Alberta Health Services suggests “masturbation in a private setting.” Toronto Public Health endorses “consensual sexting, virtual sex or video dating.” And the BC Centre for Disease Control proposes “barriers like walls (e.g., glory holes) that allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact” – a startling recommendation from a provincial service that garnered international headlines and much teasing.
Health authorities across the country have taken it upon themselves to educate adults on how to have sex during a pandemic, with mixed results. But for all the tittering about government-sanctioned sex acts, the question of intimacy and COVID-19 remains a serious one, particularly as communities reopen and people start dating out in the world again. Now more than ever before, sexual health experts are urging partners to respect and be honest with each other: Nothing is casual anymore.
“If you’ve had exposures that put you at higher risk then you really need to let your partner know, so they can decide whether they want to accept those risks for themselves,” said Dr. Jennifer Blake, chief executive officer of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, which released its FAQ “Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Sex and COVID-19” in April.
While there is currently no evidence to suggest the virus can be sexually transmitted through semen or vaginal fluid, health experts note that any close physical contact brings with it increased risk – not just for partners but for others in their lives.
“The difference now is the potential to cause harm to people outside the relationship, from decisions you make within it,” Dr. Blake said.
The guidelines advise delaying sex for those who have recently travelled, been exposed to the virus or are experiencing symptoms. They recommend keeping sex in-house with cohabitating partners, discouraging sex with people outside the household. “Having anonymous partners or partners whose personal information is unknown” can hinder contact-tracing efforts, according to Quebec’s recommendations. For those hooking up anyway, health experts ask them to use barriers such as condoms and dental dams and routinely check in with each other about any symptoms or possible exposure to the virus. “Consider only having sex with one person at a time,” reads the “Safer Sex During COVID-19” guide from Manitoba’s Sexuality Education Resource Centre.
Always important, sexual consent is especially critical now, experts say.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is very stressful. Due to stress, some individuals may be less interested in or able to engage in sexual activity, while others may be more interested in sexual activity,” read guidelines from the Sex Information & Education Council of Canada released in April. “Consent to sexual activity by all partners is essential.”
Health authorities continue encouraging technology such as video dates, phone calls, sexting and online chat rooms over face-to-face contact. Experts advocate masturbation as the safest sex of all right now: It’s solo, and “a good source of comfort in this time of stress,” according to Alberta Health Services.
Toronto sex educator Eva Bloom likes that all the COVID-19 intimacy guides tout masturbation and sexting as healthy alternatives to partnered physical sex. Research has found that sexting helps people communicate their desires, while masturbation gives them a better sense of their bodies, Ms. Bloom said. She hopes the new health guides might help normalize these sexual behaviours and expand some couples’ repertoires.
“Maybe we’ll come out of this with some skills about how to talk about sex with each other a little bit better,” Ms. Bloom said. “We know that sexual communication is linked to sexual satisfaction.”
The hallmark of the Canadian guidelines, Ms. Bloom said, is that they are all sex positive: No one’s shaming people for wanting to bed each other through a global health crisis.
“For so many people, sex is an important and necessary part of their lives and they will continue doing it regardless of what’s going on. The intention was to make that safer in the context of this pandemic,” said Troy Grennan, who was part of the working group that created British Columbia’s sexuality resource, which includes the now infamous “glory hole” reference.
Released earlier this month, the resource also suggests people avoid kissing, choose sexual positions that limit face-to-face contact and wear a mask. Asked how realistic these tips are, Dr. Grennan replied that it’s not a prescriptive how-to guide but a list of options.
“Personally, the thing that does stand out to me are the masks. For most people, that would be a very weird thing to do. It’s not really how we function. But it might be okay for some people,” said Dr. Grennan, physician lead for the provincial HIV/STI program at the BC Centre for Disease Control.
Pandemic or not, it’s key that public-health guidelines reflect how people actually have sex, said Lyba Spring, a retired sexual-health educator who worked for Toronto Public Health for 30 years.
“In the same way people used to joke about wrapping themselves in Saran Wrap, you can only ask so much of people,” Ms. Spring said. She argues that instead of fixating on COVID-19-proof sexual positions, people who are dating need to more carefully consider their social bubbles.
“If you think that there’s potential in a relationship, then the first thing that has to happen is that they get invited into your bubble – and that the people in your bubble agree to admit them,” Ms. Spring said.
At the two Vancouver clinics where he works, Dr. Grennan said he’s fielded questions from people concerned about dates at others’ homes – within new household bubbles.
“It’s like those old sex-ed videos: ‘If John has sex with Mary, he’s having sex with everyone Mary’s had sex with.’ Those little stick figures just keep multiplying.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.