativity to make sexy, restrictions can be hot in the right setting. It’s all about your attitude.
- A COMBO OF THE ABOVE: Depending on what kind of situation you are in, you should be able to blend some of the approaches from the above categories as well as some creative thinking based around the protocols we outline regarding levels of intimacy and types of communication to create an approach that is reasonably safe, intelligent, and sane.
For further information on which behaviors are more and less risky, here are the official NYC guidelines concerning safer sex.
It is important to note that three of us are not doctors, and that this document does not represent medical advice or public health measures that are government approved. Since the coronavirus is a new crisis, we don’t have much information to draw from in terms of patterns of spread as related to sexual behavior. However, after decades of study in HIV prevention, we can see that the most effective prevention and intervention resulted from community education and community action; not government or public health agencies (Aggleton et al., 2018; Currin et al., 2017; Rojas Castro, Delabre, Morel, Michels & Spire, 2019). The best results came from people helping people in networks of people who trusted one another. In an attempt to do what has worked in the past, we humbly offer our thoughts and ideas as suggestions for ways to pursue pleasure in the safest possible way. As believers in healthy hedonism and moral sex-positivity who care deeply about the well-being of our community and beyond, it seems only right to offer our help in a time of such great need.
Download our free Smarter Hookups in the time of COVID-19 Worksheet
Karen Ambert MD, MPH (Disclaimer: Okay, I am a doctor, and I do have a degree in public health but please know, this reflects my opinions as helpful guidance, and is not a stamp of medical approval. It is not an absolute, nor are there studies and research from which I can draw conclusions on best practice.)
“I’ve been getting a lot of questions from people about sex and dating in this new corona-world. There’s a lot of fear and confusion around it, not unlike those surrounding STIs. A lot of people have been completely refraining from dating and sex because of it, and it’s starting to impact their psychological well-being in negative ways. So we wanted to create this guide to help people navigate sex and relationships — including casual sex, multiple partners, and open relationships—while keeping themselves, their partners, and other close people in their lives reasonably safe.”
Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, [Drzhana.Com] A NYU Professor of Human Sexuality
“I co-founded a sex positive community, Hacienda, years ago. We are now a group of 14 people living in a 3 family home. Even though we are all highly practiced negotiators when it comes to talking about and deciding on measures related to sexual health, we still struggled a lot when it came to navigating our group living situation during the Coronavirus pandemic. This inspired me to try to figure out a framework to navigate this challenging time inside my community and I recruited my trusty team to help me figure out the most scientific, ethical way of thinking about this. Hacienda and many other sex-positive communities have been on the forefront of sexual education and responsible sex-positive practices in the past and it seems only natural to continue that trend during this time.”
“During times of crisis and turmoil, it is natural and healthy to turn to the comfort of human intimacy, including sex, for calm and pleasure. This desire, fundamental to human bonding, becomes painfully complicated when the act of seeking intimacy is the very source of danger. Navigating this paradox both psychologically and realistically will be necessarily challenging on both fronts. In a time where the salve for our wounds has the potential to create new hurts, we need to find ways to contact the healing we seek with as little fear as possible. The antidote to fear, in my mind, is honest and intelligent discussion, which I hope this framework contributes to.”
Chelsey Fasano, Head of Research & Development at KennethPlay.com
“I know directly how severe and traumatizing coronavirus is from my experience in the hospital, and how devastating the consequences, but I support practical guidelines and flexible thinking in this trying time. We need to come up with action plans that are timely, and there need to be obtainable goals. I strongly feel that abstinence only education type thinking will not work and is not sustainable. Instead I am afraid that people without any framework will tend to oscillate between strong emotions of guilt, fear, and denial and this can lead to riskier behaviors instead of decreasing the risks. I have hope that being risk aware will keep people more safe overall.”
Karen Ambert, MD, MPH
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