If you were locked down over the last months with your partner or partners, intimacy has likely been a key part of quarantine survival. But for those of us that are single or in non-monogamous relationships, our ability to attend to our emotional and sexual health needs was severely diminished. Abstinence or pleasuring ourselves with video, chats, sex toys, porn and our own imaginations kept us safe and alive. Now many of us are wondering how to reconnect in real time.
Desire and intimacy have always carried risks. During the previous pandemic, most of us had “the conversation” before sex, disclosing our HIV status. With Prep and U=U, these conversations have become less important. Recently, the New York City Health Department guidelines on sex and the Corona virus suggested that “If you do have sex with others outside of your household, have as few partners as possible and pick partners you trust.” Earlier, Dutch and Danish health officials have endorsed seksbuddy and partners as strategies for maintaining health during the pandemic.
In those lockdown months or the second stage many countries are facing, maybe you met someone on online or reconnected with a previous sex partner. Or perhaps, you have chatted with folks about starting a pod for more safely managing sexual contact. After months of texting or video-chats, you are itching to meet in-person. While you may have already figured out all of the things you want to do, before you can safely hook-up, you need have at least one more conversation. The following six questions will guide you and your potential partner(s) as you talk about consent and risk-taking. There are no right or wrong answers. And as I was to find out, the honesty and openness of the conversation deepened the real intimacy I was seeking.
- With whom, if anyone, have you been sheltering-in place? Your interactions with any household member mean being exposed to others or exposing them to you. Share information about your daily contacts with the people in your household, highlighting any of them more vulnerable due to age, health or other factors. And be aware that circumstances can change, as it did for me when a partner’s parent had emergency surgery, causing us to put a brake on meeting.
- Have either of you had any symptoms in the last 14 days? Those symptoms include: fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and loss or smell or taste. My seasonal allergies have some of the same symptoms, so I made sure my partner knew about that in advance so my sniffles would not be off-putting.
- Have you been in direct contact and/or sex with someone diagnosed with COVID or someone who is undiagnosed but is symptomatic? While most people with COVID -19 have symptoms, asymptomatic spread is possible. Generally, if you are healthy after 14 days of any type of exposure or possible exposure (e.g., if you have been in any large protests recently), your chances are low that you carry the virus.
- What masking, social distancing and health protocols do each of you follow? People have wide variations in how they handle these basic protocols and you want share how you attend to them. While the guy I was talking to had similar standards, they were not exactly the same as mine. We had to make sure each of was comfortable with the other. For example, my social distanced participation in recent protests caused my friend to require that I get tested before we met up again.
- Have you been diagnosed with COVID-19 using a nasal swab or saliva PCR test or tested for COVID antibodies? Testing is only useful, if you can get results back quickly. I was lucky to get my PCR test results in 24 hours, but if you have to wait a week or more and you have been out and about, the results will not mean much. According to NY Public Health Department, “people who have recovered from COVID-19 at least 10 days from the day their symptoms started and who have not had fever for at least three days are likely no longer infectious.” Currently, the length and type of immunity antibodies might confer is unknown. With low reliability rates, antibody tests may be worthless. However, in the future we should know more.
- Given that a person could be asymptomatic and still infect others, how do you feel about that risk? This might be the toughest question, in that it addresses your risk-taking/adverseness. While attending to all of the health protocols above will significantly lower the possibility of infection, there is still some risk through asymptomatic exposure. My friend and I talked about our willingness to address this unknown exposure. Since both of us had been going shopping and cautiously participating in the outside world, we had already knew that we were taking some chances, that others did not.
After this discussion, we felt a base for honesty and compassion had been established between us. We both admitted that the conversation was a challenge, since we were not talking about our attraction to each other or what we really wanted to do next. And remember at this step, you can hear all of the “right” answers and still decide that you are not ready. Just as BDSM has always acknowledged consent and we need to use the same practices for Covid sex. When desire takes over, our better judgments or questions are often thrown out in the rush. Asking these questions can equalize some of the typical power dynamics between men inching towards sex. One does not need to be a top or a Master, to lead the conversation. In my case, we gave ourselves more time to ponder the risks and our desires before making a decision.
When we decided to give it a shot, we went on to the bonus question:
- What types of sexual practices do you enjoy and what would be off-limits at least in the beginning?
Here is where consent and Covid converge. From the first questions, you explored your limits and your needs around meeting up in person. Without using the word — consent — you have been talking about it. Now, you can glide into your desires and expectations for sex itself. Be as specific as you talk about your kinks and desires. This part of the conversation will be filled with the anticipation and fantasizing that was missing earlier. Check in about any limitations or special needs for safe Covid sex that might now be your norm. With layers of leather, rubber or latex, you might find some imaginative ways to bring you kink into Covid.
Remember, the virus can only be passed if any of the participants are currently infected. For us, the questions showed us that trust can still exist during this time. Clearly, you can still follow these steps if you meet someone at a socially distant gathering or a bar when the re-open. Honesty is hot. Our conversations about Covid have not stopped but now they include much more. Sex, safety and fetish are still possible in our COVID world.
This piece was based on an essay published in the Bay Area Reporter on 3 September 2020 under the title of Six Questions to Ask Before Having Sex Again. It was modified and updated on 13 November 2020.