By Lisa Speidel
Navigating the coronavirus pandemic has proven challenging as we figure out social distancing, homeschooling, Zoom meetings, maintaining our health and minimizing breakdowns from cabin fever. Sex may be the last thing on our minds. Maybe we have kids at home and little privacy with our partners—or by the time the kids are asleep, exhaustion and feelings of anxiety dull any interest in sex. If our sex lives are not great to begin with, the coronavirus crisis could make it more difficult to address those issues.
Sex allows for connection, pleasure, comfort, stress release, and an opportunity to experiment with each other. Maybe you are on your own and content with exploring self-love, or struggling with how to date during enforced social distancing. Those in long-distance relationships, or who practice ethical non-monogamy, may be feeling uncertain while waiting to be with partners or lovers again.
Should anybody be having sex during this pandemic? The New York City Health Department recently posted guidelines for “Sex and Coronavirus Disease” as a resource to address concerns.
Similar to health education programs on sexually transmitted infections, the NYCHD lists a straightforward spectrum from the safest sexual practices to the least safe. First, community members are reminded to stay home and minimize contact with others to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The department then details how the virus can spread when a person coughs, sneezes, or through direct contact with saliva or mucus. While further research is needed about the virus and sex, it has been discovered in feces, but not in semen or vaginal fluid. In addition, other coronaviruses do not “efficiently transmit through sex.”
My favorite section, titled “Have Sex With People Close to You,” emphasizes that “you are your safest sex partner. Masturbation will not spread COVID-19, especially if you wash your hands (and any sex toys) with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after sex.” The NYCHD also assures readers that being sexual with a partner at home is acceptable as long as that person is not sick. In addition, it encourages limiting partners outside of the home, and says certain sexual acts, such as rimming, may spread the virus. The use of condoms and dental dams to reduce contact with saliva and feces is recommended.
I have never seen a government document actually encourage masturbation, let alone as a safety precaution. This got me thinking of all the other benefits of masturbation, such as decreasing stress, alleviating cramps, helping with insomnia, burning calories, and enhancing your immune system.
According to Laurie Mintz, in her book Becoming Cliterate, it is especially beneficial for women, given the pleasure gap between men and women. Mintz writes, “we overvalue men’s most common way of reaching an orgasm (intercourse) and undervalue women’s most common way (clitoral stimulation). Our cultural over-focus on the importance of putting a penis into the vagina is screwing with women’s orgasms.” It is estimated that only 18 percent of women can achieve orgasms through just penetrative intercourse, and the pressure that they should orgasm this way can lead many women to fake orgasms. In contrast, women having sex with women report having an orgasm with their partners 86 percent of the time. Mintz emphasizes that masturbation is one of the best ways for women to learn about their bodies and discover what it really entails to orgasm. This can happen through practicing self-touch exercises or using sex toys such as vibrators, and may help increase honest communication between partners about their sexual needs.
Self care in the time of the coronavirus typically prioritizes mental health and wellness tips, but it can also encompass finding a way to safely be sexual. Perhaps a silver lining to being homebound is having time to experiment and explore on our own or with a partner, while washing our hands—and our sex toys—regularly.
Lisa Speidel is an assistant professor in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Department at the University of Virginia. She is an AASECT certified sexuality educator and co-author of the book The Edge of Sex: Navigating a Sexually Confusing Culture From the Margins.