Episode 5: Diversity in the Age of a Pandemic

In this episode, part of our mini-series of sex during a global plague, we take a skeptical look at a paper published in the journal Leisure Sciences called “Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic.”

Along the way, we talk about the null hypothesis, the scientific method, and evaluating a research paper.

Transcript below.

Franklin: Hello, and welcome to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m one of your hosts 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, demisexual, East Asian Brit, ready with my pot of tea and a healthy dose of genteel snark!

Franklin: Today we’re returning to a topic that’s seriously affected all of us: sex in the time of an international plague. We, your hosts, are all part of a globe-spanning extended romantic network, so when this globe-spanning pandemic got going, it hit pretty close to home.

Eunice: Oh, and this is part 3 of our Sex in the Time of Pandemic mini series: Sexual Diversity! If you haven’t listened to parts 1 and 2, you’ll probably want to go back and check them out too, but you don’t need to listen to them in order.

Franklin: Today we’re looking at an interesting study, Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic. The researchers were looking into the hypothesis that the pandemic may be responsible for a surge in people experimenting with new kinds of sex, especially folks without a live-in partner or people in long-distance relationships. 

Given how hard it is to get research money for anything related to sex, the fact that this research exists is a bit surprising. I guess people have to die before funding frees up for sex research.

Eunice: Not sure that’s entirely true. 1980s, anyone? That’s the last time we had a global pandemic that affected people’s sexual behaviour, anyway. And research on that took a long time to get funded.

Franklin: Ouch. Okay, fair point.

Eunice: It’s definitely true that this study came out remarkably fast though. So what does the study actually say?

Franklin: Before we talk about the study’s conclusions, I think we need to take a look at that hypothesis, the demographics of the survey participants who volunteered for the study, and how they used the data they collected. And be aware, this podcast might be all over the place, because the study we’ll be talking about is a bit all over the place.

Eunice: Well that’s an understatement and a half. It’s so understated it’s almost British.

Joreth:  This study is so unfocused that it couldn’t find its ass with both hands and a map!

Eunice: Isn’t that Franklin? Oh wait, I think that might be me too. Hang on, are you the only one of us who has any sense of direction??

Franklin: I know precisely where my ass is, thank you very much. It’s everything else I can’t find. I still get lost in my own neighborhood.

Joreth:  Hah, yeah, I think I am the only one here with any sense of direction!  OK, so this study is so unfocused, my old director just called me from across the country to yell at me about checking the focus on the screen.  (I may have been watching too much Mrs. Maisel lately. Thank you and goodnight!)

Franklin: Anyway, back to the study! It’s called “Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic,” which might make you think it was a study about the differences in sexual behavior during the pandemic and before the pandemic. The first issue I have reading the study is they talk a lot about the way people are having sex during the pandemic, and then talk about how many people changed their sexual behavior during the pandemic, but they don’t talk about how those changes compare pre- and post-pandemic. In other words, they’ll say thus and such many people tried something new during the pandemic, but how does that compare to how many people tried something new before the pandemic? Did the rate of trying new things increase, decrease, or stay the same? We don’t know; the researchers didn’t gather those data.

Eunice: I don’t know how they intended to answer any of those questions without getting baselines. Plus, getting those data is really important, but also really important is who you ask for that data!

Joreth: Yeah I think another major point here is that the demographics are not at all representative of North American or world averages, in so many different ways! Like, in contrary directions, they manage to not be representative.

First of all, 71.1% of the 1,559 respondents were “female”. 71 PERCENT! While 23.4% were “male” and 4.5% were “nonbinary”. Next we have 84.1% of respondents being white with the remaining 16% being a mix of other races. Neither of which matches the general US population which tend around 50% each. Meaning that the population is assigned “male” and “female” at very close to 50/50, and while white people continue to outnumber each other individual racial demographic, added all together, white people are very quickly approaching the 50% mark, with projections estimating that they will become an ethnic minority in the near future (assuming you add all the other ethnicities together). So these demographics don’t match the general population.

In addition, the income stats are WAY not representative. The largest majority (and not by a huge margin) at 24.8% is people with a median income of $20-55,000, which is pretty solidly middle class, and I’m under the impression that this income group is steadily declining.

Eunice: Oh yeah, and the next biggest group, at 24.6%, is $100,001 to a quarter of a million dollars. That’s wild. The two groups in the middle contain less than 15% of participants each! How does that gap even happen?! I’d also like to point out here that your three fabulous hosts are really not people who have any idea what $100,001 to quarter of a million dollars annual incomes would even look like, so, you know. Anyone wanna change that, get in touch!

Joreth: I would love to test the hypothesis that there is a cap to the amount of money that brings happiness, just sayin’. 

Franklin: The study says participants were recruited via Internet-based snowball sampling. Snowball sampling is a technique where you get participants to recruit other participants, like a multilevel marketing scheme for science. The problem is demographic clustering; people tend to socialize with other people who are like themselves. So if you seed your study with a particular kind of participant and rely on snowball sampling, that’s the kind of participant you’ll continue to get.

Joreth:  So that basically skews the demographics in a pretty non-liberal way – white, middle class to wealthy, women. But then we look at orientation stats, and we see only 52.7% heterosexual with everyone else fitting under the queer umbrella. Which skews the data in a decidedly *liberal* direction, seeing as how the US population is somewhere around 95-ish% straight.

Franklin: Looking at these demographics, it really seems like they reached two demographic clusters: Middle American suburbs, and urban San Francisco. That explains the weird peaks in the income distribution and the rather strange distribution of respondents who self-identify as straight vs. queer. It’s like they took these two groups and said “on average they’re a fair distribution,” which is a bit like putting one foot in hot water and one foot in ice water and saying “on average, I’m comfortable.”

Eunice: Mean, median, mode, folks—pay attention to which form of average you’re using!

Franklin: “My comfort has a bimodal distribution.” You know, sometimes when I’m around the two of you, my comfort DOES have a bimodal distribution.

Eunice: So on average, you love it? Anyway, one of the reasons we keep comparing to the US population is that the majority—73.4%—of respondents are from the US. For a survey that attempts to extrapolate to all Western populations, it doesn’t really take into account that from everything I’ve seen, the US is something of an outlier in its attitudes towards sex compared to the other Western countries.

Franklin: In general, I’m not convinced the study data really supports the study’s conclusions, demographic weirdness aside.

Eunice: Real talk here: I’m not entirely sure that they waited until the data came in before writing those conclusions. Oh wait, is that libelous? I probably shouldn’t say that, huh. But seriously, looking at the tables of data in this study…I mean, I know I’m bad at statistics, but I really don’t think I’m as bad at statistics as these tables are implying to my brain. My brain actively hurts trying to read these.

Joreth:  To be fair, I think everyone is bad at statistics, because our brains (generally speaking) are just not made for statistics, but holy fuck is this an unreadable set of tables!  I mean, it shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did just to figure out WHAT THE FUCK ARE THEY REFERENCING IN THIS TABLE?!

Franklin: So let’s dive into some problems with this study. But first, let’s talk about p-values.

Joreth:  Because with this study, you really need to understand p-values to understand just how bad this study is.

Eunice: So what are p-values, exactly?

Franklin: When you read a study, you should see p-values listed next to conclusions. Put simply, and handwaving over some nuance, the p-value is the statistical chance that the null hypothesis is correct; that is, the chance that the data might just be random, and the data don’t support a connection between the things you’re asserting are connected.

High p-values mean the conclusion is not well supported, or to put it more properly, that the null hypothesis is better supported or can better account for the data you’re seeing. Low p-values mean it’s less likely the null hypothesis is correct. So if you say two things are correlated, and you say the p-value is .001, that means you’re saying there’s a 0.1% chance that your data are just random and the two things aren’t correlated. On the other hand, a p-value of 0.8 means about an 80% chance the null hypothesis is correct and these things aren’t really correlated.

Joreth:  So, is this what you’re saying?  A study starts with a hypothesis, which is a statement of what the researchers are investigating.  Then they set about trying to disprove that statement, and if they can’t disprove it, then the statement is likely to be correct.  If something in the study has a p value of, say, .05, then it means that there is only a 5% chance that their statement is wrong, therefore they are 95% confident they’re onto something?

Franklin: Basically yes, and then we get to what the null hypothesis is.

Eunice:  OK, so what is a null hypothesis?

Franklin:  Generally speaking, the “null hypothesis” is usually “there is no relationship between these things” or “there is no difference between these two groups.” So if you say “men are better singers than women,” the null hypothesis is “there’s no meaningful difference in the singing skills of men and women.”

If your p-value is .05, that means there’s a 5% chance that your data might show what they show if the null hypothesis were true. If it’s .8, there’s an 80% chance your data might show what they show if the null hypothesis were true.

This is simplified, of course, so if you’re a statistician and you’re cringing right now, that’s why.

Joreth:  OK, so if your p-value is .8 and your hypothesis is that men are better singers than women, then that means there is an 80% chance that men are not, in fact, statistically better singers than women according to your data, because your hypothesis is that there IS a relationship between men and women – that men are better, while the null hypothesis states that there is NO difference between the two groups, right?

Eunice: That makes sense. And I know the usual p-value that’s typically used in a lot of studies is .05, meaning that it needs to be at least 95% likely to be true for the researcher to be confident about their conclusion. So what hypothesis are they actually trying to disprove in this study, and why are they using the p-values they chose? Because it feels like it should not have taken this much effort to work it out.

Franklin: So let’s circle back and see how that plays out in this study. In this particular study, the researchers started out examining whether men or women were more likely to make a new addition to their sex lives. The data have a p-value of .833 which means the null hypothesis, that there’s no difference between men and women adding new things to their sex life, is most strongly supported.

Joreth:  OK, so they started *out* looking at whether men or women were likely to make new additions (and we’ll get back to that point), but then they used the results of a survey with a whopping 71% self-identified women?  Can you really compare, at that point, between those two genders when their representation is so imbalanced?

Eunice: So I know it sounds like we’re putting a lot of effort into ripping apart this study, and all this talk of stats and p-values and such is probably sounding a bit dry right about now, but this study is a really great example of what not to do, and we’d love to talk about what we’d prefer to see in sex research instead.

Joreth: In order to understand why we want to see what we want to see, we feel that we need to dig in to why this study was so bad, so let’s get into that for a bit before we discuss what we’d rather see in sex research. In this study, they found something interesting. They found that, basically, the frequency or *amount* of sex people were having went down, but the *quality* of their sex life did not.

“Many participants (43.5%) reported a decline in the quality of their sex life, with the remainder reporting that it either stayed the same (42.8%) or improved (13.6%). Average frequency of solo and partnered sexual behaviors significantly decreased compared to past year frequencies. Thus, during this period of widespread restrictions on movement and social contact, frequency of sexual behavior—an activity often pursued for pleasure and leisure purposes—decreased on average.”

So if you look at those numbers, decline in quality and no change in quality is very nearly identical – 43.5% vs. 42.8%, but when you include in improvement at 13.6%, decent quality of sex was actually the majority, then they jump to talking about a decline in frequency as if it’s related.

Eunice: See, this is one of the reasons I found this study so hard to understand. It jumps from a conclusion about quality to talking about quantity in the very next sentence without actually explaining why. It just puts two different conclusions side by side, implying that they’re connected. In fact, it’s practically encouraging you to draw the unconscious link between the two!

Joreth:  Yeah, I feel like this quote here is guiding me to the conclusion that “pandemic sex sucks” by linking a decrease in frequency with nearly equal levels of quality in sex.

Franklin: One of the things that really worries me is the table labeled “Frequency of new additions to participants’ sex lives during the pandemic.” This table contains such extreme and far-out new activities as “Tried a new sexual position,” “Shared sexual fantasies with a partner,” and “Took a shower/bath with a partner.” If these are new activities people are exploring, I weep for humanity. And what’s even more frightening are the raw numbers. This is a study with thousands of respondents, and the number of people who say they tried a new sexual position? 49. Shared sexual fantasies? 41. I mean, not everyone writes science fiction novels based on shared sexual fantasies, but still.

Eunice: OK, but looking at those numbers, and bearing in mind this group probably skews more liberal given they answered an online survey about sex, it might just be that they’ve already tried this stuff before, so it wouldn’t count as ‘new’ behaviour. So yeah, maybe only 49 out of 1559 participants reported having tried a new sexual position during the pandemic, but they all presumably tried a new sexual position for the first time at some point in their sexual experiences, right? They didn’t exactly come out of the womb having tried erotic lotus with upside down cowgirl and one-eyed banana, surely? (FYI I totally just made that up so I have no idea what that position would look like, write in with your suggestions!)

Joreth: Right, I mean, just looking at physics and biology, considering the amount of sex I’ve had over my lifetime, I have literally tried every sexual position that’s even possible for my body to get into, so “tries new sexual position” is probably never going to happen to me (for the first time) again. And as I age, sexual positions will only drop off my repertoire, not get added. Hell, at this age, with my hips and knees, just regular old cowgirl is challenging!

Franklin: There goes my plans for trying the Monkey with Lotus Blossom and Chainsaw with you.

Joreth: Well, we still have my penchant for taboo places!

Eunice: The beach is on my taboo list, mainly because I never want sand in those places ever again.

Joreth: Fair point.

Franklin: I have a story about that. The sand…yeah, not a pleasant memory. Back to the study’s demographics. Young people as a demographic are also more likely to try new things in any given year simply because they haven’t had as much experience generally. When you’ve only been having sex for a year or two, many things you try are new to you.

Which is not to say there’s not still plenty of new things to try even as we get more experienced. You could live for centuries, doing something different in bed every night without ever repeating the same thing twice, and still not have time to do it all. That said, I’ll wager most people in their 20s try new things more often than people in their 50s, COVID notwithstanding. Separating the “I tried new things” from “I tried new things because of COVID” is a significant challenge, and it doesn’t really look like the study’s authors did that.

Eunice: Good point. I know it’s probably hard to retroactively find a control group, but it’s like they didn’t even try

Joreth: The study’s summary also says:

“Those who lived with a partner reported higher rates of partnered behaviors than those living alone, such as trying new sexual positions and acting on sexual fantasies; by contrast, living alone was linked to higher rates of virtual and technology-based behaviors compared to those with a live-in partner, such as sexting and sending nude photos.”

Joreth: Ya think?

Franklin: In other shocking news, water is wet.

Eunice: Is it, though? Water gets things wet, but is it actually wet itself?

Franklin: That’s a philosophical question, which might be outside the scope of this podcast. 

Eunice: Spoilsport!

Joreth: Then there’s this quote:

“Several psychological variables were linked to new additions; however, some associations differed across gender. Bivariate correlates of new additions are presented in Table 5. For men and women, reporting more sexual desire in the past two weeks was linked to new additions. For men only, loneliness was associated with new additions; for women only, desire for sex with one’s partner in the past two weeks, stress, and loneliness during the pandemic were associated with new additions.”

Franklin: If trying new things is statistically correlated with loneliness and stress, and unhappiness with your sex life is correlated with loneliness and stress, then you can’t make any inferences about whether trying new things is or is not likely to increase your sexual satisfaction, because both these things are linked to loneliness and stress. Loneliness and stress is a confounding factor that prevents you from establishing a causative relationship between trying new things and sexual satisfaction.

There’s something else I’m really curious about too. The study says

“Approximately one in five participants (20.3%) reported making a new addition to their sex life since the pandemic began. Most (62.7%) reported making one new addition, with 18.4% making two, 7% making three, and 12% making four or more.”

I’m really curious, though, how many people in any given year would report making an addition like this to their sex life WITHOUT a pandemic. Is that more than usual? Less than usual? Statistically normal? How are “new additions” counted? Is trying two new positions a single addition or two additions? What about two new sex toys?

Eunice: I think there’s an entirely reasonable desire here to tell a ‘Just So’ story, saying that of course when you’re bored and isolated as a result of the pandemic, then sex is a thing you would do more of. And if you have all that extra time, then you’d of course try new things. It feels logical. But without the baseline, how can anyone even tell? It’s just a story, not a hypothesis, and there’s no way to falsify it. It’s not even an entirely good story — I could come up with just as logical an explanation for the opposite claim. Also, here’s another interesting quote I spotted:

“Generally, only partnered activities were linked to improvements, with few technology-based activities showing any association.”

Now, according to this, only adding new partnered sexual activities showed any statistical likelihood of increased sexual satisfaction. Additional novel solo activities didn’t. Have they considered that it might be not the additional sexual activities in themselves, but the act of exploring new activities with your partner? Did they control for people who started new, non-sex-based, hobbies together and whether they had increased life satisfaction?

Franklin: Relationship satisfaction is about more than just sex.

Joreth:  Yeah, something that I think a lot of people have a lot of trouble understanding, judging by the number of Quora questions I get asking why anyone would keep dating a person in particular if they can get sex elsewhere, is that it’s not the sex that’s the important part of a relationship, it’s all the other things and the sex is usually a barometer for all the other important things.  So to relate it to the context of this study, what if it’s not the act of new sex stuff that made people express satisfaction with their relationship, but the act of new STUFF, period?  Because what if the very nature of adding new things to a relationship is the result, not the cause, of a relationship between two people who are actively engaged in their relationship together?

Something this study doesn’t even question is the direction of the causal relationship.  Like, what if the reason why those who did NOT try new things didn’t try it because they got stuck together with someone they never should have been spending that much time together with, and now that they’re stuck together, they don’t even want to have any sex, let alone new and creative sex, which requires a trusting, intimate, vulnerable setting to even bring up the subject.

Franklin: So the takeaway here is looking at relationship satisfaction through the lens of sex misses the fact that both relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction may correlate with other factors, like trust, vulnerability, basic compatibility, and openness.

I feel that way reading this whole study. I’m glad to see people are putting time and attention into sex research, and I think research on how the pandemic has affected sexual relationships is potentially valuable. I am not convinced this study is particularly illuminating, though.

Eunice: I’ll be honest, this study had me so turned around I’m questioning my reading abilities, at this point. I feel like I was constantly trying to pin down an extremely slippery eel. If it feels to our listeners like we were all over the place, imagine what it was like from this side of the mic! Because that confusion was an extremely accurate representation of what it felt like to try and parse this study.

Franklin: It worries me a bit that you know what it feels like to pin down slippery eels.

Eunice: I make no guarantees as to how slippery any eels I may or may not have encountered in my past were.

Franklin: Now I want sushi. 

Joreth:  This study was so difficult to follow that, even rereading our own notes explaining this study had me rubbing my eyes and questioning my own ability to follow scientific studies.  Like, I swear I had much less trouble following this shit in school!

Franklin:  Back to the topic, the biggest issues I see with this study are wildly nonrepresentative demographics and a tendency to draw a straight line between hypothesis and conclusion without accounting for possible related or confounding factors.

Eunice: Talking about confounding factors, the study also states that: 

“The fact that those without a live-in partner tried more new activities is not entirely surprising because these circumstances likely necessitated more creativity with respect to pursuing sex for leisure. This likely partially explains why sexual minorities, racial minorities, and younger adults had increased odds of making new additions: all of these groups had significantly elevated rates of living alone.” 

Did the researchers also consider that they’re the same groups that are more likely to overlap with key pandemic workers? Did they not wonder if the additional stress, physical risk, financial insecurity, etc etc etc, might have had an impact on their sex life? Did they even try to account for how much of the increased likelihood of “more creativity” was a result of living alone, versus those other factors? “Likely partially explains” is doing a huge amount of heavy lifting in that sentence, is all I’m saying.

Franklin: All of these are hard problems in any sociological research, but they seem particularly profound here.

Joreth:  So, basically, what we’re all getting from this research paper is that it attempted to generalize sexual behaviours from wildly, improbably outlier statistical groups, it then had such a mass of scattered p-values that it feels like the researchers rolled a D20 die and randomly assigned percentage points based on very excited rolls, and THEN took all of that and made sweeping causal statements without doing even the basic Freshman 101 exercise of considering for confounding factors.  Would you both say that’s an accurate assessment?

Franklin: I think the study isn’t doing a good job of supporting its conclusions. A better designed study would be one that makes an effort to reach a more representative population and does a better job of isolating changes in behavior pre and post pandemic. Those are big asks, and make the research far more difficult, but I think the results would be more useful.

Eunice: Can I also put in a request for significantly better laid out tables of data? And graphs? Any graphs at all, please?

Joreth:  Dear gourd, those tables!  Please don’t make me try to read those tables again!  My eyeballs hurt.

Eunice: You ever try to read your own handwritten notes that you wrote at 4am on no sleep with a significant amount of caffeine and sugar in your system, for a class that you just realised during the lecture was maybe a step or two beyond your comprehension? Cos that’s what reading this study felt like to me sometimes. 

Joreth:  Yes, or like trying to decipher a bit of drunken, blindfolded automatic writing? (Go look up automatic writing sometime – it’s wild!)

Eunice: Can we never break down a study by these people again? Please?

Joreth:  OK, so, if we were designing a study on the question of sex, perhaps how the pandemic affected people’s sex lives, what would we be looking for, at a minimum?

  • Better demographics in the study participants
  • A better baseline of pre-pandemic sexual behavior to compare to pandemic behavior
  • Better control of possible confounding factors
  • Clearly laid out analyses and summaries
  • Examination of whether the factors you’re measuring are connected or not
  • Less eagerness to assume casual relationships that might not be supported by the data
  • More legible tables
  • Graphs! Not necessary, but really really helpful

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got for this episode! What do you think? Send ideas, comments, new things you’ve tried during a pandemic, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. 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 for show notes, 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: The skeptical pervert: putting the ‘why?’ into sexy

Franklin: Why don’t I have any sushi?

Eunice: Are you looking to put eel into your facehole, Franklin?

Franklin: On advice of counsel, I decline to answer that question.

Episode 3: Sex in the Age of a Pandemic

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.

Transcript below:

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!

  1. Have sex doggie style with cohabiting partners. Or whatever position keeps your faces away from each other. Reverse cowgirl?
  2. 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.
  3. Have sex outdoors. Fresh air is good for you!
  4. Date virtually for now. Have you tried having family porn nights? Polyfamily, obviously, not biofamily.
  5. Masturbation! Especially if you’re watching each other at the time.
  6. Especially if you’re putting each other on a strict wank schedule.
  7. Cuddle pillows! 
  8. 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 contact@skepticalpervert.com. 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.