Sexual Independence Day

Dating was already difficult. Getting into the GUM clinic was a hassle. You kept meaning to go, but never quite found the time. Then Covid came and changed everything. On 23 March the UK Government announced formal lockdown and social distancing policies, in which sexual activity between adults from different households was illegal. Instead, they advised people “only be sexually active with someone you live with who does not have Covid or any Covid symptoms.” Similar policies were adopted by other countries, including Ireland, the Netherlands, and the US.

So your love life either came screeching to a halt (“See you in six months…maybe?”), or got catapulted into the future (“Sure, let’s move in together! It’s only been three weeks, but you seem normal!). Worries like, “I really should get an STI check. When was the last time I used protection?” were replaced with more pressing uncertainties: “Will my friends and family be alright? Do I still have a job? Is it safe to go to the grocery store? Who is buying ALL the toilet paper?!” You couldn’t even get on the phone to your GP, let alone down to the GUM clinic, as many healthcare services had been suspended in order to divert more resources towards the Covid crisis.

But what did Covid mean for the nation’s love life?

The GMI Partnership conducted a survey from April — May 2020 to determine how new social distancing measures had changed the sexual practices of Londoners. They found that:

  • 15% started chatting more online

  • 23% started having more virtual sex

  • 44% started masturbating more

  • 45% stopped or reduced STI testing

YouGov conducted a similar survey, looking at the dating habits of adults across the UK. Amongst single citizens, they found that during Covid:

  • 18% stopped dating completely

  • 11% spent more time on dating apps — on 29 March Tinder reported 3 billion swipes — more than any other day in its history. Other apps, like Bumble and Hinge, began encouraging virtual dates through their platforms.

  • 3% started going on virtual dates — people also began sending more sexy photos and engaging in phone or video sex.

The impact of Covid on the nation’s love life isn’t limited to single people. 20% of all Brits indicate that they’ve had less sex since lockdown. Durex reports that condom sales have fallen in most markets, which they attribute to lockdown limiting sexual opportunities and pandemic driven anxiety, even amongst established couples. Those living together suddenly found themselves in each other’s company all day, every day…with more stress and less privacy. While stress affects everyone differently, and can certainly impact an individual’s sex drive, these changes are often transient. Durex was happy to report that condom sales recovered in China once lockdown was lifted.

Finally, on 13 June, the English Government updated its stance on social distancing, allowing each household to form a “support bubble” with one other household. These “support bubbles” permit the two households to act as if they live under one roof, meaning that they can spend time together in each other’s homes without needing to remain 2 metres apart…thus, putting sex with someone from outside your household back on the table!

But before you start “support bubbling,” here are some practical points to consider…

Covid spreads via respiratory droplets that are released when someone with the virus coughs, sneezes, or speaks. All close contact (within 2 metres) can expose you to the virus, whether or not you’re engaged in sexual activity. But coming into contact with an infected person’s bodily secretions (e.g. saliva, feces) will put you at significant risk of contracting the virus. Covid has been detected in the semen of people who have or are recovering from the virus, but more research is needed to determine if Covid could be sexually transmitted. And as some people who have Covid don’t display any symptoms, it’s imperative that you follow the Government’s advice. Here are some tips to practicing safer sex during Covid:

  • YOU are your safest sexual partner (consider going at it alone).

  • ALL sexual activity (virtual or in person) should only be undertaken with the consent of everyone involved.

  • IF you’re going to go virtual, remember to use a secure online platform, and be aware of the risk of screen shots or video recordings.

  • MINIMISE the number of sexual partners you have (two is a party, but three is a crowd), and limit close contact with anyone outside your household or “support bubble.”

  • ALWAYS pick sexual partners you trust. Talk about Covid symptoms and risk. Don’t have sex with partners who have symptoms of Covid.

  • ENGAGE in safer sexual practices. Avoid kissing or consider wearing a face mask during sex. Refrain from sexual acts that have a high risk of fecal-oral transmission. Use condoms and dental dams during oral and anal sex. Use birth control appropriately. Wash your hands (and any sex toys) with soap and water for twenty seconds before and after sexual activity.

Remember, safe sexual practices don’t just prevent the spread of Covid…they also reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy and prevent the spread of STIs. Thanks to social distancing measures, the transmission of STIs is at an all-time low. This makes it all the more important to get tested and treated for STIs if you have any risk. Just like Covid, some people with STIs can be asymptomatic, but still be infectious and pass diseases on.

As lockdown restrictions are being lifted and social distancing measures are easing, this 4 July really feels like Independence Day (even in the UK)! But before we run outside, desperate to try and salvage what is left of the summer, soak up some basic human contact, and eat something that we haven’t been forced to cook ourselves, let’s not forget what we’ve learned along the way.

Danae Maragouthakis

Danae is an A&E doctor with a master’s degree in Public Health. She is the co-founder and CEO of Yoxly, the one-stop shop for sexual health supported by the OXFO L.E.V8 accelerator at the Oxford Foundry at the University of Oxford.

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