It may sound odd to some, given the months of “Stay at home” messaging, but the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) has released guidelines on how to have a pleasurable sex life while also minimizing your chance of exposure to the new coronavirus. The guidelines, released on June 8, acknowledge that while New Yorkers should stay home as much as possible to minimize the risk of spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, “Sex is a normal part of life.” Rather than encouraging people to go out and have sex, the guidelines offer strategies to reduce the risk of COVID-19 if you want to have sex.
“During this extended public health emergency, people will and should have sex,” the department says in its guidance. “Consider using harm reduction strategies to reduce the risk to yourself, your partners, and our community.”
Their safer sex tips fall into six overarching categories:
1. Know how COVID-19 spreads.
The new coronavirus is spread through saliva, mucus, or breath of someone who has COVID-19, even if they do not have symptoms. The virus has been found in the semen and feces of people who have COVID-19, though there has been no proof of it being passed through vaginal or anal sex, and the department adds that other coronaviruses do not spread easily through sex.
“This means sex is not likely a common way that COVID-19 spreads,” DOHMH wrote.
2. Have sex with people close to you.
The document first acknowledges that masturbation will not spread the new coronavirus and encourages washing hands or sex toys before and after masturbating. After sex with yourself, the department says sex with someone you live with is the next safest step and, of course, emphasizes the need for consent between sexual partners before engaging in any sexual activity.
However, for those who do have sex with people outside their home, DOHMH emphasizes having as few partners as possible and picking partners you trust.
“Talk about COVID-19 risk factors, just as you would discuss PrEP, condoms, and other safer sex topics,” the guidance says. “Ask them about COVID-19 before you hook up. Do they have symptoms or have they had symptoms in the last 14 days?” You can also ask whether your partner has had a COVID-19 test.
While the department does say large gatherings are not safe during COVID-19 and that close contact with multiple people should be avoided, they do say that if you plan to attend a gathering with multiple people (including a gathering where people have sex), try to do the following:
- Limit the size of your guest list.
- Attend with a consistent sex partner.
- Use larger, open, well-ventilated spaces.
- Wear a face covering.
- Try not to kiss anyone.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Bring an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to use.
If you use the internet or apps to meet up with people, the department suggests taking a break from in-person dates and using video dates, sexting, or video platform sex parties. But, if you do decide to have a hookup, DOHMH says to do the following:
- Closely monitor your symptoms.
- Consider getting a swab or saliva test for COVID-19 on a more frequent basis.
- Take precautions when interacting with people at risk for severe COVID-19.
- Make sure to keep your face covered and wash your hands.
3. Having antibodies does not mean definite immunity.
DOHMH recommends caution when using test results to help you make an informed decision about having sex. A positive antibody test confirms exposure but does not mean you are immune from reinfection. A prior positive diagnostic test means you have had COVID-19 and you may be less likely to be infected again, but right now, there’s no way to tell how long any protection from COVID-19 lasts.
4. Take care during sex.
The guidance names the following steps you can take while engaging in sex to minimize risk of exposure:
- Avoid kissing, which can easily spread the virus.
- Virus in feces could lead to infection, so avoid rimming if possible.
- Wear a face mask or covering—heavy breathing and panting during sex can spread the new coronavirus, so best to be extra careful.
- Be kinky—try creative sexual positions or even a physical barrier like a wall (the DOHMH does not say “glory hole” here, but it sounds remarkably like, “Try a glory hole!).
- Masturbate together from a distance and use face coverings to reduce risk.
- Condoms and dental dams can reduce contact with saliva, semen, and feces.
- Wash up before and after sex.
- Wash sex toys with soap and warm water.
5. If you feel unwell, avoid kissing even more than usual.
Skip sex if you or your partner might be at high risk for COVID-19—this includes those with medical conditions like lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, kidney disease, liver disease, cancer, or a weakened immune system.
6. Continue to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
While you are probably worried about contracting the virus that causes COVID-19, remember to use whatever method of HIV and STI prevention works best for you, as well, whether that be one, two, or all of the following:
- Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)
- Treatment as prevention
These guidelines were released less than two weeks after TheBody published a piece indicating the need for health departments and those in charge of COVID-19 messaging to illuminate ways for people to engage in sexual activity while also minimizing COVID-19 risk as a form of harm reduction. At the time, Harvard Medical School assistant professor Julia Marcus, Ph.D., M.P.H., emphasized that ignoring people’s sexuality and staying mum on ways to reduce risk would only increase instances of shaming those who do seek out sex during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The message can’t be, ‘Don’t have sex,’” Marcus said in a phone interview. “We just know that doesn’t work. And it misses an opportunity to help people keep their risk low, because we’re not telling people anything beyond a zero-risk option. We know that won’t work, and it will encourage shaming.”
The New York City DOHMH also says that they will update the guidelines as the situation evolves. You can read the full guidance here.