Sex and COVID-19: How to maintain good sexual health during the pandemic

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Graphic by Kash Patel

COVID-19 has impacted countless aspects of day-to-day life. The virus has altered how people approach various social activities and it’s reshaped what is now being seen as a “new normal.”   

For many post-secondary students specifically, dating and socialization are important parts of the university and college experience.  

With continually-changing public health guidelines regarding social bubble limitations, and the steady increase in COVID-19 cases the province has seen over the past month, dating and having sex can be difficult to navigate safely.  

Dr. Jessica Wood, lead researcher and sexual expert at the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, believes that spreading accurate, current information about how to maintain a healthy sex life, while supporting the fight against COVID-19, is imperative to overall wellness.  

“I think it’s really important that students are getting good information from trusted resources regarding both COVID-19 and sexual health. It’s also essential that students keep up-to-date with public health guidelines, know when and where to get tested for COVID-19 if you’re concerned and talk to their healthcare provider for sexual and reproductive healthcare,” Wood said.  

“In terms of lowering your risk of getting or passing COVID-19, when we’re thinking about sex and dating, we’ve got all of these different things that we’re [considering]. We often think about safer sex as in STI and pregnancy prevention, consent and a whole bunch of other things. But when we’re thinking about COVID-19, there is this extra layer around it that we need to think about.”  

When approaching safe sex, Wood encourages people to ask themselves and their sexual partners a series of questions that may affect each person’s potential risk of transmitting or contracting COVID-19. Doing so is important to ensure that the health of both parties is being taken into consideration.  

“We need to remember that COVID-19 is passed via respiratory droplets through close personal contact, which is what most types of sex involve. Right now, we’re seeing rising case numbers and the provincial public health guidelines around who we should be having close personal contact with are frequently changing,” Wood said.   

“It’s really important for students to think about the things also that come before sexual interactions. It’s things like assessing our own comfort, assessing our own risk levels, our own contexts — do we live with a bunch of people or do we live alone? Are we in a place where we have high-exposure to people on a daily basis? What about our partner, what is our partner’s risk-level?”  

“Setting boundaries — in order to help people find really good strategies to maintain and enhance their sexual health and relationships during the pandemic. I think it’s beneficial for people to balance their needs for both connection and safety and identify good strategies that work within the public health guidelines,” she said.  

Suggested alternatives to traditional, pre-pandemic dating and in-person sexual encounters include sexting, phone sex and video conferencing via social media platforms.   

“Students are usually living on their own, with their families, with roommates or non-romantic partners. That’s when these alternative and risk-reductive strategies come in. I think people are really creative, first of all when it comes to connecting in new ways when it comes to dating and sex during the pandemic,” Wood said.   

“In terms of COVID-19 risk, the best options for things like dates with a new partner, someone outside of your household, include virtual and video dates, if you’re going to meet someone in person, going out for a physically distanced walk, particularly if you’re both wearing masks is going to be a lower risk than being inside an enclosed space together.”  

One of the most low-risk sexual activities to engage in during the pandemic is masturbation, especially if you’re remembering to wash your hands and sex toys.  

“Thinking more in terms of sexual behaviours, I think masturbation is a great alternative. You often hear the phrase ‘you are your safest sex partner’ when it comes to COVID-19 risk, that’s true. Masturbation is something that can be really fun and pleasurable and allows you to explore your sexuality without the risk of getting or passing COVID-19,” Wood said.   

“That’s also something you could do virtually with a partner as well. And so this leads to using technology as a way to connect with a partner. Online video dates and sexual interactions can be a great alternative. Though, it’s really important that we consider our own and our partner’s boundaries and think about the privacy levels of the platforms we’re using.”  

Students who are communicative with their partners about consent and boundaries while remembering to use barriers such as condoms if they choose to be sexually active in person, are necessary steps to be taken to ensure that both people are protected from COVID-19 and STIs.  

Wood believes that younger people currently have an advantage in the dating world — something that could ultimately help them explore romantic and sexual relationships in meaningful and fulfilling ways during COVID-19.  

“I do think that university-aged people have kind of a leg-up right now in that realm. They are very good at understanding how to keep relationships going, how to connect with people using online platforms,” Wood said.  


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