Is it safe to have sex while in COVID-19 quarantine? That depends, experts say: If you're living together in a long-term relationship and not sick, go for it. If you're hopping into bed with someone you just met, stop that right now.
At least one sexologist says there's evidence from her own practice that some people who claim to be following all the guidelines are instead taking risks when they think no one is looking.
"These individuals wear masks and gloves when in public but are privately pursuing new dates with people they’ve never met with no intention of maintaining social distance and with every intention of being physically intimate," reports Christine Hyde, the clinical director and senior therapist of the New Jersey Center for Sex Therapy, who has three offices and more than 145 patients.
The fact we're talking about this in public highlights a big difference from the last major pandemic, the influenza virus that emerged in 1918 and killed millions as it circled the globe. Back then, health authorities weren't issuing explicit instructions, advice and warnings about who can safely have sex and who shouldn't.
Now, for the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, sex talk is as routine in news headlines as other guidelines about washing your hands, staying at home and maintaining six feet of distance from others in public. But it's complicated because what those guidelines say about safe sex is not the same for everyone or every couple.
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The New York City Health Department's official guide to sex in the new era is frank and unambiguous: You are your safest sex partner.
"Masturbation will not spread COVID-19, especially if you wash your hands (and any sex toys) with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after sex," the two-page advisory says.
This is a message that sexologists like Jennifer Litner, founder of the Embrace Sexual Wellness center in Chicago, is pushing to her clients and friends: Follow the recommended guidelines and don't take unnecessary risks.
"Self-pleasure is the easiest and safest way to be sexual and the least risky to oneself," she says. She thinks the message is getting through, pointing to reports among her colleagues and in the media about the recent spike in sales of sex toys.
The mixed prescription about sex during the pandemic says partners in long-term relationships who are living together and aren't sick can indulge in all the mattress dancing they want – in fact, doctors say it's good for them. Sex is a stress reliever and who can think of a more stressful time than being cooped up indefinitely in fear of a killer virus and economic ruin?
But you singles accustomed to an active romantic life – dating, hooking up, having sex with whomever they want, whenever they want? Don't do that anymore, at least for the time being. To be clear: Don't have sex with someone who hasn't been living under your roof for a long while. That means no holding hands, no snuggling under the covers and definitely no kissing someone you just met.
"If you are at home with a partner (such as a spouse) in the same home, it's completely safe – have fun, enjoy yourself, it's time to get creative," says Katherine Zagone, a sexual wellness expert and medical director at a Gentera regenerative medicine center (using one's own body plus nutrients, exercise and hormones to heal after illness or aging) in Los Angeles.
Zagone says self-pleasure is OK but sex with a partner is better medicine: It increases oxytocin (the "love" hormone), reduces anxiety, stress, blood pressure and pain levels and in general improves mental and emotional health.
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"The research on sex shows it can improve the innate immune system, which is the first defense against a virus," Zagone says.
The coronavirus isn't a sexually transmitted disease: It spreads through such things as coughing, sneezing and saliva.
"Both semen and vaginal secretions have tested negative for COVID-19," says Renee Sorrentino, medical director at the Institute for Sexual Wellness in Massachusetts and an assistant professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "But since sex requires less than six feet of distance, it's impossible to navigate without the likelihood of droplet transmission."
That pretty much puts the kibosh on sexual intimacy with relative strangers. "If you're close enough to have sexual contact, you're close enough to have aerosol exposure," Zagone says.
Thus, the warnings against canoodling with someone new at this time. "You have to weigh the risks," Zagone says. "Have they followed the guidelines? Have they had close contact with others in the last six weeks?"
Sure, it's a downer to be alone without the comfort of human contact, she says, but your choices can affect a wider population. "This is a short blip in the history of humanity, so it's worth it to play it on the safe side," Zagone says.
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Ashley Spedale, a business branding coach in San Diego and a podcast host, has chosen as a single woman to take a positive view of the no-sex rule she is following when she meets people via online dating. She says the new reality helps slow down the jump-into-bed impulse, allowing her to get to know someone on "a deeper level" as a potential life partner without immediately taking off clothes.
"Right now, you don't really know where (new) people have been," Spedale says. "In the past, maybe I dove into things a little too quickly ...(Now) I want to create a bond and figure out whether they want the same thing I want," and the no-sex rules allow her to do that.
But according to Hyde, some singles in all age groups in her practice are finding it difficult to behave responsibly because of sexual frustration. She advises them to use social media and video chat calls as a way to connect with others in a safe manner.
"Some of them are taking things to the next level by (video) stripping and sexting," she says. "People who would not normally strip in front of a camera are now stripping in front of a camera. I have also found that pornography as a sexual outlet has been used at a higher level than pre-COVID."
More alarming are those married couples in her practice who were in open marriages or already having multiple clandestine affairs and now are flouting guidelines by continuing to take new lovers.
"They do risky impulsive and dangerous things to be with lovers," Hyde reports. "I find that upwards of 90% of this category of patients have taken that risk. This reflects that the drive to have sex outweighs the fear of contracting coronavirus."
She puts this down to a certain level of selfishness but it's also all about raging hormones (such as dopamine and adrenaline) circulating in the body of an average human in the early stages of a new relationship infatuation. "Impulse control is low and risk-taking is high" for these people, Hyde says.
Like everything else having to do with COVID-19, there's a lot we still don't know, including how the virus affects sex and relationships. But there's a study for that just starting at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. Researchers are seeking volunteers to interview to better understand the resulting societal changes and the new ways of coupling and uncoupling not previously seen or studied, the institute writes in an introduction to the project.
"Developing a better understanding of how people feel and behave in emergency contexts is important for both research and clinical practice, in order to plan for both positive and negative outcomes and prepare for events like this in the future."