If you’re looking for advice on how to have safer sex during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new Harvard University study is here to help.
With lockdowns still in place across the country, and with social distancing the norm elsewhere, the research is intended as guidance for physicians on “Safe Sexual Practices and Risk Reduction.”
The headline items from the study, published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, are that potential sex partners should avoid kissing, wear face masks, and stay away from any acts “with a risk for fecal-oral transmission or that involve semen or urine.”
Researchers outlined a number of sexual approaches and their relative risks, as well as steps to reduce those risks. First and foremost, abstinence is, unsurprisingly, the most effective way of reducing the risk of transmitting or catching the coronavirus.
If abstinence isn’t possible, researchers said that masturbation “is an additional safe recommendation for patients to meet their sexual needs” without risking infection.
Beyond that, sex with partners in your quarantine bubble is the safest approach, according to the researchers — though they note that there is still a risk for infection if one partner is exposed while outside the home, and that said partner can be asymptomatic and still transmit the virus.
Having sex with someone outside of your quarantine bubble? Researchers recommend limiting your number of sexual partners, if that’s a factor, as well as avoiding sex with any partner that displays symptoms of COVID-19.
Furthermore, avoid all kissing and any “sexual behaviors with a risk for fecal-oral transmission or that involve semen or urine.” Partners should also wear masks during sex, shower both before and after having sex, and clean the physical space used for sex with soap or alcohol wipes.
The recommendations aren’t absolute or guaranteed, however, with researchers stating that any in-person contact “results in substantial risk for disease transmission.”
Researchers also urged caution for those seeking digital sexual stimulation, such as phone sex or video chats, noting that there is a risk for screenshots or videos to be captured and used for sexual extortion.
While abstinence is the most effective way to reduce risk of transmission, researchers said that “abstinence-only recommendations…are likely to promote shame and unlikely to achieve intended behavioral outcomes.”
As such, “sex-positive recommendations regarding remote sexual activity are optimal during the pandemic, balancing human needs for intimacy with personal safety and pandemic control,” they write.
In addition to COVID-19, researchers said that the risk for sexually transmitted infections hasn’t reduced during the pandemic, and urged the continued use of contraceptives and PrEP for those engaging in sex.
Adding that abstinence is “not feasible for many,” researchers said that it can also have potentially negative psychological effects.
“Sexual expression is a central aspect of human health but is often neglected by [health care providers],” they write. “Messaging around sex being dangerous may have insidious psychological effects at a time when people are especially susceptible to mental health difficulties.
“Some groups, including sexual and gender minority (SGM) communities, may be particularly vulnerable to sexual stigma, given the historical trauma of other pandemics, such as AIDS,” they continue. “Abstinence recommendations may conjure memories of the widespread stigmatization of SGM people during the AIDS crisis. For the population at large, a recommendation of long-term sexual abstinence is unlikely to be effective, given the well-documented failures of abstinence-based public health interventions and their likelihood to promote shame.”
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