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Love — and sex — in the time of coronavirus

How Covid-19 should and shouldn’t change our sex lives, explained by an expert.

Kissing might actually be the riskiest thing you do in the bedroom when it comes to transmitting coronavirus.
Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Editor’s note March 28: Significant developments in the coronavirus pandemic mean this advice may no longer apply. For recent coverage of the pandemic, visit our guide to coronavirus.

In 2008, American troubadour Usher mused wildly about a roiling state of desire and romance in a public space.

“You keep doing it on purpose, winding and working. If we close our eyes, it could just be me and you,” he sang. “I wanna make love in this club (hey) … In this club (hey) … In this club (hey) … In this club (hey).”

That song is now as old as a seventh-grader. But while many things have changed — the climate, the president, Usher himself and the music he makes — that human feeling of lust, sometimes in appropriate spaces and sometimes in more inappropriate ones, remains a constant. The problem is that in the young year of 2020, people all over the world are now combating a novel coronavirus that causes an illness known as Covid-19. So making love in a club, in a bedroom, or anywhere really, is underscored by the fear that any interaction with another human being could cause you to become the virus’s next host.

Or maybe that’s just me?

Americans are currently learning how to wash their hands for 20 seconds, realizing how difficult it is not to touch their faces, stocking up on toilet paper, cleaning products, and nonperishable food, memorizing what percentage of alcohol is necessary in hand sanitizer to kill the virus, and analyzing every informational blast released by public health officials.

But while guidelines from health officials are helpful and awareness about the coronavirus is valuable, translating these best practices into everyday life isn’t always easy. People now know about singing “Happy Birthday” twice at the sink while they lather their hands, but what’s the best protocol for making love in the club?

Or, in a more straightforward example, we’ve been told to stay more than six feet away from people who may be sick, so does this mean singles should stop going on dates? Are one-night stands off-limits? How should things change physically — if they should change at all — for couples in monogamous relationships?

To get a better sense of how to apply best practices surrounding the coronavirus in our sex and dating lives, I asked Anna Muldoon, a former science policy adviser at the US Department of Health and Human Services and current PhD candidate researching infectious disease and social crises at Arizona State University, to share her expertise about love and sex in the time of coronavirus.

The summary: It’s okay to go on dates, but be honest about whether you feel sick, and be thoughtful about the places you visit; one-night stands could be risky, especially if there are confirmed cases of Covid-19 in your area, because having sex obviously involves close contact; and there’s no need to lock up your partner or roommate if you hear them sniffling.

Alex Abad-Santos

I think a lot of the times when we talk about the novel coronavirus, it’s in abstract. “Here’s the worst-case scenario, here’s what you should do, here’s how long to wash your hands.” But I think there’s maybe less focus on things like dating and sex — the important but less-talked-about aspects of our daily lives.

I now know what to do if I feel sick or what kind of hand sanitizer to use, but am at a loss about whether I should still be going on dates or going to bars and being social. And that’s where I’m coming from.

Anna Muldoon

I actually think that is a wonderful place to be coming from. Look, public health communication is a strange beast. In something like this, there’s only so much you can control. But people have a lot of questions that are like, “How do I go grocery shopping? How do I live my daily life? How do I go on a date?”

Because we’re all still living our lives, and those of you who are not deeply involved in the response are still living normal human lives as this all spins up.

Alex Abad-Santos

So. The first step in dating. We should wipe our phones down before we start swiping. Like right now, right?

Anna Muldoon

Yes, please. I started laughing when I heard this question, and look, I have worked in public health, and I am so bad about sanitizing my phone.

But yes, just imagine that all those tables you put your phone down on, the counter, all those things that your hands touch that you then go text on your phone, they’re all just attached to your phone now. If they make you nervous and you’d like them to be super clean, wipe down your phone.

Alex Abad-Santos

I am thinking about everywhere I put my phone today. I’m extremely grossed out now. But let’s move on to that step after swiping: dating.

I guess everything that the CDC and health officials tell you to avoid — close proximity to strangers, breathing on people, etc. — you’re kinda supposed to do on a date. The end goal of the date is to be closer to someone. Do we just put a hold on it for a little bit?

Anna Muldoon

First things first, please don’t go on a date if you don’t feel well. I know sometimes there is that very attractive person and you really want to keep the date, but I think that it is worth being a little cautious.

If you have that “I feel kind of crappy, my nose isn’t running, but I don’t feel great” feeling, please don’t go on the date. Exercise a little more caution about how you feel before you go on the date than you might in normal times.

I don’t think it’s necessary to enforce celibacy and not date until coronavirus is gone, partly because we’ll all go insane [laughs]. Normal life to some extent does continue during outbreaks, both historically and now. That’s not an entirely bad thing, because humans need to be human. I would say be a little more thoughtful about dating.

It’s possible that someone could be getting sick and not realize it yet. If you start feeling tired and sluggish, take that as a sign that you might have eaten the wrong lunch, or you might be getting sick — just go with it and don’t go on a date if you’re feeling blah.

It’s okay to cancel a date because you don’t feel great, and the person you’re canceling with should be happy about that. But in honesty, it’s okay to encounter other humans in the wild. We are not at a point yet where you need to lock yourself in your house and never see another human.

Alex Abad-Santos

That takes away some of the fear. So if you don’t feel well on the date, you should also be open in saying to someone that you don’t feel well. “Can I please cancel?” And the person being canceled on should also be a little bit more considerate in this time of coronavirus.

Anna Muldoon

Absolutely. Now, in reality, I would love it if people would do that all the time, partly because it’s better for all of us as humans if we’re kind to each other like that, but also partly because flu season happens every year.

Flu, for most people, is not a big deal. But for some people, it’s a really big deal. It’d be great if we could establish a dating culture where if you’re not feeling it that night because you don’t feel good or you just feel crappy and tired, you can say, “Hey, can we reschedule?” And not have it be a crisis.

Alex Abad-Santos

So, this next one is spicier. One-night stands. Yes, no, maybe so?

Anna Muldoon

All right, I hate to be this person … [laughs]

Alex Abad-Santos

Wait. Let me clarify that. This is from a purely scientific point of view. We don’t kink-shame here and are sex-positive. One-night stands can be great! From a purely scientific sense, what would science say about one-night stands in face of the novel coronavirus?

Anna Muldoon

Here’s the problem with the one-night stand: There’s a little less conversation that happens to make sure that people are making good decisions [from a health perspective]. If you’re in a place where there’s almost no transmission yet, it’s probably okay.

I might take it as a moment to do a little bit of getting on my online flirting skills — have slightly longer chats with people — and I would probably avoid the right-now decisions. I hate saying that, but it’s quite probable that people are a little bit less upfront with each other in situations like that than they are if they’ve been talking for a minute.

Alex Abad-Santos

It seems like the go-to rule is that you don’t feel good, don’t go to the bar, don’t go on the date, don’t go to the club. And in doing so, you’re probably helping out people who do want to have a good time and are feeling great.

Anna Muldoon

Exactly. If you think there’s even a minor chance that you’re feeling bad and you just feel bad for whatever reason, please don’t go to the bar, please don’t get on Grindr or Tinder for a hookup that night.

Alex Abad-Santos

There’s no graceful segue here, but let’s talk about hookups and sex.

A colleague of yours, Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist, told me that there’s no evidence yet that the coronavirus is sexually transmitted, but kissing is perhaps the riskiest thing you could do with another person when it comes sexual activities and transmitting it.

So ... are things like oral sex, vaginal sex, anal sex, and handjobs less risky than kissing?

Anna Muldoon


Yes, that’s true. Here’s the thing, yes, kissing is probably the most efficient way to spread the virus. [Covid-19] does not appear to sexually transmit. However, all sex is close contact. You’re breathing on each other, you’re hopefully touching each other a lot. I guess I could imagine everybody showering, sanitizing yourself when you came into the house, and showering beforehand and making sure you’re never face-to-face, but it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

The short line on this is all sex is close contact. It’s the definition of close contact. So there’s no way to have it without risking transmission.

Alex Abad-Santos

Or if you’re just into the masks! But I guess that’s probably more of a fetish.

Though I suppose if you’ve hacked sex to involve sanitizing, not breathing or sweating on each other, not ever facing each other, and still can find fun in it — more power to you.

Can we talk about couples? Should anyone in existing relationships be changing their sexual behavior? What if someone you love (or kinda love) sniffles? Is it time to lock them in their rooms?

Anna Muldoon

No, I don’t think you need to run screaming out of your house if your partner sniffles.

People have maintained families and relationships through outbreaks before. If you’re living together, if one of you gets sick, it’d be great if that person could sleep in their own room and you can try to disinfect the things that you share. It’s probably not 100 percent possible, but there’s some pretty good advice out there on what to do if one person in a house is sick and the other isn’t.

This is a little bit harder in the very tiny city apartments, I know. But if you live together, you’re not going to move out because your partner’s sick, because you probably love them and don’t want them to be sick by themselves.

However, if your partner starts to not look great, they should call ahead to their doctor and get checked out. Always, by the way, if you need to go to the hospital for coronavirus, call ahead. If you just feel crappy and you’re worried about it, call your doctor and go to your doctor’s office instead of going to the hospital when you’re not having hospital problems.

Alex Abad-Santos

But if they sniffle or cough, it’s more than okay to shoot them an “Are you feeling okay?”

And, on the other side of this, a partner or housemate who has the sniffles should be a little bit more accommodating in answering that kind of question, and not get defensive?

Anna Muldoon

Yes, this is a good moment to practice kind and open discussions about health in relationships. I do want to make one other point on the relationships.

If your partner is immunocompromised, HIV positive, autoimmune suppressant, be a little more careful. [With] chemo — all the things that increase people’s risk for getting infections — be a little more paranoid. Be aware of your partner’s general health, and if your partner has anything that puts them at higher risk for infection, then be more careful. Because that’s a different situation, and it’s worth being more cautious.

Alex Abad-Santos

I want to zoom out a little. Socially speaking, can we still go out to bars and restaurants? Do we draw the line at concerts maybe? What’s your guidance?

Anna Muldoon

Historically and currently, one of the best public health measures we have for something like this, where we don’t have a vaccine, is social distancing.

That means canceling concerts, canceling large events. They just canceled the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade; a lot of academic conferences happen in the spring and everyone’s canceling them because it’s just not worth the risk of concentrating large groups of people in the same space.

So concerts are probably not a great idea, particularly huge ones. I would not go to a 10,000-person concert right now, but I’m probably still going to go to my local pub after work for happy hour to see my friends. There’s a big difference between small community and a whole bunch of people coming from all over the place to concentrate themselves in a small space. Now, to be fair, if my area ends up with a lot of transmission, I might think twice about going to the bar.

Alex Abad-Santos

Can you say more about that? Does that mean if I’m in a place — a neighborhood or city — where cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed?

Anna Muldoon

Sure, yeah. If you’re seeing multiple cases in your neighborhood, I might think about going out a little less, Purell-ing your hands more, and thinking a little harder about going to a packed bar. A packed bar is a great space to transmit something where everybody’s touching the bar, and everyone’s bumping into each other.

In some historical outbreaks, they have closed places like movie theaters and concert halls and sometimes museums.

[Note: I spoke to Muldoon before Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the National Guard’s deployment to New Rochelle, a city in Westchester County.] New York has not done that yet. I have deep faith in the New York City Department of Health, in all honesty. They’re really good and really smart. If they think that those are necessary measures across cities, they will tell people and they will make it happen.

Alex Abad-Santos

This brings me to my last question. And I think I know your answer.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that there is a giant gay disco dance party at the end of the month where maybe, perhaps, there’s a lot of making out in a sweaty dance hall. I’m guessing that’s probably not a good idea to go to — hypothetically speaking for my hypothetical friend.

Anna Muldoon

That is probably not a good idea at the end of this month, unfortunately. I know they’re super fun, but that is probably not a good idea right now.

I saw this thing that Coachella is moving to October; a lot of the big concerts are negotiating to move after summer. I would say it’s maybe not the best time to do a giant concert where everyone makes out.

Alex Abad-Santos

Okay. My friend will be very disappointed at the end of the month.

Anna Muldoon

I know.

Alex Abad-Santos

So we should be more open and honest with each other and ourselves about being sick. And also remember that we’re also human and that humans before us and humans after us have maintained and will maintain relationships, including physical ones, during outbreaks. And hypothetically speaking, a certain hypothetical sweaty gay disco dance party, and other events like it, are probably not a great idea to host or attend right now.

Is there anything else we should know?

Anna Muldoon

The real point is, particularly since you’re in New York, pay attention to what the Department of Health is saying. The New York Department of Health is great, they have great information, and they are one of the best public health departments in the country. They will tell you if things change and you need to be more paranoid, they really will. It’s a bonus to living in New York City.

Alex Abad-Santos

One of the many! Or few! All depending on how you feel about New York City, especially right now.

Anna Muldoon

There may be a lot of downsides, but New York’s Department of Health is definitely an upside!

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