What Constitutes “Safe Sex” During a Pandemic?

We know what safe sex means when it comes to preventing STIs, but the rules for COVID-safe sex are a lot less clear

September 4, 2020 9:12 am
pandemic safe sex
STIs aren't the only safety concern we have to think about in the bedroom these days.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

After exchanging nudes with a guy I was messaging recently on Grindr, he asked if I wanted to come over and “breed his hole.” Before I could reply, he followed up, “Have you been safe with COVID?”

I don’t think anyone is actively attempting to be unsafe during the pandemic — even those refusing to wear masks or attending music festivals. Presumably, these people simply don’t see COVID as a risk to their safety, or think it’s highly improbable they’ll contract it, so they, too, view themselves as being safe.

That’s the issue with the term “safe:” it’s relative. Actions one person may consider safe during a pandemic another person may not. Our understanding of what is safe is also changing daily. “Just like with HIV in the ’80s, there’s brand new information coming out every day,” says Perry N. Halkitis, Ph.D., MPH, Dean of the School of Public Health at Rutgers University. “And there’s so much we still don’t know about the virus.”

This lack of information makes it impossible to have a unified agreement of what constitutes “safe sex” during a pandemic. STI prevention isn’t the only health concern we have to think about in the bedroom these days, and while health officials have attempted to lay down guidelines for COVID-safe sex, it seems everyone’s more or less playing by their own rules. Abstinence may have been an option when we thought this deadly virus would be contained in a matter of weeks or even months, but avoiding sex indefinitely is no longer a feasible course of action for many. People want to have sex, and they’re going to have it one way or another.

I am one of those people, and I’ve struggled with the best way to do it “safely.” After my exchange with “Daddyshole69” — not his real name — I began wondering what really constitutes safe sex in a pandemic. So, I asked around to see who’s been fucking.

Sophia, 27, a born and raised New Yorker, has had sex with roughly 30 people since April. She’s been tested for COVID and antibodies twice; each time, both results came back negative. At the beginning of the pandemic, she only had sex with people she’d already slept with — her primary partner, a former lover and artistic collaborators. She asked each of them whom they’d been seeing and the last time they were tested for COVID, maintaining an honest and open line of communication with those partners. It wasn’t until July that she took up with a new partner, and only after he conveyed that he had tested positive for antibodies.

The presence of antibodies, however, is likely not a useful metric when it comes to calculating COVID risk. “There’s no evidence that antibodies are protective,” Halkitis makes clear. “None, none, none.”

As of late, Sophia’s felt comfortable sleeping with more people without directly discussing their number of partners and COVID status because cases have been consistently low in New York. She’s also only having sex with folks in her sex-positive, polyamorous community. “Within my community, I feel safe because there’s a trust that exists among the members to be diligent with all forms of testing (STIs included),” she says.

Despite her many partners during COVID, Sophia says health and safety is still a priority she takes seriously.

“I do care about my safety and the safety of the people I play with,” she says. “I determine ‘safe’ sex on different scales.” When new daily cases in New York are high, she is more careful to only interact with a select group of partners. “When the count is steady or in decline, taking on new partners is a question of trust and my mental health needs,” she says, adding, “I stand behind my right to sexual exploration and to choose my level of risk as long as all parties are informed.”

That said, when she goes home to see her mom, who has an autoimmune disease, Sophia remains six feet from her, and they both wear masks the whole time. “My mom did buy a tarp that she wraps around me to hug me, though,” she says.

Will, 22, only began to hook up with guys starting in early July, once cases began stabilizing in New York. He’s hooked up with three guys, all strangers from Grindr and Scruff. He spent time getting to know each and would ask about the number of recent sexual partners they’d had before meeting up. If a guy was vague or skittish in his response, he wouldn’t agree to meet.

Will believes each of his hookups were safe for different reasons. The first guy he hooked up with also hadn’t had sex with anyone else during the pandemic, while the second hookup consisted of what he considered a “partially distant” outdoor blow job. The last guy Will hooked up with claimed he had recently tested negative, and while they agreed not to make out, they found themselves kissing after 10 minutes in what Will admits was not his safest encounter.

“That’s the [same] issue with wearing a mask during a hookup,” says Halkitis. People will likely take them off, especially if they had a drink or two prior. “We know that people inconsistently wear condoms, and there’s no reason to believe that people consistently wear their mask while they’re having sex,” he adds. Unfortunately, “the minute you introduce emotion and passion,” rational thought seems to go out the window.

The only real way to remain safe, Halkitis makes clear, is to have a “small sex pod.” You only sleep with other people in that pod, and you all get tested consistently, he says. Of course, you need to really trust everyone in that pod, and the bigger the pod gets, the more you open yourself to contracting COVID. Nevertheless, “this behavioral strategy is your safest bet,” Halkitis says.

That’s sort of what Natalie, 36, is doing in Toronto. She’s gotten tested every two weeks since July, noting that it’s much easier to get a rapid test in Canada than in the United States. She’s hooked up with roughly a dozen people since April, enjoying “kinky cottage” weekends with her “sexy friends,” all of whom she knows and trusts. Everyone in attendance gets tested before going up for the sex-filled weekend, and so far, there’s been no issue with COVID within her large pod.

To Natalie, “safe sex” means hooking up with someone who “works from home, takes precautions in socializing and hooking up, gets tested regularly, isn’t cavalier about COVID, wears a mask in public spaces, and asks about my COVID safeness.”

For what it’s worth, I replied, “Yes,” to the guy who asked me about my own COVID safety. When I returned the question, he, too, said he’d been safe. When I followed up, specifically asking how many people he’d had sex with during the pandemic, he simply replied, “a lot,” before sending his address.

I know safety is relative — but so, too, is risk.

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