Guest Opinion: Sex in the time of COVID-19

  • by Alan Lessik
  • Wednesday April 29, 2020
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Alan Lessik. Photo: Courtesy Alan Lessik
Alan Lessik. Photo: Courtesy Alan Lessik

Who could imagine that radical behavioral changes required due to the new coronavirus would make kissing dangerous and caressing forbidden? Sadly, health professionals have largely ignored sex and intimacy as they outline the dos and don'ts of our current lives. The implicit message is that we shouldn't be talking about sex when people are dying. However, that is the wrong response to an urgent human need.

Throughout the last century, LGBT men and women were forced to assess the risks of desire. Long before AIDS, we cruised and sought out sex partners in a hostile world. A wrong move or misplaced trust could bring beatings, arrest, and/or blackmail, leading to the loss of livelihood and home. The right move brought us intimacy, pleasure, friendship and, sometimes, love.

During the HIV/AIDS pandemic, we were forced to assess new risks. With better understanding of that virus, we identified safer sex methods. These changed over time with medical advances until today we have undetectable equals untransmittable, or U=U, and PrEP as an available prevention strategy. We have adapted to each of these changes.

The New York City Health Department was the first to post guidelines for sex during the coronavirus outbreak. While it emphasizes physical distancing as well as intimacy with those already in one's home, the guidelines also recognize that people will reach out to others. More recently, the San Francisco Department of Public Health issued more specific COVID-19 Sexual Health Tips. In a time of extreme isolation, sexual connection is an important component in maintaining our mental and physical health.

Just as the history of the AIDS pandemic has shaped epidemiologists' thinking about COVID-19, the previous development of HIV safer sex and harm reduction protocols give us a model now. Shaming was used as an early tactic but studies quickly showed that it only drove unsafe behaviors deeper underground. Harm reduction strategies attempt to understand why people have certain behaviors and propose changes that they can undertake. As we see today, significant numbers of people are unable to easily alter their behaviors due to a lack of financial resources, their living situation, other health issues, the need to work, marginalization by society, and/or addiction. Yet, sex and intimacy, connection and support are desires shared by all.

In the last month, most of us have modified the range of our activities to limit exposure to the coronavirus. Some are quarantining extremely tightly with minimal exposure to outsiders, home delivery of food and needed items, and continuous sanitation procedures. Others are following guidelines that permit food and other shopping along with outdoor exercise with physical distancing.

To date, the bias in public health practice favors those who are living with their sex partners, leaving out up to 50% of the population. LGBTQ people are all adept at assessing risks, even if we do not always follow them. What we need is a harm reduction approach to attend to our sexual needs based on our life and environment as well as our assessment and openness to risk.

So what is a guy or gal to do? It depends on your risk level.

No risk

Get out those toys stored in the bottom drawer of your dresser. It's time to clean up your dildos, rev up the vibrators, swab down the sounds, put on your ball gag, and pump up your nips. Online venders, such as Mr. S Leathers and Good Vibrations, here in San Francisco, are still delivering if you want to expand your repertoire. Use your time so you are prepared next time you get to play in person.

Make new friends internationally or locally online. Find out what is going on where they live, swap some pictures, and begin the fantasies. Most of the global LGBT community is horny right now and are ready to talk about it.

Porn is always a standby but using video cameras is quite popular as we shelter in place. There are lots of horny folks out there and the intimacy of responding to a hot man or woman on the other side of the camera beats (so to speak) anything else.

Low risk

If "50 Shades of Grey" taught us anything, we know the power dynamics of BDSM can be played out while adhering to physical distancing in the same room or even in different places. Gas masks and means to filter the air may change all sex play for the next years. Get creative.

Move in with your primary play partner. Observing a 14-day quarantine with them until you both are sure you have no symptoms or exposure will allow you to go at it once the waiting period is up. Obviously, a deep and honest conversation needs to occur about expectations and needs during this period and afterward.

Low-medium risk

Observe the 14-day quarantine with a trusted sex partner who lives separately from you. As above, mutual honesty and trust are called for and optimally the two of you would commit to only having sex with each other during this time. Some folks have trusted circles, with several people that have committed to follow the physical distancing guidelines in their life outside these interactions. This option increases in risk with the addition of each member of the circle.

As to the future, based on the HIV experience, antibody testing will change the risk equation as we gain additional information to make decisions. We will likely see distinctions being made between COVID-19-positive and -negative possible sex partners, just as we have seen in the past with HIV.

At the end of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, "Love in the Time of Cholera," his star-crossed lovers spend their last moments on a ship that raised the cholera flag solely to keep others away so that they could have their long-sought privacy. While this might have described the queer community in the past, we won't hide away in this pandemic. As we take strides to prevent the virus from spreading, let's maintain intimacy in our lives in an open, honest, sex-positive, and caring manner. We can do both and live better for our decision.

Alan Lessik is a writer, Zen practitioner, amateur figure skater, LGBT activist, and former nonprofit leader. His debut novel, "The Troubleseeker" (Chelsea Station Editions), was short-listed for the Publishing Triangle's 2017 Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction. His nonfiction works and essays have been published by Lambda Literary, KQED, the Advocate, and San Francisco Bay Guardian. Alan is on the board of the LGBTQ Writers Caucus of Association of Writers and Writing Programs and has moderated panels about queer writing in the last three national conferences. He is a member of the National Writers Union. Follow him at

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