COVID-19 and sex: How to protect yourself

Lauren Campbell

Editor’s note: This story contains language and terms that some readers may find graphic.

College is traditionally a time for students to have the freedom to explore sex and relationships in an environment with a large pool of single people. But complying with UK social-distancing guidelines during the most intimate of activities has its difficulties.

“Everything comes with some degree of risk. So do your best to mitigate those risks with the resources you have available to you,” said Kristen Mark, director of the sexual health promotion lab at UK.

COVID-19 has been detected in semen, stool, saliva, and urine samples, according to the FDA and CDC, so the likelihood the virus will spread through unprotected sex is high. The risk lowers when participants wear masks, dental dams, and/or condoms, said Mark.

“Focus on how to mitigate risk of COVID while still getting sociosexual needs met. This might mean that you masturbate a little more often than you used to. It might mean that you find someone you like to buddy up with so that you can be in a pod together for the duration of the virus. Or it might mean engaging in sexual activity a little differently than usual, minimizing things like kissing or close proximity face-to-face positions,” said Mark.

Throughout the pandemic, cities and universities across the country have released guidelines on sex and dating to lower students’ risk of contracting COVID-19 and educate them on COVID safe sex practices.

Neither UK nor Fayette County has issued guidelines on the subject. However, UK Sexperts, a student organization sponsored by UK Health Services that promotes sexual health education on campus, shared UC Berkeley’s sex and relationship guidelines to their Twitter.

According to UCB’s guidelines, there is no risk of transmission to self-pleasure, sext, or participate in virtual sex. Risk increases when physically with another partner and participating in activities such as mutual masturbation, protected oral/anal sex, fisting a vagina or sharing toys for vaginal sex.

The transmission rate is high when open mouth kissing an infected person, having sex with an infected person with no face mask, or rimming with an infected person.

“Kissing will exchange saliva and we know that droplets in close proximity in the air can transmit the virus, so certainly kissing will be higher risk and engaging in any sexual behavior where you’re breathing heavily in close proximity will be higher risk. However, positions that are not face-to-face, which can be achieved with oral sex and several other sexual behaviors, might not offer the same opportunity for droplet exchange,” said Mark.

For students looking to have non-intimate dates, UCB recommends students meet up with face masks at a non-restricted outdoor location, maintain a 6-foot distance and blow kisses goodnight.

Despite sharing UCB’s guidelines, UK will not be releasing COVID sex guidelines of its own.

“UHS has information as part of their overall discussions/programming about safer sex practices for students. In addition, students should be aware of how any behavior or activities that don’t include physical distancing and wearing masks put them at risk for becoming infected or spreading COVID-19,” said Kristi Willett, Director of Medical Campus Public Relations.

Students can pick up free face masks when completing their required COVID-19 test and free condoms at UHS in the bathrooms. UK Sexperts will also be hosting both virtual and in-person events throughout the semester, which will be announced through their Twitter page.

Students who entered the COVID-19 pandemic single, or who have broken ties with a

sexual partner during the last few months, should look to someone they are already exposed to for sex.

“Regardless of monogamous or consensually non-monogamous, it all depends on exposure to COVID-19. If it is someone who you aren’t already exposed to, you’re increasing your risk of exposure,” said Mark.

“If a student is with a partner and has podded up with that partner, having sex is perfectly okay. However, it is much more risky to engage in sex with a new partner that isn’t someone the student is already exposed to for risks of COVID-19,” said Mark.

And while students focus on COVID-19 safe sex practices, focusing on general safe sex is also important.

“If unintended pregnancy is a concern, I suggest getting on an IUD or similar contraceptive. If STIs are a concern, make sure you’re using barrier methods during all sexual activity, including oral sex. Managing both of those things within the context of COVID can be difficult, but just try your best to get your sexual needs met by someone who can be in your pod or circle of exposure so that you are minimizing risk,” said Mark.

However, students are their own safest sex partners.

“If you’re masturbating by yourself, there is no risk of contracting COVID, nor is there a risk of unintended pregnancy of STIs, while masturbating. Therefore, masturbation is a wonderful option all around,” said Mark.