So you may have noticed there’s a global plague happening right now. In the first part of a series on sex in the time of a pandemic, we look at how the age of COVID can affect people’s sex lives.
Franklin: Welcome to Skeptical Perverts, a podcast where we talk about two of our favorite things – sex and reason! These don’t normally go together, especially in our society that’s hostile to sex (and, frankly, to logic and reason and science as well), so we want to do something about that. I’m your host and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.
Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I have a background in human sexuality and relationship communication, I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.
Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, solopoly greysexual, bringing the East Asian British viewpoint and a touch of the genteel snark!
Franklin: We’ve been in the grip of a global pandemic for a year, and man, it’s been rough on a lot of people’s sex lives. So this is going to be a multi-parter on ‘Sex in the time of pandemic’. Starting us off today we’re going to talk about the mechanics of keeping yourself safe from COVID-19 whilst doing the naked mambo.
So, what does sex look like in an age of social distancing?
Joreth: HAHAHA what sex? I literally have not had sex since the first lockdown last March.
Eunice: I think I vaguely remember what sex looks like.
Joreth: On the one hand, having the low libido that is normally so problematic for my relationships because my partners get all upset that I’m not spontaneously aroused and initiating sex, has made the fact that I can’t have sex with anyone much, much easier.
On the other hand, I had finally gotten a couple of local-ish partners and was working on a couple more, and every single one of those got back-burnered thanks to this fucking pandemic and the country’s fucking response to it.
Eunice: In terms of different relationship styles, solo poly people are especially hard hit, I reckon. I mean, I might be biased, being solopoly myself, but having partners and knowing you still can’t actually see them in-person sucks. It’s practically taunting at that point. And no, nesting together would not make things better, assuming I even wanted to pick only one, because then I have to deal with the increased stress from having a partner around all the time! I don’t want romantic partners around all the time, that’s why I’m solo poly in the first place!
Joreth: Yeah, not only do I live physically alone, but almost all of my partners are long distance, so I couldn’t even couple-up with any of them temporarily even if I wanted to, which I don’t. I was prohibited from traveling at all, and if I wanted to violate the travel bans under the excuse that we’re quarantining together, it would have been a life-uprooting *move* across the country … during a pandemic.
It’s one thing if you live in the same city and decide to temporarily nest up together, because your house or apartment or whatever is still there and you can leave most of your things behind and take your necessaries and then just visit your house when you need to. But if you try to move in with a long-distance partner “temporarily”, that’s not a temporary move, that’s a real move.
And it would be a very foolish decision to decide to move in with someone for a minimum of a year (as it turns out) when you previously only spent the occasional weekend together.
Eunice: I’ll be honest, I could handle maybe a week living with my partners, and then there’s gonna be a murder. Justifiable homicide, in my mind, but they’re still very messy so let’s avoid that. It’s hell on the soft furnishings, doncha know.
Franklin: Even those of us who have live-in lovers have suffered. I think it’s easy to forget it’s not just physical risk and social distancing that clobbers sex, but stress too. COVID has hit a lot of people, even people in traditional live-together monogamous relationships, very hard indeed. It’s difficult to feel sexy when you’re worried about money or family or losing your job.
There’s a study that talks about the impact stress has on sex. The tl;dr:
Research has shown that stressors and experienced stress are negatively correlated with sexual activity (i.e., behavior and satisfaction) within couples.
So stress makes people have less sex and enjoy the sex they have less, which is kind of fucked up because sex is a great stress reliever.
And of course this is a bad time to be single. It’s almost impossible to go on dates right now, and shelter in place guidelines make meeting people in traditional dating venues almost impossible.
Eunice: I’ll be honest, I’ve gotten more propositions than ever since lockdown started. Or maybe that might more accurately be described as noticed more propositions. Turns out being flirt-blind doesn’t matter quite so much when you have to be really blunt in text to be understood anyway! In terms of sex itself, though, what’s some of the official advice we’ve seen about how to safely do the horizontal tango in these desperate times?
Joreth: Really, I haven’t seen much out there, officially, that wasn’t already standard safety advice, which is very frustrating. I spend a lot of time yelling at my monogamous social circles who seem confused as to how to have safer sex, that poly people already have those guidelines in place. Not that we’re all that great at *following* that advice, to be honest.
Eunice: True, consensually non-monogamous people are often already pretty au fait with sexual health advice, which has helped for sure. Open communication, frequent testing, and use of appropriate protection. What’s so hard to understand?
Franklin: We’ve looked at the official recommendations from health care providers, and for the most part, they’re about what you’d expect. Unsurprisingly, they’re largely focused on monogamous people’s sex, and their advice to folks who are single is largely absent.
There are a few surprises in there, though, like when the CDC and the British Columbia Center for Disease Control suggesting gloryholes as a way to have sex in the age of plague.
Joreth: Yes, they literally suggested glory holes, not even paraphrasing. Here’s the exact quote on British Columbia’s Centre for Disease Control’s website, from the second to last bullet point on their list of Steps To Protect Yourself During Sex:
“Use barriers, like walls (e.g., glory holes), that allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact.”
Eunice: My jaw is literally on the floor right now. And not even in the appropriate way to take advantage of this advice. What? This came from actual, official governmental recommendations?
Franklin: It would be interesting to learn that glory holes became all but extinct because of the HIV pandemic, then came back because of the COVID pandemic.
Joreth: There’s this article on Slate here, which is not anything remotely like a peer reviewed study, so take this with a grain of salt, but that talks about a resurgence in glory holes as a business because of the pandemic. According to Slate, people are using Grindr (naturally) and other unnamed “online directories” to find places that offer literally a hole in a wall for a penis to penetrate someone on the other side of the wall with no contact.
One man has been operating a glory hole business for apparently 20 years and says that his business has seen an “uptick” thanks to the recommendations from BC’s CDC and the New York City paper recommending glory holes. He also says that he’s been talking with other people on Twitter who have installed glory holes because of the pandemic, so he thinks it’s definitely growing.
Eunice: Other than our return to the, heh, glory days of the 70s, a lot of the advice earlier in the pandemic really reminded me of the abstinence-only sex ed programs, and we have numerous studies talking about how successful those were on preventing sexual activity. Which is to say, not at all.
Franklin: Yes. Human beings are sexually motivated, which means useful advice needs to account for that. “Just don’t” isn’t useful advice. Useful advice is about harm reduction, not moralizing or shaming.
Eunice: Fortunately, they seem to be doing a bit better in some of the examples we found! I really liked the San Francisco Department of Public Health guidance that they put out in September 2020. They have a nice little scale, for one thing, that goes from lower risk to higher risk activities without stigmatising or making assumptions about your relationship styles. And it mentions some things that I haven’t really seen in the other documents, like, quote:
“People are not positive or negative. Tests are. We know from other pandemics that it is important not to stigmatize people who are infected, or who test positive.”
Stigmatising people doesn’t help, and might just make it more likely they’ll hide symptoms. Admittedly, that’s not as likely with this pandemic as it was historically with others. So anyway, the activities they listed, in order of lower risk to higher risk are:
- Virtual sex, masturbation, sex talk, porn while alone or with someone in your household
Franklin: This one seems like a gimme to me. The only kind of virus you can even possibly transmit this way is the computer kind. A lot of folks worry, of course, about their pictures being spread out of their control, and that is a real risk, so some folks might not want to do this online. I do think that probably happens less often than a lot of folks think, though. A lot of people exchange sexy photos with each other! Maybe we should talk about this in a future episode.
Eunice: Yeah, watch this space! This next one is also obvious
- Sex with household members only, indoors or out
Although I do like that they mention outdoor sex! It seems like a lot of the advice assumes that you’ll always have your sex indoors, maybe in a nice comfy bed, since you’re living together anyway, which isn’t necessarily going to be the case for everyone. Getting caught for public indecency – or at least the risk of it – is one way to spice up your sex life, I guess!
Joreth: I like these next couple of bullet points because it doesn’t assume monogamy, or even cohabitation, unlike most of the other advice I’ve heard.
- Sex with a small, stable group of partners outdoors, or indoors with windows open and increased ventilation, touched surfaces and shared objects are wiped down
- Sex with a small stable group of partners indoors with little or no ventilation, all shared objects and shared touched surfaces are wiped down
These are both very similar except for minor differences, mostly having to do with ventilation. So let’s talk about that. There are a billion other podcasts and articles and websites elaborating on what we know of the novel Coronavirus known as COVID-19, but basically it’s a respiratory infection that is passed via water droplets that we spit all over people when we talk, sneeze, and just breathe.
The important part here, much like with “toxins”, is that dose matters. How concentrated your exposure is directly affects your risk level of getting a high enough viral load that your body can’t fight off, leading to you getting sick.
This is why outdoors is being recommended for any socializing that people absolutely must engage in – all the germy breath we keep breathing at people gets diluted with the massive amounts of air just generally outside hanging around the planet, so even if someone walks through a cloud of your lung vapor that you just expelled outdoors, it could get spread out so thin that the viral load isn’t high enough to “stick” in your body.
So, while you’re having sex, if you do it like it’s the First of May every day, you decrease your transmission risk. But if you’re indoors in a closed room with all that heavy breathing in each other’s faces, you’re basically drowning in each other’s germs.
Honestly, as someone with a chronic respiratory health issue, people’s willingness to casually kiss and get in each other’s face socially has always disturbed me more than high numbers of sexual partners. Barriers make activities like penetration a lot less life-threatening than, say, strangers invading my personal space and talking at me.
I might be an introvert.
Eunice: God knows I’m an introvert. And honestly, kissing in a respiratory pandemic is high risk, but then it always has been! We’ve just never treated it that way. And they pretty explicitly mention it in this last, highest risk, point too:
- Sex with more people, less distance, more time indoors with small and/or poorly ventilated spaces, close sharing of breath, lips, mouth, eyes, unprotected anal play, and all objects shared without wiping down
Franklin: This seems like it ought to be filed under “Should Be Obvious” to me. You’re concentrating virus-laden droplets in a small space and then locking lips with a bunch of other folks. I mean, c’mon, you’re almost trying to spread coronavirus!
Eunice: I’m bewildered that ‘unprotected anal play’ and ‘objects shared without wiping down’ even need to be included there. Like, who does that?
Franklin: Clearly, someone must be. Okay, if you’re listening to this podcast: Wipe down your sex toys before you hand them off to the next person if you aren’t fluid-bonded.
Joreth: I mean, warning labels exist because someone did that shit first, right? Also, even if you are fluid-bonded, you should be wiping off your sex toys before handing them to the next person, particularly if the next person is going to be inserting that toy into their vagina. Vaginas are notoriously finicky and will get yeast infections at the slightest provocation. Also, change your condoms between partners.
Eunice: I feel like saying “that doesn’t need to be said!” but thinking about people, it probably does. Condoms are single use only, folks. I’m pretty sure they come with an instructional leaflet that mentions that. Although it reminds me of those packets of nuts with the warning label “may contain nuts”. I mean, I certainly hope so, since I just bought a packet of nuts!
Franklin: Or shirts with the warning label “remove shirt before ironing.”
Joreth: OK, look, I tried to build a dance bubble using, basically, fluid-bonding guidelines. Like, we all agree not to dance with anyone other than us, right? So this worked for a while, and then my dance partner announced that he got cast in a play. A live play that was going to be performed live for a live audience right in the middle of the pandemic.
And that they won’t be wearing masks on stage. Because I guess you can’t act with masks on? So I pointed out the danger there of being on stage and acting in close contact with people without masks, and he says that they all wear their masks the whole time in rehearsal except for the part where they’re on stage.
Uh, dude, damage is done. You just spent an hour projecting into someone else’s face. That mask while you’re sitting in the seats on a break isn’t doing anyone any good anymore. And guess what? Half that cast ended up getting COVID. Someone’s grandfather got it, passed it to them, who promptly infected the cast.
So, yeah, I don’t have a dance bubble anymore. My point is that, yes, we apparently do have to tell people shit like “close sharing of breath” is high fucking risk during a respiratory pandemic.
Eunice: Did you see that image of the number of people who would get infected if you had a choir singing together? It’s not just the people directly around the infected person because guess what, air circulates and you’re puffing and blowing away up there! According to the CDC, there was a case of a choir in Skagit County, Washington, where one member had Covid-19. 87% of the group caught it! And most of them were probably not even facing each other directly, the way you might during a play!
Franklin: So what do you do if you’re at home, especially if you’re single, and you haven’t gone out or had sex in a year? I kinda feel the existing advice is largely “stay abstinent” and that’s not helpful. What do you do?
Eunice: Become asexual? I mean, it feels like that was my solution. ‘Solution’ may be too strong a word there, admittedly. In all seriousness, though…
Joreth: Yeah, I wish I had better advice, because all my partners were higher risk than I was comfortable with, like being a teacher in a state that opened up schools last Fall or too long distance and would require air travel to see, so I basically chose to be celibate all year. But being on the ace spectrum, I *could* do that. Although I think that even I am finding a limit to that about now.
Eunice: My biggest issue isn’t the lack of sex, it’s the lack of touch. Touch starvation is a real problem and I’m really missing cuddles.
Joreth: It totally is a thing! Right before the pandemic, I had been suffering from massive touch starvation because of how my previous relationship a couple of years ago ended, and I was posting about it. A friend who was suffering similarly propositioned me for a relationship I had never considered before – a cuddle partner. We negotiated it just like a regular romantic-sexual relationship, but with cuddling being our goal. And now, thanks to the pandemic, I can’t even get that much. But that’s also why I tried making a dance bubble – because I get some amount of intimate touch from partner dancing, but that also fell apart with other people’s unsafe socialization practices.
Eunice: Yeah, I went from doing partnered dancing and hosting meetups multiple times a week in 2019 to not being in the same physical space as anyone for most of 2020. So what to do?
Joreth: One solution is cuddle pillows! One of my partners and I, in the Before Times, used to exchange pillows when we visited each other – we’d sleep with the other person’s pillow during the visit, and then when we went back home, we’d take our respective pillows home that now smelled like the other person and we could cuddle … or, er, whatever, the pillow.
Eunice: And you can do the same thing with just wearing a t-shirt to bed for a while, and then posting them to each other. Put that t-shirt over a pillow you already own, and boom, your pillow now smells of your partner.
Franklin: Part of my solution has been writing far-future, post-scarcity erotic science fiction novels with Eunice. My sex life hasn’t been so great since COVID, but I’ve never been so creatively productive in my entire life. So maybe sublimation is a solution for some people?
Joreth: Maybe if anything good can come out of this, the pandemic can teach us to reexamine some of our unspoken assumptions about what our relationships can or should look like? Like, maybe Lucy and Desi from I Love Lucy weren’t completely prudish for having separate beds? I kinda think that practice ought to be making a comeback. I mean, share bed space when you want to, but does it have to be a default? And maybe some times ought to be deliberately slept apart. And designing our living space to accommodate that should be a little more common.
Eunice: I’ve been quite disappointed with the way that a lot of the polyamorous communities have gone rather mono-normative in response to this pandemic, even if I understand why. You’d think if anyone, it would be the communities that already have a wide diversity of relationship styles that would lead the way on how to think about and make space for safely interacting outside of nuclear households?
Franklin: I mean, it kinda makes sense, if the norm you grew up with is monogamy and you’re faced with a situation where you think meeting other people is inherently dangerous.
Still, there has to be a better way. If you don’t want to say “revert back to monogamy,” how do you have sex and keep it reasonably safe from the plague? Besides “gloryholes,” I mean. Not that I’m knocking gloryholes, but they’re not everyone’s hole in the wall, if you take my drift.
Eunice: So if we’re not saying “everyone should just use gloryholes”, what are we suggesting?
Franklin: One possibility is quarantining with more than one person, though that’s not available to everyone. Not all non-monogamous people are independently wealthy, after all! Of course, there’s always text sex and online cam sex, which is fun even though it doesn’t really give you that physical connection. Done creatively, it’s a blast, though it isn’t a substitute for human contact. And something that can be a lot of fun is reading erotica together…or hey, writing erotica together.
Eunice: Well, not everyone is us, but I can definitely confirm it can be great fun. 10 out of 10, would cause massive sexual frustration and wet dreams for a partner again!
Franklin: That’s because you’re terrible. Also, 10/10, can confirm.
Eunice: Well, thank you. Also phone apps to control remote sex toys, say by waking your lover up at 4am with a vibrator, are a thing. Which we’ll be talking more about in a future episode!
Joreth: I am a big fan of the remote controlled vibrator! I feel that it brings a sense of togetherness from a distance.
Eunice: Just, um, don’t forget to replace the batteries in the remote as well, if that’s important. You know, not that I’ve accidentally been sat in a Parisian restaurant going “Well where are we going to get Double A batteries at 9.30 at night in Paris??” or anything.
Joreth: LOL, yeah, my last partner that controlled my vibe ended up killing his phone while he was out and no chance to charge it, because he controlled it through his phone. And in one of my RC vibes, when the remote loses connection, the vibe just resets itself to STEADY ON and if you’re in a restaurant, it can be … inconvenient to reach down and turn it off manually. Fresh batteries!
Franklin: You heard it here, folks. Practice safe tech sex.
Eunice: Anyway, here’s a list of the basics from the Mayo Clinic, most of which are probably already obvious to you or we’ve already mentioned earlier in the episode:
- Minimize the number of sexual partners you have.
- Avoid sex partners who have symptoms of COVID-19.
- Avoid kissing.
- Avoid sexual behaviors that have a risk of fecal-oral transmission or that involve semen or urine.
- Use condoms and dental dams during oral and anal sex.
- Wear a mask during sexual activity.
- Wash your hands and shower before and after sexual activity.
- Wash sex toys before and after using them.
- Use soap or alcohol wipes to clean the area where you have sexual activity.
Joreth: And here is our list of extra ideas for the fun stuff, to add onto that!
- Have sex doggie style with cohabiting partners. Or whatever position keeps your faces away from each other. Reverse cowgirl?
- Modify a “fluid bond” group into a “covid bond” group – a small number of partners who agree to a similar level of approved self-quarantining and only have sex with those people.
- Have sex outdoors. Fresh air is good for you!
- Date virtually for now. Have you tried having family porn nights? Polyfamily, obviously, not biofamily.
- Masturbation! Especially if you’re watching each other at the time.
- Especially if you’re putting each other on a strict wank schedule.
- Cuddle pillows!
- Remote control sex toys.
Joreth: Try not to fall into mononormative defaults by coupling up with few or no barriers and leaving your other partners to face the pandemic alone simply because they happened to be the partners you didn’t meet first and sign a mortgage with.
Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got. How about you guys? Send ideas, comments, ways you connect during a pandemic, or suggestions for future episodes to firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice. You can also visit www.skepticalpervert.com, where you can check out the show notes for links to the transcript and the studies we’re drawing from. And don’t forget to become a patron of the show by joining our patreon, which is linked on the website. The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.
Eunice: And remember, have safer pandemic sex! Try not to breathe!
Franklin: Remember, we all have two minutes to live, but every time you breathe the clock is reset.