Is casual sex in a time of the coronavirus a good idea?

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Over the past few months, we have all been adjusting to the idea of “the new normal” — working from home, wearing masks, and minimising our social exposure.

As South Africa has moved down in lockdown levels, we are interacting with others more than we have done for the majority of 2020.

And with December (the official month of Big Days) on the horizon, it’s easy to slack off on the social distancing and Covid-19 preventative measures that have governed our behaviour this year.

What is the risk?

After spending most of 2020 in varying stages of isolation, many people may be feeling a heightened need for human intimacy. However, as Alex Abad-Santos writes in Vox, “Sex with people you don’t live with, one-night stands, and friends with benefits all heighten [the risk of Covid-19 infection]”.

It’s another factor to consider if you are going to be meeting new people, dating or engaging in casual sex — along with the other precautions that have become second nature to (most of) us by now. Along with awareness of the risks of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and being mindful of personal safety, it is critical to consider the risks of Covid-19 infection as well.

It might be safe to say that this consideration should come easily at this point — after all, being closer than 1.5m from a stranger while grocery shopping is risky. Getting up close and very personal with someone you’ve just met is more than likely dangerous. Are you sure you can trust that your new partner has not been exposed to the virus? And, more importantly, are you sure that they would tell you if they had?

While there are growing movements in support of sex positivity, they are still relatively small and niche and, as a result, there is often a fair amount of shame associated with sex. With the added complexities of not wanting people to know that you are engaging in risky behaviour during a pandemic — and the fear of being judged — we could see sex shaming increase. But you don’t need to feel shame for wanting to have sex (regardless of the pandemic), instead you need to arm yourself with information to take as many precautions as you can.

Is it totally off the table?

“The pandemic has ushered in an era of radical honesty — not just with potential partners, but also with ourselves,” writes Mashable’s Anna Iovine. She goes on to highlight how, while the risks of STIs and unplanned pregnancy still exist, and we know how to handle them, the risk of Covid-19 exposure can be difficult to mitigate against. It is an unprecedented time and uncharted territory to navigate with someone you might just have met.

That risk is further influenced by an individual’s reaction to the virus itself. “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,” says Justin Lehmiller, psychologist and and author of Tell Me What You Want The Science of Sexual Desire and How it Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life.

Conversely, those who have higher levels of concern about Covid-19 may view sex (and casual sex in particular) as more risky and could potentially abstain for a while or be more cautious. Echoing Iovine’s sentiment around honesty, Lehmiller suggests that these individuals may have “more extensive conversations beforehand regarding health status and symptoms and/or becoming more selective about their partners”. Even if believe you’re being careful, without having these conversations openly and honestly, there is really no way to know what someone has actually been up to in the days and weeks before you have sex with them.

Some governments around the world implemented much more strict and specific directives regarding sex for their citizens — explicitly stating that sex with anyone that does not live with you is illegal. As happened in the UK, where the government instituted the “sex ban” in March 2020. In New York City, the state health department issued a guide to safe sex during the pandemic with tips on how to protect yourself from Covid-19 while engaging in sexual activity.

While South Africa did not institute any specific bans on sexual activity, there was a ban on sex work during lockdown when South Africans were only allowed to leave home for essentials. By implication, as people were not allowed to visit one another’s houses, casual sex with someone you do not live with was off limits as well. However, this is incredibly difficult to enforce and, unlike other countries, there was little guidance on safer ways to satisfy sexual needs.

No real way to know

Some of the risk-reducing recommendations made around the world were to not kiss, to wear a face covering during sex, and to choose positions where you are not face-to-face with your partner.

According to the guidelines from NYC Health: “If you do have sex with others outside of your household, have as few partners as possible and pick partners you trust. Talk about Covid-19 risk factors, just as you would discuss PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis], condoms, and other safer sex topics. Ask them about Covid-19 before you hook up”.

While we know that Covid-19 spreads through viral particles in saliva, mucus or breath from people carrying the virus (whether or not they display symptoms), there is still little known about how the virus may be transmitted during sex.

Whether Covid-19 is spread through vaginal or anal sex is unknown, but it is known that other coronaviruses (a large family of viruses that are known to cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases) do not spread through sex easily.

This means that it is not likely that sex is a common way for Covid-19 to be spread. However, the virus has been found in the semen, urine, and faeces of people with Covid-19 and, according to a 2020 study into the clinical characteristics of semen tests among men with Covid-19, it was found that the virus “can be present in the semen of patients with COVID-19, and… may still be detected in the semen of recovering patients”. Studies on the presence of the virus in vaginal fluid have shown negative results.

Ask directly, answer honestly

Even if someone does not present with symptoms (and, therefore, may not know if they had been infected), the virus may still be present in their semen or saliva. The safest sex, according to medical advice, is masturbation, or sex with someone that lives with you — but only if you can be sure that they have taken all the safety precautions possible when out of the house.

Infection is something you simply cannot be certain of with a stranger that you met on a dating app or in a bar, particularly because the results of a Covid-19 test are only valid up until the time of testing. Beyond that, you and your partner cannot know if either of you is carrying the virus when you have sex.

With these risks in mind, it is important to have straightforward and honest conversations and make the choices you are most comfortable with when it comes to your own safety. By directly asking your potential sexual partner about their movements, their feelings about Covid-19-related risks, and their possible exposure, you can determine how risky a sexual encounter might be.

The best thing we can do, from a personal and public-health perspective, is to move away from the stigma associated with casual sex and instead promote a sex-positive approach that keeps everyone as safe as possible.

This article first appeared in the December 2020 print edition of S Mag.