Sex and social distancing: How the coronavirus crisis is changing intimacy

You don't have to give up on intimacy, but you may need to shift your view of what sexy looks like.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
6 min read

A couple kisses at the Milano Centrale railway station on March 8, after millions of people were placed under forced quarantine in Italy. "I think it's most important to balance our fear and anxiety of virus contagion by focusing on the human touch or emotional intimacy that is available to us at this time," sexual educator Wendy Strgar says. 

Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

When it comes to sex in the age of COVID-19, the NYC Health Department is clear on the most risk-free approach. "You are your safest sex partner," it says in new guidelines for sex during the coronavirus pandemic, underlining the word "you" for extra emphasis.  

But what if you're tired of all that self-isolation self-love and might prefer the kind of sex that involves appendages other than your own? 

True, sex might be the last thing on your mind as you glance over at a partner wearing the same sweatpants and wrinkled T-shirt for the third day. Then again, these are uncertain times, and amid worries about health, home schooling and market plunges, you may yearn for the comfort and pleasure physical intimacy can bring. A calming touch of ordinary in these anything-but-ordinary times.  

It's a carnal conundrum. Countless studies have shown humans require touch to thrive, but our new social distancing mandates require us to avoid hugging, shaking hands or brushing elbows on the train, let alone exchanging body fluids. "You should avoid close contact -- including sex -- with anyone outside your household," the NYC Health Department says. The next safest sex partner, after yourself, is someone you live with. And even then things can get tricky, if that someone isn't feeling well or returning from a trip that involved potential exposure to the virus.   

"The husband of a friend of mine will be returning from overseas in the next week or so, if he can get on a flight, and she can't bear the idea that she is supposed to shut him in a room until his quarantine period is over," says Juliet Richters, an honorary visiting professor in the sexual health program of the University of New South Wales' Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society. "Intimate contact … is important." 

Amid a pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives, with numbers growing daily, so, of course, is safety. As many people worldwide navigate working from home, schooling their children from home and even dating from home, sex is yet another area where patience, creativity and technology will define the new normal, Richters and other experts say. 

"Physical distancing doesn't mean being disconnected from one another," stresses Dr. Oni Blackstock, assistant commissioner for the NYC Health Department's bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control. 

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One way to stay intimate while distancing. 

Massimo Cavallari/Getty Images

But exactly how those intimate coronavirus-era connections will take shape is a story being written now, touch by cautious touch, video chat by video chat. 

Denton Callander, deputy director of Columbia University's Spatial Epidemiology Lab and a senior research fellow at the Kirby Institute, encourages people to view the current situation not as a barrier to intimacy, but an opportunity to express it. 

"If you care about someone and want to keep them safe, maintaining physical distance may be the best way to do this," he says. "Doing this together with a new or existing partner can be a way to bond over a shared goal, build trust and develop a little bit of excitement and energy for a time in the near future when sex is again feasible."  

Touch me, touch me, touch me, via technology 

Our digital culture is well-positioned to facilitate shifting models of sexual interaction.

Sex tech can be ordered online and delivered. From Jan. 1 to March 6, the Womanizer device recorded a 60% rise in sales in Italy, 40% in France and 71% in Hong Kong, all of which rank in the top 10 countries or regions most affected by the virus. Womanizer also partnered with sex toy seller Bellesa Boutique to give away thousands of free vibrators. "We want y'all home, safe and happy," Bellesa wrote on Instagram. 

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PornHub, not surprisingly, has seen a rise in traffic with people forced to stay inside and keep their distance.  


PornHub, which has made its premium content free to ease lockdown boredom, has seen a rise in worldwide traffic. It was up 11.6% on March 17, it reports, with more than 9.1 million searches containing either "corona" or "covid" recorded in the past 30 days. 

"I've noticed a few homemade porn videos appearing online with titles like 'jerking off alone during quarantine,' which is a great and safe way to engage sexually while maintaining physical distance," Callander says. "Voyeurism and exhibitionism can be really sexy, and the internet is the perfect tool for those kinds of experiences." 

Getting the message across

Sites like O Diaries, a destination for sex-positive information and opinions, have posted tips for keeping things spicy during quarantine, both for those hunkering down alone and those with partners. Such suggestions always involve devices, but not everyone is down with the idea of getting down the digital way. 

"First base: text flirting. Second base: sending photos of your house plants. Third base: video chat. Home run: Agreeing to meet up in six to eight business weeks," Twitter user Kevin Farzad joked in a tweet last week. 

Funny, to be sure, but as scenes of lively spring break parties in Florida demonstrate, some people find the idea of forgoing the press of warm flesh too unsexy to bear, even with the threat of becoming infected or returning home and infecting friends or relatives at higher risk of becoming seriously ill. 

In a New York Times opinion piece Saturday, playwright Philip Dawkins wrote that on March 19, two days after the San Francisco Bay Area ordered residents to shelter in place, he still saw locals actively looking for hookups on apps. 

"By Thursday on Scruff [an app for gay, bi and transgender men], at least 100 men were still online," he wrote. "On Grindr there were 111 people available within 6 miles. In my inbox: an invitation to a group-sex party."  

Watch this: Coronavirus lockdown: Why social distancing saves lives

Grindr, the world's largest social networking app for gay, bi, transgender and queer people, declined to provide user stats for areas where residents are currently being asked to stay at home -- among them California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Louisiana, Connecticut and Delaware. 

The app is, however, advising users to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing as recommended by local authorities. "We have published this information in the Grindr app to help users make the best informed decisions when interacting with others," a spokesman said. "Physical isolation doesn't have to mean social isolation."

In his piece, Dawkins issues a public plea to postpone hookups and get off via Skype instead. The same advice is coming from official channels. 

"If you usually meet your sex partners online or make a living by having sex, consider taking a break from in-person dates," advises the NYC Department of Health. "Video dates, sexting or chat rooms may be options for you." 

In many ways, the department's Blackstock says, the coronavirus is merely accelerating a trend toward tech-enabled intimacy that includes VR porn, sex robots and teledildonics. And that's a good thing, says Lora Haddock, founder and CEO of Lora DiCarlo, which makes a range of microrobotic pleasure products for women. 


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"This is a great time to be mindful of your sexual health, which has proven benefits beyond pleasure: enhanced moods, better sleep and reduced stress," Haddock says. "And there's a lot of that right now." 

Wendy Strgar, founder and CEO of Good Clean Love, which makes organic personal care products for women, believes there's no better time to rethink how today's technology, which can often seem distancing, can actually deepen intimacy. 

"There is an exchange of meaning that happens in an intimate conversation," Strgar says, recommending video chats over text messages to help offset our current social limitations. "Everything from witnessing the other person's facial expression and tone of voice to the light in their eyes teaches us how to feel and how to respond." 

Still, changing attitudes takes time, and, ultimately, any new social mores that arise from the pandemic may owe their success to messaging.  

"The HIV epidemic can teach us a lot about creative community responses to an epidemic that has a significant impact on the ways in which people connect sexually," says Jennifer Power and Andrea Waling, research fellows at La Trobe University's Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society who shared their jointly written views over email. "The gay community in Australia and many other countries developed really innovative campaigns to make safe sex sexy."

Now, go get out of that sweatshirt, fire up your video chat and get ready to embrace a sexual landscape that may be shifting permanently. 

Says Haddock, "I'm excited to see what new dating trends and habits stick around when the dust has settled." 

Our new reality now that coronavirus has sent the world online

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