4 Safe & Creative Ways To Explore Sex During The Coronavirus Outbreak
In the midst of COVID-19 upheaval and uncertainty, it's possible you've had one or more moments when you've exhaled, relaxed unexpectedly, and thought, "I'm glad I get to stay home more" or "Canceling that trip is a relief."
Many people I've spoken with have had a few "silver-lining" moments in ways that relate directly or indirectly to the new coronavirus, even in the midst of anxiety and negative feelings. Whether it's more flexibility at work, an opportunity to spend time with a child or family member, permission to shift gears from productivity to introspection, or a new personal growth opportunity, crisis can open up space for something new and unexpected to emerge. This isn't a way of sugarcoating or downplaying the tragedy of what's happening globally as this virus ravages lives and the global economy. But it is an aspect of crisis worth building on.
Something new and unexpected can also arise in the arena of sexuality in times of crisis. It's easy to take available sex for granted, particularly when it's convenient, accessible, and reliable—the same way we take for granted busy streets, crowded restaurants, vacations, hugs, toilet paper, and flights to and from Europe. But what if our newly complicated relationship to touch, exchanging bodily fluids, and sex also contains a silver lining in it that we might be able to take advantage of?
How to safely navigate sex during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 spreads primarily from person-to-person contact, especially through droplets that land on or are inhaled into the noses, mouths, and eyes of non-infected people. As such, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that people maintain 6 feet of distance between themselves and others, and especially avoid close contact with anyone sick.
That said, Jill Grimes, M.D., a board-certified family physician and author of Seductive Delusions: How Everyday People Catch STIs, tells mbg that sex with a partner you live with is likely fine if you're quarantining together and following necessary hygiene protocols carefully. She points out that if you're quarantining with someone (living in the same space, sharing the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom, etc.), chances are you've already been exposed to each other's infectious fluids. Especially if you're already kissing or exchanging touch with each other regularly while quarantined, there's little to no additional risk from having sex.
If you and your partner are living apart from each other, you have the option of connecting virtually rather than in person to avoid exposure. This choice would keep you both safer than traveling back and forth to spend time together. "You should avoid close contact—including sex—with anyone outside your household," the New York City Health Department's guidelines on sex and COVID-19 state.
How an obstacle can fuel sexual excitement.
In his book The Erotic Mind, sex therapist Jack Morin, Ph.D., talks about the erotic equation, which he sums up as "Attraction + Obstacle = Excitement." Morin makes a convincing case that what makes certain types of sexual experiences hot isn't purely attraction, or straightforward arousal, but the things that get in the way of attraction and arousal.
Take a moment to stop reading this article, close your eyes, and think back to one of your hottest sexual experiences...did this encounter contain embedded within it one or more obstacles, whether physical, geographical, or psychological? Did the person or people with whom you had this experience live somewhere far away? Was there a power imbalance or something about your different roles that contributed to your attraction feeling "forbidden"? Was this person someone you weren't "supposed" to desire, an authority figure or someone you were guiding or teaching? Obstacles of the type Morin referred to in his erotic equation can be used creatively in a committed relationship to make attraction more intense and excitement sweeter.
In the current climate where social distancing and touch-avoidance are often safer choices than reckless proximity and mindless touch, consider exploring ways that "distance" can be used to increase sexual excitement and pleasure, add sexual novelty, and even increase connection.
"People need to stay connected in the midst of this," says David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, which pulls together research that predicted the current coronavirus pandemic seven years ago. "It's what technology is for. It's what the internet is for. Social distancing does not mean emotional or intellectual distancing." This advice is certainly true for our intimate relationships.
Creative ways to explore sex from a distance:
1. Talk about sexual fantasies.
Consider disclosing one of your milder sexual fantasies to your partner. In his book Tell Me What You Want, Justin Lehmiller has compiled a list of the most common (and uncommon) sexual fantasies, based on a comprehensive scientific survey. You could start with considering the top three most common sexual fantasies: multipartner sex, BDSM, and sexual novelty. Talk about whether either of you has ever fantasized about these things in some form. The object here isn't necessarily to act on these fantasies; it's more to enjoy the shared frisson they provide, along with a potential deepening of your intimacy.
2. Try touch-free sex.
What would you be willing to try with your partner that might be arousing but also maintain distance between you? What about some form of a role play where no skin-to-skin touch was permitted—just hands hovering a few centimeters above the body? Or touching each other while wearing latex gloves, or with an object like a feather or wooden paddle? Or dirty talk? Or self-pleasuring on opposite sides of the room?
3. Make use of technology.
Another thing you might want to try out with your partner, particularly if you live apart, is virtual sex. If you have a low comfort level with this kind of sex-play (as many of us do), start small. Make a few risqué comments while holding each other's gaze on-screen. See how that feels. Then maybe go a little further (whatever that means to you). You can dance to a song of your partner's choice, initiate a brief game of erotic truth-or-dare, or play on-screen strip poker. (Just always remember there's a risk of nonconsensual screenshots with this type of play. Make sure there's a strong foundation of trust.)
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4. Acknowledge how you feel about talking about sex.
Research tells us time and again that open communication about sex is linked with more sexual satisfaction—but that doesn't mean all of us are comfortable with it. This is a great time to explore your feelings about not just sex but talking about sex. What feelings do explicit sexual conversations kick up for you and your partner? Embarrassment? Fear? Sadness? Hope? Share how (or if) sex was discussed in your household growing up and the impact this may have had on you.
Having these "meta" conversations about sexual expression can help ease some of the tension you might have about sex and start making sexual conversations easier. And there's no better time to do it than when you and your partner are cooped up waiting out a pandemic, right?
When sex doesn't feel safe, even with a partner you live with.
If your partner has a different view on COVID-19 that you feel affects their and/or your safety, it's important to create the right conditions for an honest, vulnerable talk. Even if you and your partner are following all of the CDC's guidelines as best you can, you still may not feel comfortable being sexual in the same ways you did pre-COVID. Talk to your partner about this, and about your underlying needs for safety, connection, reassurance, or emotional warmth.
Feeling unsafe may decrease your partner's sex drive, whereas your desire for sex may increase. For many, being in the midst of a pandemic shuts down sexual interest. For others, sexuality might be a way to soothe anxiety or experience pleasure despite fears. Recognizing where you and your partner fall on the desire spectrum, particularly in light of the risks related to touch and physical closeness, can prevent misunderstandings, bring assumptions to light, and help you both adjust your expectations. If there's a desire discrepancy (a difference in how much you both want sex) born out of—or exacerbated by—the coronavirus, talk about it.
Remember that there's nothing wrong with either of you. Even if you're not in the "high-risk" category for mortality from the coronavirus, your partner follows the CDC's safety protocols, and you're avoiding physical closeness or contact with other people, it's OK to admit you don't feel comfortable touching. You're entitled to set a boundary when it comes to touching, kissing, oral sex, and intercourse, regardless of whether you're casually dating or with a committed partner. Sacrificing your peace of mind to soothe your partner sexually isn't sustainable or healthy. The key here is talking about it without judgment or blame, honoring your feelings and needs, valuing your connection to your partner, and finding creative ways to express love.
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