The jury's still out on whether COVID-19 can be transmitted sexually. But there's no doubt that it has made many people more cautious about intimacy.
MADRID — Working, going for a drink, hitting the gym, meeting with friends ... These are the common, day-to-day activities for many Spaniards, or at least were — until March 14, that is —when the government issued its estado de alarma (state of alarm) decree to curb the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, from one day to the next, our routines were upended.
Fast forward several months, with summer now in full swing, and right now everyone's trying to recover that old social life while navigating what we're told is the "new normal." And by the look of things, it won't be easy, what with all the cautionary recommendations like wearing face masks, constantly washing hands and maintaining a suitable distance from each other. Social gatherings, we're being told, could spark a second wave of contagion.
But here's another question: What about sex? Can we ever hope to playing the seduction game again?
First, we need some clarity on whether this particular virus is sexually transmittable. A study published in May by the JAMA Network found that traces of the virus were present in the semen of certain infected patients. It's important to note, however, that the research was conducted on just 38 men and that other studies have yet to replicate the findings, as Francisca Molero, president of the Spanish Federation of Sexology Associations (FEES), points out in an interview with the scientific news agency SINC.
"It's is difficult to assert at present whether or not this is transmitted through unprotected, penetrative sex," she says. "We may assume it is potentially contagious, though this has yet to be shown."
Can we ever hope to playing the seduction game again?
What is clear is that the COVID-19 crisis is impacting the incidence of sexual relations. Whether that changes over time, according to Molero, will depend on if people "continue to be afraid of the illness and how long it will be before an effective treatment or vaccine is found." Until then, people may come to "internalize" preventive measures, the FEES head explains.
"Important preventive measures will be needed with sporadic or stable but open partners: hand washing, contraceptives, condoms and giving yourself more time to decide whether or not to have a shared, sexual relationship," she says.
Age and personal traits — whether someone was locked down alone, with a partner or with children — also play a role, the sexologist suggests.
Work by street artist The Rebel Bear in Glasgow — Photo: Crawford Jolly/Unsplash
Molero expects there will be both "reckless' people who will flout protective rules, and those who tread carefully with anyone they do not know. She also thinks the situation will impact behavior among people who use dating apps such as Tinder. Before the COVID-19 crisis "it was fairly usual for some form of sexual contact to happen after the first or second date," she says. "People may now give themselves more space to know the other person, to see if there is any affinity or not and then decide whether you'll have sex or not."
The journal Annals of Internal Medicine, published by Harvard University, suggested in a study in May that safe sex in "new normal" conditions should even include face masks. That will, inevitably, restrict kissing, though how that would work in practice is an open question. As Molero explains: "In most cultures, the loving or erotic kiss is the first expression of sexual attraction and arousal, and implies an elevated level of intimacy."
New York City's medical services set out their own recommendations for safe sex in the pandemic, pointing out that your safest partner was in fact, yourself. Molero agrees that masturbation "is a sure bet" for providing sexual pleasure. "That's because you know exactly how to stimulate yourself and there's no risk," she says.
A study in May suggested that safe sex in "new normal" conditions should even include face masks.
Next on the list in terms of safety is a familiar and stable partner, the expert says. "But there's no such thing as zero risk, and the responsible thing is to adopt all possible, preventive measures," Molero adds.
She also notes that there are "postures and practices that are less likely to be contagious' but acknowledges that in sexual relations, one of the objectives, in addition to pleasure, is erotic communication. "If you feel you have to control everything you're doing, your cognitive part remains alert and blocks the sexual response," she says.
Still, there may actually be a silver lining in all of this when it comes to safe sex in general. Before the pandemic, the World Health Organization was reporting some alarming figures in 2019 for daily contagion rates of a range of sexually transmitted diseases, as well as a relaxation of precautionary measures worldwide. But with the pandemic, "these measures will return to the front line," Molero predicts.
"It seems like we'd stopped fearing STDs, that they'd become distant or unknown," she says. "Now everyone has information on the coronavirus and knows what to do to protect themselves."
In that sense — in terms of changing behaviors — there are similarities between COVID-19 and the HIV virus, according Molero. "There have already been changes," she says. "People have had time to reflect, to stay home and that is very important for self-esteem and for relations with other people."
"We live in such a hasty society that before the pandemic, we only had time to consume and act," Molero adds. "This has been a pause, and we have had to accept uncertainty. It has been a big lesson."