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The new rules of sex

In the Covid-19 era, health officials are urging lovers to don masks, embrace monogamy, stop kissing, and start improvising. But will we listen? Five experts weigh in.

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.

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Part of the Romance Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

The coronavirus pandemic will change the way we live for many more months, if not years. Concerts now seem like potential hot zones. Gyms and restaurants are cutting capacity in order to operate. No one’s rushing to go back to their open-plan offices anytime soon.

We may also have to rethink everything about the way we have sex with people we don’t already live with, making dating more fraught than it already is. (Among the suggestions: Maybe wearing a mask or maybe doing it with the aid of a partition, should we want to do it at all). Health officials say refraining from in-person, human-to-human contact — abstinence, as many of us remember from sex-ed — is the only sure-fire way to cut the risk of transmitting Covid-19. Each person we come into contact with raises that risk, and it’s still too early to tell what antibodies mean in terms of reinfection.

But, in this case, when one door closes, another kinkier one may open.

New York City’s health officials, in their new “safer sex” directives issued this month, heartily endorsed glory holes, masks, and sexual positions in which partners aren’t facing one another. How blunt and saucy these kinds of directives are vary by state or city: Oregon has a cute emoji-laden infographic, while Austin Public Health’s advice, contrary to the city’s “Keep Austin Weird” motto, is pretty straightforward and demonstrably not weird.

Either way, “Have all kinds of sex except in all the prudish ways you were taught,” is what officials seem to be saying. And some people are cocking their eyebrows and double-checking the bullet points to make sure the blush-inducing decrees aren’t a typographical error or the work of a hacker.

But the recommendations are real, sex-positive, and for our own good. The coronavirus spreads through respiratory droplets and close contact, making partner-facing sex and kissing risky. Sex with people you don’t live with, one-night stands, and friends with benefits all heighten that risk.

And while it was relatively easy to not see anyone during the early stages of the pandemic when shelter-in-place rules were in effect, it seems less and less feasible as months go by and the cravings for human intimacy kick in.

So, how do we balance the urge for sex and our care for our own health? Should our feelings about sex change? Do our habits change, too? Are leg-cramp-inducing positions and stuffing genitalia through wooden holes really our sexual future?

Vox asked a few experts — doctors, epidemiologists, sex therapists, sex workers — about what they’ve seen during the pandemic and what they believe the future of sex and dating will be. Their answers, edited for length and clarity, are below.

Justin Lehmiller

Research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and author of Tell Me What You Want

Our research on how this pandemic is affecting people’s intimate lives reveals that some people are less sexually active than usual right now, others are reporting no changes in behavior, and some are actually more active than they were before and are pursuing new partners. There are a lot of reasons for this variability in sexual behavior, but it does seem to stem, at least in part, from the fact that not everyone has the same level of concern about contracting Covid-19.

What this means for the future is that we’re going to see a wide range of reactions as we come out of lockdown. For those with low levels of concern, we’re likely to see them going about their intimate lives as usual, with some perhaps even becoming more sexually active for a while in order to make up for lost time.

For those with higher levels of concern, however, sex — and casual sex in particular — may well become a totally different ballgame. They may view sex as particularly risky for their health and, therefore, abstain for a while or perhaps approach it more cautiously, such as by having more extensive conversations beforehand regarding health status and symptoms and/or becoming more selective about their partners.

Covid-19 may become a long-term stressor in their lives, and one of the things we see in our research is that the more stressed people are about the pandemic, the less desire they report for sex at all.

There’s also a delicate balancing act to follow when it comes to how we think about Covid-19 and how we think about sex.

We need to be careful when it comes to heaping even more stigma on sex because there’s already so much shame as it is — and the effects of sexual shame are not good. The more shame people feel about sex, the less likely they are to communicate about it, the more sexual problems they experience, and the less likely they are to get tested for STIs.

Long-term abstinence, especially when it’s not by personal choice, is something that most people find very difficult to stick to. We need look no further than how teens respond to abstinence directives in their sex education courses: Those policies do little to curb sexual behavior, and some research has shown that abstinence-only education actually leads to even riskier sexual behavior.

Rather than simply saying “Don’t have sex right now,” maybe we should be encouraging people to use this time to explore their sexuality, to educate themselves about sex, and to learn more about their bodies so that when we come out of this, perhaps we’ll be in a position to have even better sex than we were having before.

Also, for those who don’t see long-term abstinence from in-person sexual activity as a viable option, there are things we can do to encourage safer-sexual practices during this time, including having just one consistent partner, regularly checking in with each other about symptoms, and considering lower-risk activities, such as masturbating together.

One of the things we’ve seen in our data is that people who are consensually non-monogamous are adapting their relationships to fit their concerns about the pandemic by adopting various strategies to reduce risk. For example, some are temporarily limiting physical contact to the partners they live with, while relying on virtual activities to maintain other relationships.

A potential silver lining to this pandemic is that it does seem to be increasing sexual communication overall. Our participants tell us that they’re communicating more about risks and how to reduce them; however, they’re also telling us that they’re having more conversations about sex and sexual desire more broadly. To the extent that this situation gives us the prompt we need to start having more conversations about things like risk and desire, that could be a very positive development for our sex lives going forward if the trend persists.

Jimanekia Eborn

Queer media consultant, sex educator, and sexual assault and trauma expert

For some folks, ’Rona being in town did not stop them from still doing what they wanted to do [sexually]. I would hope that things would change. I would hope that it would force folks to have more communication and be honest.

But am I 100 percent sure that it is the case? Not at all. Because there were plenty of folks still on the dating apps and meeting up and having sex.

I do believe that there will be folks that see this as an extra barrier to connection, which will force more communication.

Now, we have to worry about coronavirus as well as STIs. But we can still be sex-positive, we can still be pleasure-positive and take care of ourselves and each other. It is going to force folks to have more conversations and explore different ways to share pleasure. This is where people have to be creative and continue to realize that there is not one way to have sex. Or one way that sex looks.

Folks are already getting frustrated and acting on their desires. I hope that people are being safe, and if they are going to go out and fornicate use whatever precautions that they can: dental dams, different positions, condoms, communication — all these things may help.

But intimacy does not have to be in person. We have a tool that most of us use every single day: The internet. We live in a time where dating apps exist; video chats and cellphones are also really great. Which can still allow you to see people and share intimate conversations.

For some people, there will be no change at all. While for others, it is going to make them question themselves and others. [Covid-19] has changed so much already; it has slowed down folks. I know the sluts in my life are already brainstorming what being a slut is going to look like during all of this. And what that even means anymore.

Alice Skary

Professional dominant and model liaison for

When coronavirus started spreading across the United States and social distancing became the norm, I immediately canceled my flights and plans to film with video talent in other states.

It seemed silly at the time, when the virus was not yet that prevalent, but I felt it was irresponsible to travel when I could easily postpone my plans.

“Maybe we can reschedule for next month?” they would ask. Even while death rates continued to soar, they wanted to discuss traveling in close quarters to meet. I was frustrated by the requests, wondering how they could operate as though a global pandemic would no longer be a problem in just a few short weeks.

The more these inquiries persisted, I realized that their attitude wasn’t about the reality of the rampant pandemic we were facing, but rather that they simply wanted something to look forward to. They wanted the illusion of normalcy, the promises of life returning to how it was before coronavirus. They had to imagine it as a brief interruption of plans.

I feel very privileged facing this pandemic, as I do very minimal real-time sex work. Most of the time, my BDSM services are provided by phone, text message, or simulated by perusing my large catalog of fantasy videos. This means that my own income was only partially impacted by this crisis, whereas others found themselves financially devastated.

Even as digital sex work was booming, I noticed a sudden influx of demands for my in-person services. My feeling on this is that as many of their regular providers could no longer meet, they were scrambling to contact new potentials, hoping one of us would be desperate enough for cash that we’d risk our health for a meet-up.

One of the other trends I’ve observed is that although in-person contact has become necessarily taboo, people seem to also fetishize the accoutrements of our social distancing measures. Requests for performers to wear masks and gloves doubled, and even inquiries for taboo medical play began to grow.

Sexuality is powerful, and people become wired to fit that sexual energy into their lives no matter how they have to bend it to fit current events. Even I have struggled a bit with loneliness. I live with a housemate who I am not sexual or romantic with, and have my sexual relationships more casually and infrequently. And a lot of my sexual relief comes from my work, whether on video with co-stars or occasionally providing BDSM services to clients.

I noticed some changes in how I think about sex and romance. I haven’t wanted a live-in romantic partner for years, but suddenly, I started to imagine what that would look like, and crave it. I even started to regret every casual hook-up and playdate I’d declined in the last year. I would have entertained more attempts at courtship if I had realized the opportunities would come to a self-imposed end.

David Bell

Associate professor of population and family health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Sex and intimacy are human needs, with the understanding that sex and engagement in sexual behaviors lie along a continuum for any population. From my patients’ stories, their overall lives were modified, but their sex lives remained relatively consistent for their normal.

For the record, we had a long way to go to improve our sex positivity before the pandemic. What we don’t know is how individuals are managing their risk in these circumstances. Are they using personal screening questions, like ‘Are you sick with Covid-19?’ or ‘Do you have a fever or cough?’ Some sites have structured risk management of HIV exposure by having options of disclosing HIV status. That may be an addition to the [dating] apps and sites in the future.

We know that close contact with someone who is infected is the risk via droplet transmission. Self-masturbation is not a risk. With some humor intended, masturbation with someone while keeping social distance is also not a risk. With the exception of analingus (rimming), oral sex or any intercourse is not currently known to be a risk via the transmission of sexual fluids.

I don’t think that the pandemic will change what and how we think about romantic relationships. Our concepts of romantic relationships were evolving before the pandemic. I do not suspect it will change concepts of infidelity. Open relationships and the navigation of open relationships may change to some degree, though I doubt that, since HIV didn’t truly change the concept or navigation of open relationships. Polyamory has had growing acceptance. Polyamorous relationships and gatherings may adapt, just as they did in the face of HIV.

I don’t think monogamy will increase or change at all. Neither do I anticipate increased responsibility. I am not seeing anything to suggest any differences in sexual behaviors just weeks after our peak. In fact, many are seeking testing, which suggests that individuals are still engaging in sexual activity and without condoms. I haven’t really asked whether they wear masks.

Sean Zevran

Gay porn star and activist

Until nations get a handle on [coronavirus], a lot of sex work will take place online; however, the unfortunate truth is that a great deal of it will still take place offline, as in person-to-person contact, against the suggestions of physical distancing protocol. And before people dive straight into moralizing this phenomenon within our industry, they would do well to inform themselves of the socioeconomic dynamics [it] has forced upon us.

In essence, this pandemic has exposed capitalism for what it is: the preservation of the white hegemony at the expense of people of color. The miserable failings of the United States government are writ large across all walks of life, save that of the wealthy in this country.

Personally, I do not feel as if I’m as much at risk based on the data we have thus far, albeit of course I’m more at risk each time I choose to violate physical distancing protocol. And yes, there are times I will choose to violate physical distancing.

While I have been largely respectful of the suggestions made by medical professionals, President Trump, along with too many others, has completely botched the US response to the novel coronavirus. This fact, as well as the disgusting response (i.e. show of force) of police and the state against Black Americans and the protesters supporting us, show us the social contract is broken. Our government has completely, utterly failed.

I’m not worried at all [about the stigmatization of sex] any more than it has been historically. You’re not going to stop human beings from having sex, least of all gay men. Besides, combating stigma has more or less defined my whole-ass life.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior culture reporter for Vox.

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