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Pandemic protocols for the bedroom: How to navigate sex with COVID safety in mind

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Photo by Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels

The pandemic has changed the way people approach finding sexual partners, and added a new meaning to the concept of "safe sex."

An August 2021 study from the University of Minnesota found that the number of people who were engaging in hookups and having casual sexual partners before the pandemic decreased by 48.5% and 53.4%, respectively. Yet as vaccination and booster rates continue to rise and people continue to revisit "before-time" activities, it's likely they are wondering what constitutes social distancing when it comes to the bedroom.

For those navigating finding sex in the time of Omicron but unsure of how to stay safe, below are a few suggestions to keep in mind.

Get vaxxed, and get tested
If you're going to clubs, restaurants, or any other business where there's a risk of exposure to COVID-19, you'll likely have to be vaccinated or provide a recent negative test result. It may feel weird to apply these same standards to sexual activities too, but it's one of the easiest ways to minimize your risk of exposure.

Plus, it's a top priority for many. Dating website Match's Singles in America 2021 study found that 58% of singles are unlikely to have sex with an unvaccinated partner, including 57% of Gen X respondents and 85% of Boomers.

"The most important step to take is to ensure that you, and your partner, are fully vaccinated and boosted. For additional peace of mind, you and your partner could get COVID tests as well prior to being intimate," a spokesperson with Public Health — Seattle & King County, told the SGN in an email.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov / Pexels  

Keep your circle of partners small, or explore other options
Remember pandemic pods? For those facing COVID exposure risk with sex, it may be wise to adopt a similar practice with your sex partners.

"What we're recommending for everybody, but particularly for people who are not vaccinated, is that you avoid large sex parties, going to bathhouses, or orgies," Dr. Chase Cannon, MD, an acting instructor and infectious diseases specialist with the University of Washington, told the SGN.

"Sex is a close-contact sport, and air droplets of saliva will be exchanged, so [we're] telling people to avoid large situations... and try to stick to maybe a small circle of people..."

Some health experts also recommend wearing a mask when engaging in sexual activities. Though this advice is useful for activities like anal sex, it falls short for others, including oral sex.

"Lots of people roll their eyes when I say, "You could consider wearing a mask during sex,'" said Dr. Cannon.

If masking when intimate isn't your cup of tea, consider engaging in other activities that limit the amount of face-to-face activity.

"Another way to think about it is just changing the kind of sex that you have... Mutual masturbation, video, sexting, things that will limit your exposure risk might be helpful," said Dr. Cannon.

Communication is key
King County Public Health shared an Instagram post in October 2020 showcasing an example of a conversation between two people discussing hooking up safely amid COVID, including exploring making a glory hole with a shower curtain. While the example raised a few eyebrows, the advice on engaging in proactive communication around COVID-19 has only become more important given Omicron's high transmissibility.

Taking a few moments to discuss with a partner their recent activities and risk of COVID-19 exposure can be helpful in deciding if it's safe to engage in sexual activities with them. The same goes for conversations surrounding safe sex and STIs (and with STI cases rising in Seattle, it's crucial that people to remember to engage in that conversation too).

"I know that there are situations people have, where they may be doing sex wok, or sex is more spontaneous, and they don't have time or the ability to have these in-depth conversations," said Dr. Cannon. "[But] if you're talking to somebody on an app for a few minutes, you definitely have time to squeeze in those few questions that I think can be informative. If you have another option of somebody else who's vaccinated and hasn't been at a huge party recently, maybe that's a better option."

Dating apps have also worked to integrate vaccine status on their platforms (similar to sharing your HIV status of if you're taking PrEP), Dr. Cannon added.

The pandemic will still continue to change the way people engage in intimacy with others. As it does, there are some online resources that can help advise people on engaging in sex. King County recommends people look at New York City's "Safer Sex and COVID-19" factsheet, most recently updated on Oct. 31, 2021 (https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/imm/covid-sex-guidance.pdf).