You can board up the walls, you can spend months subsisting entirely off of Campbell’s Pork & Beans and Top Ramen, you can submerge into a bathtub full of Lysol every night, and there will still be one glaring vulnerability in your coronavirus defense plan — the romantic partner, or partners, you routinely welcome into your life.
This has obviously been on my mind a lot lately. I work from home, fully inoculated from sunlight, rogue pathogens and the other evils of the outside world. My girlfriend, on the other hand, rides a disgusting subway every morning and late afternoon, neutering my most neurotic hypochondriac firewalls. As citizens of New York City, one of the first epicenters of the domestic side of the coronavirus crisis, we fully expect to be under a stringent quarantine in the coming days. There are truly insane implications here; the coronavirus will brutally disfigure the global economy, culture and forthcoming presidential election. But right now, I’m also considering how it’s going to affect our sex life.
The idea of being on virtual lockdown for weeks in a dinky apartment equipped only with a cupboard full of non-perishables and a bare-minimum suite of creature comforts is horrifying. A lot of Americans are going to be both anxious and bored for the foreseeable future, and traditionally, boning is the perfect way to escape that toxic combination of feelings. Unfortunately, boning in the age of a rapidly transmissible infection isn’t necessarily medically advisable, so says John Lednicky, research professor at the University of Florida’s College of Public Health.
“It should be common sense, really. Any type of respiratory illness, you’re going to give it to your partner, that goes without saying,” he explains. “People can spread the virus before they show signs. That’s true for almost any respiratory virus. Oftentimes you can produce large amounts of virus before you show symptoms. And if your partner develops symptoms, you’ve been exposed to it.”
So no, Lednicky doesn’t see the use in tarping a plastic sheet to your bed frame, or mandating a temperature screening before hooking up. In fact, the professor is mostly sanguine about sexual intimacy during a crisis for those who are young and healthy. It’s been widely reported that the coronavirus disproportionately affects elders, which is currently contributing to the worsening humanitarian crisis in Northern Italy. If anything then, Lednicky is slightly annoyed that millennials are panicking, given that they represent the least of the medical task force’s concerns.
“[A plastic tarp] isn’t going to be effective anyway. If someone is producing the virus, I guarantee you that the air is full of the virus, and it’ll last for more than a few days on contaminated surfaces,” he continues. Instead, he says, the most prudent concerns young people should have is to ensure that their older loved ones are safe from exposure. A sodden, coronavirus-riddled sex dungeon? Not ideal, but unavoidable and far from the end of the world.
Brandon Brown, an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside who studies sexually transmitted diseases, offers a slightly different approach compared to Lednicky’s hopeful doomerism. As far as he’s concerned, it’s a good idea to make sure that anyone you’re intimate with — be it a random hookup, someone you’re dating or a long-term partner — isn’t stricken with a fever or a nasty cough before you do the deed. That’s good advice in non-pandemic cycles, too; after all, no Tinder match is worth the flu.
Unfortunately, it’s extremely neurotic to hyper-analyze a partner’s every sneeze, and I think we’re all struggling to adapt to the social hyper-vigilance that coronavirus demands. Is it okay to evacuate yourself from a booty call due to fear of contagion? Are we all being way too extra? Am I going to be gossiped about in their group text later? Who cares. Brown tells us not to worry about committing a hookup faux pas — your health is too important to take lightly.
“We should always ask about our sexual partner’s health. If we’re having penetrative sex, we should ask about STIs. If someone is coughing or sneezing, ask how they’re feeling. If they aren’t well, defer the date or the sex to the future,” he suggests. “It’s always good to protect yourself.”
Part of what Brown is preaching here has already been administered in some regions where coronavirus has taken a foothold. France, perhaps the most PDA-friendly country on the map, has asked its citizens to refrain from their customary pecks on the cheek. Essentially, kissing is now formally frowned upon by the French government. (These are unprecedented times.) Back stateside, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to rule if the actual sex part of sex makes someone a coronavirus risk — though Brown tells me that it’s “unlikely” that the illness is sexually transmitted.
Honestly, the conclusions available about sex and coronavirus mirror the ways we currently understand the disease in every other aspect of life. Incidental contact, like a meet-cute at a bar, doesn’t necessarily put you at risk. But the further you circle the bases with someone who’s symptomatic or fresh off a cruise ship, the more you’re throwing caution to the wind. And if you’re like me and live with a partner, you can enjoy the strangely chill fatalism that if one of you gets it, you’re both gonna feel real bad for a while — together.
Hooking up during a coronavirus outbreak is about making irresponsible choices, with limited upside, while ignoring the long-term consequences. I’m sure you didn’t need a pandemic to teach you that lesson.