“What I will be doing as soon as it’s safe is having lots and lots of sex,” said Sonalee Rashatwar, who goes by The Fat Sex Therapist on Instagram, in a conversation on the app with fellow sex educator Ericka Hart in late May. But what does it mean for sex to be “safe” in a world where cases of COVID-19 are still being reported daily?
Experts aren’t thrilled about the idea of us all running into confined spaces and swapping spit just yet, but here’s the key thing: many of them expect us to do it anyway. “Abstinence is the safest way to avoid contracting COVID-19,” says Dr. Jack Turban, resident physician in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital. “However, for many people, that isn’t a realistic goal.”
We have reached the point at which is understood by public health officials, dating app engineers, and your ex that the notion of abstinence, which has been proven again and again to be unsuccessful as a sex education tool for teens, doesn’t work for adults either. After months in isolation, the reality is many people simply will not wait any longer for sex. “I’m just staring at my condoms like they’re about to expire” one woman told me.
With sex, as with many things since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the rules have shifted significantly. Look at the New York City Department of Health, which in late March released a “Safe Sex and COVID-19” guide urging people to “limit close contact—including sex—with anyone outside your household,” adding that “you are your safest sex partner.” The guidance also encouraged “sexy Zoom parties” and discouraged orgies.
In mid-June, the health department updated its guidelines. “During this extended public health emergency, people will and should have sex,” the document reads, before affirming that you are still “your safest sex partner” and that the next best option is someone you live with, followed by someone who hasn’t had symptoms in fourteen days. But this time, it recommended wearing a mask during sex, and considering having sex through “physical barriers, like walls.”
You know those parents who tell their high schoolers, “If you kids are going to drink, just keep it in the house”? The new version might as well be the New York City Health Department saying, “If you’re going to have sex, just do it through a glory hole.”
Some information about coronavirus has changed since the department’s first sex guidelines were released, and much has not. Researchers don’t know exactly how deadly it is—the rate of people who die from coronavirus has varied significantly throughout the world, Vox reports. As of mid-May, 11 percent of people who were known to have COVID-19 in New York City had died, but the rate of deaths has been as low as one percent in Iceland. Researchers know that older people and people with preexisting conditions are significantly more vulnerable, but not why some healthy people die. They know that asymptomatic spread occurs, but not how often. No new findings about the virus reported by the WHO or CDC dispute the current belief that coronavirus is spread mainly person to person, through respiratory droplets. America still has the highest number of COVID-19 cases. There is still no vaccine, and no cure.