Conversations About Safer Sex in the Era of COVID-19
With changing COVID-19 behaviors and the White House's recent announcement that the public state of emergency will end in May 2023, what can health-conscious partners do to protect themselves and others?
See what the experts say about safer sex in the era of COVID-19 and how individuals can better communicate with their sexual partners.
COVID-19 and everyday life
First, let's be clear: COVID isn't going anywhere. Cases in the United States still numbered about 120,000 per week as of early April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
However, as COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates gradually drop, Americans' approach to daily life keeps changing, too. Many people are following fewer preventive steps than in previous years, according to a poll from the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Americans reported higher rates of wearing masks, isolating and opting out of nonessential travel in 2021 compared with 2022. Most of the public still considers vaccination and readily available COVID treatments essential to returning to their prepandemic lives.
Now that Zoom first dates are out and in-person dating is back, how can you reenter the dating scene and stay safe? The trick is to determine what "safe" looks like to you and how to communicate your wishes to your sexual partners.
Safer sex 101
All sexual activity involves some degree of risk. Safer sex strategies and tools, such as STI testing and using barriers such as condoms and dental dams, are good places to start. So, too, is having honest conversations about current status and past sexual history, which can potentially help reduce the risks associated with sexual activity.
But the reality is that many healthcare professionals believe there is no such thing as "safe sex."
These strategies can be helpful, but many people in the United States are unaware of all the available resources. It doesn't help that only 17 states require medically accurate content in their sex education courses. Many don't call for information about contraceptives or condoms.
Alyssa Dweck, M.S., M.D., a practicing gynecologist in Westchester County, New York, consultant and co-author of "The Complete A to Z for Your V: A Women's Guide to Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Your Vagina: Health, Pleasure, Hormones and More," suggested that partners incorporate a few additional strategies in their safer sex practices to be more COVID-conscious.
Dweck believes health-minded partners should get vaccinated and test themselves for COVID before engaging in sexual activity. It is important to note that COVID-19 is not considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI). COVID is spread through respiratory drops, so partners may consider adding additional barriers, such as masks. Partners should also reconsider or avoid engaging in sexual activity if they are ill or feeling under the weather, Dweck suggested.
Sex, stigma and COVID-19
You may understand safer sex practices and put them into practice, but how comfortable are you initiating conversations about your sexual health? For some people, it may induce anxiety or feelings of awkwardness, whether it's a conversation with a partner or a healthcare professional.
Social stigma and feelings of shame can complicate conversations about safer sex. Emily L. Depasse, M.S.W., M.Ed., a sex educator based in Philadelphia, digital creator and writer who focuses on the intersection of accessibility, ethics and sexual health, emphasized the importance of message framing. Depasse pointed out the potential of stigma and discomfort when discussing anything sex-related in the U.S. due to the general lack of medically accurate sex education courses. There may be a social or moral stigma around a positive STI test compared to a positive COVID test since STIs are potential results of sex, Depasse explained.
"If someone gets a common cold, there isn't usually a negative impact on their worth as a person. Someone can do 'everything right,' meaning they get tested and use proper barrier methods, but still end up testing positive for an STI or COVID. Testing positive for these illnesses does not indicate someone's worth or make them a 'bad' person," Depasse said.
How can we address these forms of stigma? The first step is to increase awareness, according to Depasse. Partners are encouraged to reflect on how their conscious or unconscious internalized feelings about STIs and COVID may appear in conversations.
"Learning to recognize these internalized feelings about STIs and COVID can help us structure healthier conversations about getting vaccinated, developing a testing routine and using barriers," Depasse said.
It's a solid beginning to create a safe, judge-free zone to open up the conversation.
Navigating 'the talk'
All things considered, it can feel daunting to discuss your sexual health and safer sex practices, but it is best to be direct about your concerns and needs. Luckily, conversations about STI testing and using barriers can be a guideline for conversations about safer sex and COVID-19.
These differing subjects help get the conversation going. Depasse believes it's because many of these conversations mirror one another. She suggested that partners add a personal touch when bringing up COVID-19 precautions, such as, "Hey, do you mind if I ask when your last COVID-19 test was before meeting up? I've had COVID a couple of times over the last few months and am trying to be more mindful."
This approach may help everyone involved feel less stiff. It could open the door to more honest conversations around safer sex.
Martha Tara Lee, D.H.S., M.A., a sexuality educator in Singapore who is certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), as well as a relationship counselor and the author of "Love, Sex and Everything in Between," explained that it might be helpful to incorporate COVID strategies into your general conversations about safer sex.
It's quick and easy to send a text inquiring about your potential partner's general health and their current testing status for COVID-19 and STIs. Lee suggested using the following message: "I think it's important that we use barriers such as masks, condoms and dental dams during our sexual activities. What do you think?"
Lee believes that sharing your vaccination status with a potential partner can also help establish comfort amid COVID concerns. It's a simple way to have the safer sex conversation without the potential awkwardness or discomfort.
The bottom line
Conversations on safer sex and sexual health can be difficult, but having open, honest discussions before sexual activity could help protect you and your partners as the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve.
Sharing your COVID-19 and safer sex precautions can help everyone feel respected and empowered. Whether you initiate the talk face to face or through a text, it's an important conversation for the health of everyone involved.