The coronavirus pandemic has shaken up many aspects of people’s lives, and romance is no exception. After months of social distancing and quarantining, people want to seek out intimacy. However, COVID-19 has left people unsure of what risks sex and dating pose.
Some people are turning to online dating as a result. Emily, a University of Oregon student who asked that her last name not be published, started an online relationship right after the pandemic began. For her, entering a relationship during the pandemic was both scary and comforting.
“It was another person I could talk to about all my fears and, for that reason, it made the new relationship a lot more intimate than normal,” she said.
Emily and her boyfriend talked over FaceTime and watched movies together. While they were not physically close to each other, Emily said they could connect over the shared trauma of living through a pandemic.
“It was nice having someone as an anchor, even when I was up to my neck in the stress of unemployment, online classes and fear for my parents’ health,” Emily said.
But after six months of online dating, Emily and her boyfriend broke up. Once physical distancing restrictions had loosened and the two were able to see more of each other, Emily realized their relationship “was a lot more ideal virtually than it was in reality,” she said.
“I think my view of him was clouded by the fog of the pandemic,” she said, “and I was just hanging onto the last shred of intimacy from before the pandemic.”
During such a stressful time, some crave social and physical connection. After all, humans are social creatures.
Lydia Giersch, a student who works with UO’s Protection Connection program, said she recognizes the challenges many people, especially college students, face at a moment when restrictions on in-person gatherings are crucial to slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“COVID definitely had a big impact because it seems like the polar opposite of things that we usually do, especially when you’re in college,” Giersch said, “which is seeking out new people and trying new things.”
Despite the COVID-19 guidelines in place, “No one is under the assumption that sex isn’t happening between students right now,” said Giersch, a senior majoring in women’s, gender and sexuality studies.
Giersch said sex education programs are adapting their approach to helping students make the healthiest choices for themselves.
Protection Connection, for example, gives UO students free sexual health supplies through a delivery service in the residence halls and in spots across campus. The program is continuing its normal operations during the pandemic and is launching a pickup program for off-campus students this fall, Giersch said.
COVID-19 has added new elements to sex and dating that people didn’t have to worry about before the pandemic began. How do you go on a date in a pandemic, for one?
Giersch recommended scheduling virtual dates. However, she added that it’s important for people to communicate with their partners and have conversations about each partner’s boundaries.
“When it comes to digital consent, the way we communicate is definitely based on body language and facial language,” Giersch said. “So when you take that out of the equation, it can definitely get trickier.”
Cate Clegg-Thorp, a health promotion specialist at the UO Health Center, recommended that students reflect on their own boundaries before dating or being intimate. “It’s just going to position you in a much stronger place to be able to have those conversations,” she said.
After online dating for six months, Emily offered similar advice. “I think a relationship during this time could really help people who are struggling with loneliness,” she said. “Just be transparent before you meet and establish boundaries early on.”
More people have also been engaging in cybersex and sexting during the pandemic, said Fran Smith, co-director of the Organization Against Sexual Assault at UO.
Smith emphasized the importance of digital consent. “Any photos sent or received must have confirmed consent from both parties,” Smith said. “Let’s say someone wants to send a lewd photo to someone they met on Tinder. That is a perfectly normal and healthy impulse, so long as the person on the receiving end of the message has confirmed that they would like to receive it.”
When screenshotting or saving such content, Smith said there must also be a clear and enthusiastic “Yes!” to the question.
Recording sexual acts without consent is also never okay, Giersch said. “If someone has been violated this way, they definitely have the right to report it and seek legal action,” she said.
Paulina Kuchepatova, an OASA co-director, said having open conversations about COVID-19 concerns and boundaries should be a “new extension” of the conversations that people already have with their partners.
“A lot of sex-positive work focuses on de-stigmatizing topics that might be considered taboo or uncomfortable, and COVID is no exception,” said Kuchepatova, a senior studying public relations and Russian.
Right now, it’s important for people to consider their risk of exposure to COVID-19 when it comes to sex and dating, Giersch said.
“You are your safest sex partner,” she said. “And if you do make the decision to engage in intimate relations or meet up with someone, be aware of the precautions you can take.”
A person’s next safest sex partner is someone they live with, according to guidance from the New York City Health department. NYC Health recommends that people skip sex if they or their partner is not feeling well, have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or have an underlying medical condition that could worsen the effects of COVID-19.
While many people may be abstaining from sex at the moment, Kuchepatova said this is a perfect opportunity for people to get in touch with themselves and their sexuality through masturbation.
“Many studies have shown that masturbation also aids in stress relief by producing hormones such as dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin, among other things,” she said.
Smith said that students should invest in sex toys and personal devices as a way to relax. “I think that pleasure is something that can fall to the wayside as we become busy,” they said.
Giersch said Protection Connection has previously partnered with As You Like It, an environmentally conscious and gender-inclusive sex-toy shop based in Eugene, and she recommended it for students. “We do talk about sex toys beause it’s a normal part of someone’s sexuality and sexual life,” she said.
Protection Connection publishes a weekly newsletter on intimacy, pleasure, relationships and sexual health. In the latest issue on intimacy, students can find tips for “Stay at Home Sensual Self-Care” such as exercising, breathing exercises, dancing and engaging in pleasure, “with or without the help of erotica, a partner or pornography.”
Smith also recommended students routinely visit a sexual healthcare professional.
“Making sure to get tested for COVID and STIs regularly is important to reduce the spread of the virus,” Smith said. “We don’t recommend group dating or any situation involving a gathering of ten or more people, to stay in accordance with state of Oregon Phase II recommended guidelines.”
The UO Health Center has STI testing available to students amid the pandemic and students can access contraceptives through its pharmacy, Clegg-Thorp said.
“Students can actually just consult with a pharmacist and get a birth control prescription for something like the pill or a few other options there at our pharmacy,” she said.
Clegg-Thorp said students can access telehealth if they are reluctant to visit the Health Center.
During such a challenging and uncertain time, Kuchepatova stressed the importance of self-care. “Everyone’s sexual health journey is unique to them, just like everyone’s experience with the pandemic,” she said. “We understand that times are hard.”
Smith said it is also okay for people to be single or to feel lonely right now. “It is human to want to be around others, and missing human contact is something that I even struggle with sometimes,” they said. “We are all in this together, and we are here to support students through their journey towards or through healthy sexuality.”