Most gay and bisexual men who experienced COVID-19 symptoms or a positive coronavirus diagnosis during the initial phase of the pandemic refrained from telling their partners, a study has found.
Vanderbilt University examined the sexual behavior of gay and bisexual men in the United States after collecting survey responses between April 10 and May 10 — when most states had issued stay-at-home orders.
In total, 1,968 LGBTQ Americans were surveyed, with researchers ultimately focusing on 750 gay and bisexual male respondents, The Advocate reports.
Researchers noted that many men had “made significant changes to their sexual behavior and partner selection,” with 9 out of 10 reporting either no sexual partners or only one partner in the 30 days prior to taking the survey — which researchers described as a “substantial decrease [for many] compared to just before the pandemic.”
Survey respondents reported a number of changes to the “kinds of partners they had and their sexual activities with partners (e.g., more virtual sex),” researchers said in the study abstract, noting that gay and bi men “engaged in new strategies to reduce their risks of infection from partners.”
“We expect these changes to be important not only for reducing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but also for reducing new sexually transmitted infections,” they wrote, adding that the men surveyed reported “high levels of concern about how HIV may affect COVID-19 risk, treatment, and recovery.”
As part of those changes, during the first month of the pandemic more than half (59%) of respondents had no sexual partners in the month prior to taking the survey, while 78% of those who were sexually active opted for only one partner.
That represented a decrease for some, as one-fifth of respondents said they usually had more than one sexual partner in a month.
Researchers also found that gay and bisexual men were “avoiding crowded places for finding new romantic or sexual partners, limiting the spaces where they hooked up with new romantic or sexual partners, and avoiding certain kinds of partners or events like group sex parties.”
Many of those seeking new sexual partners also said it was “extremely important” that prospective partners be taking COVID-related precautions such as washing hands (69%) and informing of any symptoms such as fever or cough (75%).
Almost three-fifths (59%) also felt it was important that sexual partners tell them about their sexual activity, while 45% wanted to know what precautions their partners’ partners were taking.
However, while respondents were concerned about what potential sexual partners might be doing, a worryingly low number of gay and bisexual men said they would tell a sexual partner about COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test result.
Although 11% of gay and bi respondents said they had experienced a flu-like illness in the 30 days prior to the survey, only 39% subsequently shared either that information or a subsequent positive COVID-19 diagnosis with partners.
Researchers also found that, while sexual activity was reduced at the time of the survey, “the strategies that men have adopted are being used less frequently as states have begun to reopen.”
They recommend “targeted messaging” to gay and bisexual men in order to encourage conversations regarding COVID-19 symptoms and safe sex practices.
Last month, Harvard University researchers offered advice to those considering sex during the pandemic, including advising potential sexual partners to 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 recommended abstinence as the safest way to ensure a lack of COVID-19 transmission, but did give approval to self-pleasure during the pandemic, noting that masturbation “is an additional safe recommendation for patients to meet their sexual needs.”
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