“You are your safest sexual partner.”
For many of those who are single or partnered but living apart, those six words – famously uttered by New York City’s health authority at the start of the coronavirus pandemic – are a recipe for dread.
Over two months into lockdown, many have gone without sex, without a kiss, without so much as a hug, and the sheer thirst has begun to feel crushing for many who are itching for an answer to one very loaded question: When can we hook up again?
The answer is not ideal.
While the province may have started reopening, physical distancing measures are still in place, requiring everyone – even couples who are very much in love – to remain two metres apart.
After all, we know that COVID-19 is transmitted between people through respiratory droplets from, for example, a sneeze or a cough. Droplets can travel, too, and land on surfaces. Now imagine if someone’s hand touches that surface, then their nose or mouth.
This makes kissing or hand-holding present significant risks even if your partner appears to be well, they may actually be asymptomatic. If you or they live with family, friends or roommates, the danger extends to them, not just between you.
Although Ontario’s ministry of health has yet to issue any official guidelines, officials in B.C. have spoken on best dating practices as that province hits the second phase of reopening.
“This is not the time to do rapid serial dating, OK?” B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told reporters this month. “So pick somebody, see if it works and then take your time.”
She urged B.C. residents who were feeling ill to stay home (and stay solo) for the time being: “If we’re feeling the least bit ill or if we’ve been in contact with somebody who’s ill, then we need to keep our distance and keep our germs to ourselves for a while.”
In order to answer this question in more detail, the Sexual Information and Education Council of Canada recently joined forces with Trojan to release specific guidelines on what you can and can’t do.
While you may have been hit with carpal tunnel by now, masturbation does indeed remain your best route to pleasure, because – say it with me now – “you are your safest sexual partner.” Just wash your hands and your sex toys before and after.
You must continue to avoid physical sexual contact with people outside your household or having them come to your home. If you are living with your sexual partner, and neither of you have shown symptoms of COVID-19, you don’t need to follow physical distancing measures, but it’s still important to continue using contraception, particularly with less access to different forms of birth control and STI testing right now.
It might also be useful to establish physical and emotional boundaries, as many are experiencing increased stress and anxiety. That also means while some people might be more interested in sexual activity, others might be less so. Either is okay – but that discrepancy might be all the more reason to communicate about what you want and what you need.
In fact, says Jessica Wood, a SIECCAN research specialist and the co-writer of the above guidelines, “Communication is key to getting through this, so that partners can develop skills to help maintain and enhance their sexual health and well-being both during the pandemic and moving forward.
That means determining your respective risks of getting or passing COVID-19, talking about whether you’re feeling well and have had any symptoms, or whether you’ve gone outside of your agreed upon boundaries,” says Wood. That way, you’re prepared for when it does become okay to meet or decide when it might be safe for you.
“It can mean communicating your sexual preferences, your boundaries, your likes, your dislikes,” she adds, noting that it can be useful to reframe this as a time to sexually explore and get to know each other on a deeper, more intimate level.
“We know that engaging in novel activities together can really bring people closer, and a lot of the time that’s done when you’re dating in person, but those things can also happen virtually. It may not be ideal, but as things change, there will be different ways people can connect in various circumstances.”
So while there might still be a fear and stigma to abstinence, this period doesn’t necessarily mean sex is off the table. There are many ways to forge a virtual sexual connection, whether it’s through sexting, phone sex, mutual masturbation, using new sex toys, trying new media or indulging in fantasies you’ve never discussed before.
Still, there will be those – and certainly have been those – who will no longer be able to resist and break the rules. In this instance, according to a guide by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, you should minimize travel between your homes, consider staying together, limit yourself to this one partner, and opt for someone who is living on their own.
“People are fatigued, so we know that some will inevitably not follow the guidelines,” says Wood. “You have to determine what that risk means for yourself and your partner(s) – and what it means for your immediate community that you live in, which could be your family or roommates, but also your neighbourhood.
“Then you have to consider, are you living in a more rural area where there are fewer cases, or are you living in a high-density city where there’s a centralized outbreak?”
The cost, in other words, is high, but so is the hunger. Still, just as before the pandemic, don’t let your partner pressure you into sex – physically or virtually – if that’s not what you’re comfortable with.
This time may be difficult, and we may not have any concrete dates we can look forward to, but it is all temporary.
“Things are changing so rapidly as we acquire new information, and conversations about risk may look really different in various parts of the country as we see the number of COVID-19 cases changing,” says Wood.
“People will have different risk levels depending on what they do, who they live with, and how much they follow the guidelines in general. Are you someone who lives alone and your partner lives alone? Because that’s a different situation than someone who lives with three other people, or with an aging parent or someone who has underlying health conditions. As reopening continues, everyone has to carefully self-evaluate, but it won’t be forever.”