In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, dating and hooking up were totally inconceivable (along with all other forms of in-person socializing). For a while, there was no official word on how to address the human need for intimacy, other than don't do it.
Then, in late March, the city of New York issued a memo titled “Safer Sex and COVID-19,” which encouraged masturbation and limiting sex to partners in your household. ("NYC said masturbate or fuck your roommates," one New York comic quipped.) For many people, the document marked the only the time they'd about how to have safe sex—or the safest sex possible—during the pandemic.
With sex off the table, dating apps presented the ability to fantasize about (and even actively plan for) the light at the end of the tunnel. One New Yorker who asked to remain anonymous tells Men’s Health, “During phase one and two, everyone was just like, being horny online and lining up sex in the future when it was safer.”
Now that parts of the country are re-opening, many of the nation's singles are thinking about resuming their sex lives—but how safe is that, really? We talked to various medical experts, all of whom stressed that we still don't know everything about how COVID-19 transmitted. Still, they recognize dating and sex are inevitable—so here's their best advice.
How to Date as Safely as Possible
Returning to dating has found a number of singles stumbling along, trying to learn the rules of this strange new world.
Jim, who lives in New York, recalled a recent first date: “We met for beers in the park, which I’d say was odd for me, because I’m used to going on first dates in bars, so it just felt more like we were meeting up as friends." As they got to know each other, he found it challenging to make a move in the middle of the public park. "Doesn’t feel sexual," he said. "It feels, like, distant.” Afterward, Jim says they both friend-zoned each other.
Unfortunately for folks who share Jim's mindset, an outdoor date is still the way to go, according to experts. New York City Health Committee chairman Mark Levine tells Men's Health the best advice for singles starting to date again can be boiled down to a principle: “Move your entire life outside.”
“Meet up in parks, have dinner at an outdoor cafe, get drinks on a rooftop, take a walk down by the river," Levine says. "There’s just more and more evidence that outdoor environments are much safer.”
Dr. Frederick Berlin, who directs the Sexual Behavior Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins, agrees that outdoor dates are "a much better way to go." And please, people, wear a mask.
"Remember how this is spread: On a cold day in the winter, when we breathe out, we see the moisture that’s coming out of our mouths," he explains. "That’s the way in which this virus is spread.”
Stephanie, from Washington, recently went on a Hinge date to a park. Both she and her date had been tested for COVID-19. Stephanie's rule is that she and her dates “have to be six feet apart until they get tested.”
It's safer to date people who have been recently tested, but isn't a perfect system, according to Berlin. "That just shows whether or not the person was positive for the virus at the time that they were tested," he points out. With the current delays in people receiving their COVID-19 test results, there might be a big window of time in which your potential partner could have been infected since they got tested.
The overarching theme is caution. Take your dates outside, get tested if you can, and don't be afraid to ask your dates if they've been tested before you meet them.
How to Have Sex as Safely as Possible
Medical experts realize that people are going to have sex. "The just-say-no approach never works in public health," Levine says. "We’ve learned the hard way that is true for addiction and we’ve learned it’s true for sex as well.” The New York legislator adds the messaging strategies of the city under the coronavirus were learned during the HIV epidemic. “The AIDS doctors have been some of the most brilliant people during COVID, because they understand messaging has to account for the human need for social contact,” he says.
When the City of New York updated its memo, it promoted masked intercourse, advising: “Maybe it’s your thing, maybe it’s not, but during COVID-19 wearing a face covering that covers your nose and mouth is a good way to add a layer of protection during sex.”
Masked intercourse was even suggested in a chart authored by Harvard physicians in early May. Their chart, which includes the suggestion to wear masks during sex, was born out of a public health philosophy similar to Levine’s: that the just-say-no approach often falls on unresponsive ears.
But having sex with a mask on still carries an element of risk, says Jennifer Gunter, gynecologist and author of The Vagina Bible. “Maybe that’s going to offer some protection, but when you’re breathing heavy, are there particles getting around your mask?" she asks. "If you’re having sex right, you’re probably breathing a little heavy.” Fair.
In Switzerland, a sex worker advocacy group presented a list of measures to keep sex workers and their customers safe during the pandemic. Among the proposed steps were changing bed linens, ventilating the room for at least fifteen minutes, and limiting intercourse to reverse cowgirl or doggy style.
The goal is to "minimize the risk of exposure to nasal or oral secretions," Gunter says. Sticking to sex positions where you’re not facing your partner “is probably safer," but—as with any interpersonal activity—there's still a risk. "What's going to happen?" she asks. "Are you both going to put masks on immediately and then sprint apart out of the room so those particles don’t land on you?”
Assessing the safety of a coronavirus hookup may sound like a lecturing clause, but as long as there are large numbers of COVID-19 cases in the United States, anyone hooking up is taking some kind of risk. No romantic behavior is truly safe, short of locking yourself inside and sticking to FaceTime sex. For many singles, that's unrealistic. Experts get that, which is why they're encouraging folks to make their corona coitus as safe as possible.
Of course, if you don't feel comfortable getting down with someone during COVID, that's perfectly understandable, and you shouldn't hesitate to tell your partner. And then head home for a solo session, perhaps?