Catchy title. Yesterday I posted the CDC’s advice on going out. It omitted any advice on sex. The New York Times supplied it’s own advice.
Pandemic life is tough on everyone. But for a single person, the prospect of dating and sex — while social distancing to avoid a potentially life-threatening respiratory illness — feels impossible.
How do you date without touching or kissing? How do you have sex without breathing on your partner and putting each other at risk?
“I’ve gone at least two months without sex or other physical connection, and even in my 50s, that’s a long time,” said one man from Austin, who asked not to be named to protect his privacy. “My only venture outside has been to walk the dogs and run a very rare errand, for Pete’s sake. Dating seems even a more remote possibility.”
When the man, who is gay, raised the issue with his online therapy group, he was surprised by the compassionate response. “Over all, folks were supportive, knowing that we need connection, dating and sex,” he said. The fact that the topic hadn’t come up sooner “spoke in some ways to how inhumane the pandemic is.”
A number of public health agencies have offered tips for dating and sex during the pandemic, but the New York City health department has recently updated its Safer Sex and Covid-19 fact sheet with more-detailed and descriptive advice. The new guidelines still say “you are your safest sex partner,” and that the “next safest partner” is someone in your household.
However, the guidance also acknowledges that not everyone has access to an exclusive sex partner at home. People who are dating or “hooking up” should still try to minimize close contacts. Safer sex during Covid-19 also means wearing a mask and avoiding kissing. “Heavy breathing and panting can spread the virus further,” it says. A recent commentary from Harvard University researchers also recommended that people wear a mask during sex with someone from outside their household.
The New York City guidelines discourage group sex, but give advice for those who do “decide to find a crowd.” “Pick larger, more open, ventilated spaces,” it states, among other things.
Individuals can try to find creative alternatives to traditional sex, such as sex toys, masturbating together and sexy Zoom parties, or they could try to “make it a little kinky,” the guidelines state, suggesting, among other things, people can avoid close contact by having sex through holes in walls or other barriers. “Be creative with sexual positions and physical barriers, like walls, that allow sexual contact while preventing close face-to-face contact,” the guidelines state.
If the language seems surprisingly direct, it’s supposed to be, said Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“Our health department has a really strong record of being very sex positive,” said Dr. Daskalakis. “Abstinence for the duration of the pandemic is not going to work. We tend not to shy away from giving people realistic recommendations. There’s no reason for Covid-19 to be different.”
Dr. Daskalakis said the updated guidelines are in addition to existing guidelines for safer sex to lower risk for sexually transmitted disease, and they are a response to hundreds of questions New Yorkers are asking. The new rules also advise people who decide to hook up to get tested monthly for coronavirus, or within five to seven days of a hookup. They caution that a confirmed case of Covid-19 or a positive antibody test isn’t definitive proof that you are immune from re-infection. Dr. Daskalakis said the tone of the updated guidelines was inspired by a 1983 pamphlet, written during the start of the AIDS crisis, called “How to Have Sex During an Epidemic,” which pioneered the public health strategy of harm reduction and safer sex.
“You can’t tell people to stop being human,” said David Lauterstein, founder of the Nasty Pig men’s clothing brand in New York and an L.G.B.T. community leader who helped with the concept of the guidelines. “People are going to have sex. When they’re not educated, they’re going to make bad choices.”
While the new guidelines give people detailed advice about safer sex, many single people say it’s tough to imagine even getting to the point of having sex because of the limits imposed by social distancing and the challenges of trusting other people to take needed precautions.
Wendy Worthington, 45, who lives in St. George, Utah, had hoped to stay connected through online dating during the pandemic. She was excited after meeting someone on a dating app, but after some promising “witty banter” from him, she expressed wariness about meeting in person during the early stages of the crisis. The man immediately blocked her.
“When that happened, it was the tip off that not everyone was going to view what’s going on the way I do or take it as seriously as I was taking it,” she said. “Most people were too nonchalant about it. I realized it was going to be an exercise in futility to try dating.”
Ms. Worthington says she does not expect to go back to dating any time soon. “Now we’re not even worried about S.T.D.s so much as, I just hope you weren’t around someone who coughed on you,” she said. “Dating is already so hard as it is, and then you don’t think people are taking the necessary precautions. I’m putting all of my energy into D.I.Y. projects instead.”
Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor in the department of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, said the guidance for single people who want to date is much the same as for people who have partners: Practice social distancing, socialize and dine outdoors, and keep your overall number of contacts low to reduce risk.
But single people have the added challenge of minimizing risk while trying to date. While there’s no formula to tell you how many dates with different people are safe, try to reduce your other contacts — like shopping or work events — if you want to expand your circle to include dates. Anyone who is dating should be mindful of their personal risk of coronavirus and the risk of others in their circle, like parents and grandparents.
“The more dates you go on, the higher your risk,” Dr. Marcus said.
If you meet someone who is worthy of mask-free time, talk about how they live their daily life. How many contacts do they have? Do they live with multiple roommates? Or do they have a grandparent they see regularly, which would require you to take extra precautions if you become intimate?
“Now you have to have those conversations before you even make out with someone,” said Dr. Marcus. “You basically have to have the safe sex conversation before kissing.”
In the Netherlands, public health officials advised that locked-down singles find a “seksbuddy” — a trusted person with whom to have an exclusive sexual relationship even if it wasn’t a potential long-term partnership.
A 47-year-old woman from Fayetteville, Ark., who asked that her name not be used, said she does have occasional sex with a trusted friend, although she has continued to try to date during the pandemic. “I have physical contact and sex with someone. We care about each other, but it’s not love,” she said. “It’s harder to date because everything is closed. The drive to date is not as intense because it’s less convenient.”
Some relationship experts say that in addition to the obvious challenges, the pandemic poses a unique opportunity to foster deeper connections with others because we are forced to slow down the dating process.
“It takes people out of that swipe circuity, the hookup circuity, and it makes people rethink what they’re looking for,” said Ken Page, a psychotherapist and co-founder of DeeperDating.com. “This is the time to build new muscles and skills of intimacy that so many of us desperately needed but didn’t have time for.”
Despite the challenges, including uncomfortable conversations and the need to wear a mask, starting a new relationship during a pandemic is possible. Sam Goldman, 28, a finance director for a Boston media company, was resigned to giving up dating for at least the rest of the year. But he happened to connect on the dating app Hinge with a woman who had relocated to the city to live with her parents during the pandemic. The couple texted, spoke on FaceTime and then decided to meet for a picnic. They wore masks walking to the park, stayed on opposite sides of the blanket and talked for five hours, and agreed that a hug goodbye would be safest.
“I don’t think I would have asked to go for a picnic for a first date,” Mr. Goldman said, but it “ended up being such a fun time. She mentioned she loved playing tennis, so I asked her to play tennis for the second date. I definitely would not have done that before.”
Mr. Goldman lives alone, while his date lives with her parents, so he has tried to be more careful, taking precautions like social distancing, staying six feet apart and limiting contacts to protect both the woman and her family. He said he hopes his experience gives other people hope that it’s possible to explore new relationships despite the pandemic.
“I’ve had friends who are struggling with dating during coronavirus time,” he said. “And now I’m in the midst of what seems to be a new relationship that’s blooming and working out.”