COVID-19: Your sexual health questions, answered
TORONTO -- Warning: Some of the details outlined below may not be appropriate for children
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, personal health seems to have been placed under a microscope. With calls from government and health officials across the country to stay home and practise physical distancing, more emphasis is being placed on maintaining good health.
For many, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has led to questions surrounding safe sex practices and whether or not it’s OK to do it.
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CTVNews.ca reached out to several sexual health experts to get their take on some frequently asked questions about maintaining good sexual health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Dr. Lori Brotto holds a Canada Research Chair in Women’s Sexual Health and is a professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of British Columbia.
Dr. John Aquino is a family physician specializing in sexual health and the medical director of Ontario Men’s Health, a Toronto-based health clinic specializing in the treatment of male sexual dysfunctions.
Saleema Noon is a sexual health educator based in Vancouver with her own practice and has worked in schools across British Columbia.
1. Can COVID-19 be transmitted through sexual intercourse?
Dr. Lori Brotto: It’s a good question that hasn’t been thoroughly investigated, but what we know is that the virus is not transmitted through traditional intercourse, so penile and vaginal intercourse. If there’s oral contact, either oral-anal or oral-vaginal, there is some indication that it can be transmitted.
Saleema Noon: COVID-19 is not a sexually transmitted infection, so it’s not spread through semen or vaginal fluids like other STIs. However, as far as we know, COVID-19 can be transmitted through feces. This means it can spread through sexual activities that would expose a person to fecal matter.
2. Is it safe to have sex during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Brotto: Sex with your partner that you live with that you're having regular physical contact with, yes, is entirely safe.
Dr. John Aquino: If two partners are isolating together, they can just carry on as before as long as they’re comfortable with that. The people who are in a tough spot are couples who don’t live together and where one or both partners have a more complicated living situation, maybe they’re living with elderly people or others they don’t want to put at risk. These people should be isolating from each other to avoid putting others at risk.
Noon: It's all a matter of mitigating the risk. When we're living with our loved ones, it's not realistic to say, ‘stay six feet away from your partner.' Especially in times like this where we can be stressed out and things are so uncertain, we get a lot of comfort from our partners. Sometimes this comfort comes in the form of sexual activity – we're human and we need that.
3. What about having sex with new people?
Brotto: This is not a time to be engaging in sexual activity with people you don’t live with. It's not the sex that's dangerous – it’s the physical contact with other people, which increases the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Noon: It would not be a smart choice to be having sex with anyone outside of your household because then you're exposing that person and whoever they're in contact with to your germs and at the same time, you’re exposing yourself to whatever germs they've come in contact with.
4. What changes would you recommend people make to their sex routine?
Brotto: If one partner is COVID-19 positive and the other is not, yet they still want to continue engaging in sexual activity, there are ways of doing that. Washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after sex is key. It’s also important to prevent those respiratory droplets from spreading – wearing a mask can really help with this.
Noon: Times of stress and uncertainty, or even just changes in our day-to-day routine, can undoubtedly affect a person's feelings of arousal and sex drive. It’s really important for partners to communicate about their existing sex life and if they’d like to make any changes to it, while of course still practising consent and respecting each other’s boundaries. Every person is different, which is why it's so important for partners to communicate openly about how they're feeling.
5. Is it OK to kiss?
Aquino: This would fall into the same category as other sexual activity – if you should be distancing from someone, you shouldn't be kissing them, just like you shouldn’t be having intercourse. The physical closeness is really the key here and should be avoided in this case. I think maybe a smile and a pat on the shoulder or a little hug is going to suffice these days. In terms of partners that are living together, I think it's a personal decision, whether or not they want to kiss. There isn't really official guidance on this, but I think people should just follow their own comfort level.
6. I recently kissed someone who has started developing COVID-19 symptoms. What should I do?
Brotto: They should maintain physical distance. If they're concerned they might have symptoms of COVID-19, they would want to isolate at home and monitor their symptoms. They should also engage in forms of self-care, like eating healthy, getting enough sleep and staying hydrated.
Aquino: Both people should definitely isolate at home and the person with symptoms should contact their doctor for advice based on their symptoms and situation. This includes how to monitor symptoms and whether they should come in for testing or not, because the criteria on testing seem to change day-to-day.
7. I wasn’t using a condom with my partner before the COVID-19 outbreak – should I start now?
Brotto: Since the virus is transmitted through respiratory droplets and not through semen – there’s no evidence that I'm aware of to date that suggests that it can be transmitted through semen – I don't think that wearing a condom is going to prevent the other person from getting COVID-19.
Aquino: Condoms don't protect against COVID-19 – the risk is from the physical closeness, not the sexual contact itself. There's no higher or lower risk of contracting COVID-19 if you were to use a condom.
Noon: It's always a good idea to use a condom if other contraception is not being used and if STI transmission is an issue for them. But COVID-19 doesn’t change that because it’s not sexually transmitted.
8. What other ways can people maintain an active sex life?
Brotto: For people that regularly have hook-up sex, abstaining from sex right now might actually take a toll on their mood and their ability to cope. For a lot of people, sex is not just an enjoyable activity, it’s a coping strategy. So this is really a time to cultivate other ways of being sexual, like through reading erotica to your partner or sharing fantasies with one another – things that can all be done by phone, FaceTime, Zoom or other mediums. Cybersex is definitely another safe option if it can be done carefully, notwithstanding the privacy concerns that exist around putting things online.
Aquino: Masturbation toys are having a star moment right now. Some streaming sites with erotic content are even operating for free, so there are all kinds of options. I think it's important that people actually acknowledge their sexuality and modify it to the situation instead of suppressing it. It’s important for their emotional health, especially at a time like this when many people are experiencing anxiety over the way we're having to live.
Noon: It’s a good time for partners and single people to consider masturbation. Whether a person's alone or living with their partner or has a partner that’s not in their household at the moment, masturbation is a perfectly safe way to satisfy the natural sexual feelings that they're experiencing. Of course people would need to wash their hands thoroughly afterwards – good habits that we've been learning over the past few weeks around general hygiene would definitely apply. There are also some great sex-positive podcasts people can listen to alone or with their partner, and pornography is another option for adults.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual misconduct, please visit the Government of Canada website for a list of support resources.