Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash
COVID-19 has impacted all aspects of life, including romantic and sexual relationships. Despite the pandemic, university students continue to date, socialize and have sex.
Trojan Canada, in partnership with The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOCG) and the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN) has developed guidelines for remaining sexually active and healthy while helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
It is important for students to engage in safer sex practices all the time, but COVID-19 adds a new layer to thinking about safer sex.
Dr. Jessica Wood is a lead researcher and sexuality expert with SIECCAN. In addition to safer sex strategies, such as contraception and STI prevention, Dr. Wood and other sex educators are now thinking about what safer sex means in the world of COVID-19.
“I think that’s a whole different issue that we haven’t talked about in sexual health education yet because it’s very new. The pandemic impacts all aspects of our lives, so of course it’s going to impact our sexuality and our relationships and how we go about having sexual relationships with other people,” said Dr. Wood.
The guidelines, put together by Trojan in association with SIECCAN and SOCG, recommend masturbation as a low risk sexual alternative to engaging in sex with a partner. It’s important to wash hands and any sex toys before and after for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.
The Public Health Agency of Canada’s guidelines for preventing COVID-19 stress that one of the most important strategies is to remain two metres away from others. This means that many ways of having sex can put people at risk for getting and passing COVID-19. Household members do not need to follow the guidelines for physical distancing (unless they are sick or have travelled in the last 14 days). This means that having sex with household members is a lower risk activity than having a sexual relationship with a non-household member.
“For people that you’re living with, people you’re in close contact with, there’s a couple of different things to think about. First of all do you have a consenting partner?” said Wood.
Dr. Wood pointed out that many may make the assumption that it’s very easy for people who live together to have sex, but that may not necessarily be true. It’s a very stressful time for many people. For some, sex can relieve stress, but others may not feel the same way.
If consenting household members decide to have sex, there are a number of important things to consider. Thinking about your own sexual needs and your partner’s sexual needs and communicating effectively has been and will always be important. In terms of COVID-19, it has also become important to think about whether any partners are exhibiting symptoms, whether they’ve been exposed to someone else who has symptoms or has tested positive or if they’ve been in close contact with the general public.
“I think it’s really important for partners to communicate in terms of their needs, in terms of their desires and their feelings with regards to symptoms and also what they’re doing outside of their household,” said Dr. Wood.
As Ontario’s COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the public health guidelines become even more important to keep in mind. It’s recommended that we limit close personal contact to those within our household and those in a small social bubble of 10 or fewer people. Lowering the number of people we have close personal contact with lowers the risk of getting or passing COVID-19.
When considering dating or having sex with someone new, it’s important to consider both your social bubble and your partner’s social bubble. How large are your social bubbles? Is it larger than 10 people? Are you in fact combining more than one social bubble? What is your risk of exposure to COVID-19 and what is your partner’s?
“If we’re in a community where there’s lower case numbers and we’re living on our own and we don’t have much contact with a lot of other people, that’s a very different situation than if we’re living in a very big city where there’s rising case numbers and we see a lot more people and we are, say, working in a place where we are exposed to a lot of people on a daily basis,” said Dr. Wood.
The differences in all our circumstances makes communication key. Explicit communication about boundaries, exposure and risk are crucial when engaging in sexual and romantic relationships.
The guidelines recommend non-physical options such as sexting, online “virtual dates” and phone sex when engaging in relationships with non-household members outside of your social bubble. When engaging in online sexual activity, it is once again crucial to be explicit in communication about boundaries and privacy and as always, being careful with the ways in which we are sharing explicit images of ourselves.
“People are getting very creative with the media platforms we have and the technology we have and using it in very creative and novel ways and it’s not just to have sexual interactions, but to also connect in relational ways,” said Dr. Wood.
Talking online (about sex or otherwise) can build trust in relationships when partners respond in positive, non-judgmental ways. Trust in turn builds intimacy. Relationships can be built both online and in person.
When it comes to meeting in-person, Dr. Wood recommends thinking about having physically distant dates, meeting outdoors and wearing masks to reduce the risk of COVID-19. When it comes to sex, Dr. Wood recognizes how it gets more challenging, since most types of sex involve close personal contact.
It’s crucial that students follow public health guidelines when having sexual and romantic relationships. Getting good information, both about COVID-19 and sexual health, is important when it comes to making the best choice possible.
“Sometimes we might not have all the information we need but try to get all the information we can from our partners and know enough to make informed choices,” said Dr. Wood.
The guidelines put together by Trojan, SIECCAN and SOCG can be viewed at http://sieccan.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Trojan-SIECCAN-Sexual-Health-and-COVID-19.pdf.