Love No LimitThe Messiness of Pandemic Sex

an illustration of two people, one brown-skinned and one dark-skinned, kiss in front of a yellow background as they both wear masks

Illustration by Nicole Medina

For me, sex is very much about the intimacy of being touched and tangled. I revel in the joy of both touching and being touched because it’s my principal love language. I crave some form of touch all the time. It convinces me that I can love the flesh—the full humanity—of others and that my flesh is lovable too. Touch is a gentle reminder that we are, as Toni Morrison wrote in her 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, “…flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in the grass.” Touch of all kinds is so desperately needed right now, but touching someone during this pandemic could mean contracting a serious illness or encountering other betrayals of the mind and body that scientists have yet to discover. I was recently chatting with a friend who’s single and lives away from her family; she hasn’t hugged another human being since mid-March. Unfortunately, her story is common, which is both alarming and saddening.

I know other single women who haven’t experienced intimate, sexual touch since COVID-19 turned the world upside down—women who are wearing out their pleasure toys, climbing their walls, and taking risks in order to receive pleasure from another person’s hands, mouth, or other body parts that thrust and cream. Physical, in-person intimacy seems impossible right now, but we still yearn for it and need it for our health and well-being. This made me curious: If we’re unpartnered, unattached, and still choose to share in and prioritize physical intimacy and sexual pleasure, how can we make the best possible choices when deciding how to have sex and who to have it with? According Washington, D.C.’s government site, which discusses sex during COVID-19 as a matter of public health, the virus is highly contagious and spreadable through saliva and mucus, which is something to consider if you enjoy kissing and other mouth play.

The Government of the District of Columbia suggests not kissing unless you know the person well or you’re certain they’ve been isolating for at least two weeks. Science also tells us that COVID-19 can be spread through feces, so the virus can be transmitted through oral and anal sexual play (like rimming). The coronavirus has also been found in semen, but scientists and doctors have yet to find it in women’s vaginal fluid. If you’re still not ready to go outside for sex, which no one should be ashamed to admit (listen, this virus has shaken us to our cores), the safest sex we can have—at any time—is with ourselves. Now is the perfect time for us to tune into self-pleasure and explore exactly what our bodies want so we can become our own kinky and compassionate lover. (If you’re looking for some tips on making self-pleasure more satisfying, I chatted with one of my favorite sexuality educators, Goody Howard, about that very topic in a previous column.)

If you want to connect with a lover but aren’t quite ready to meet them face to face, create a private chat for some cybersex play. Computer love has always been a wonderful way to dive into exhibitionist fantasy play—a private OnlyFans just for you and your lover(s). If you’re into multiple partnered sex play, cybersex may be a safe way to fulfill that desire right now. Of course, it’s important to contemplate the risks that accompany playing with pleasure online: As health experts Nambi Ndugga and Jonathan Rorie note in a recent Teen Vogue piece, we should be thinking about how we can safely “negotiate, consent, recognize red flags, and protect sensitive information while online.” Just as we shouldn’t judge folks who indulge in only self-pleasure or cybersex during this pandemic, we shouldn’t judge those who are single and choosing in-person sex. I recently watched a fun video about sex in the time of COVID-19 on the very-dope and bad-assed Sophia Chang’s Instagram page. I have always loved that Chang is committed to telling stories about women who enjoy sex and singlehood, even past their 40s.

Choosing an in-person sex partner, whose level of exposure to the coronavirus might be unknown to you, means having almost clinical conversations about health and mindset.

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She writes in one post (in a series she calls COVID DICK DIARIES), “I hereby pronounce that me and my girls did not retire our pussies at 40, never mind 50.” I’ve tuned in to every post in the series since then—especially as an almost 44-year-old woman who also has no plan of giving up sex and pleasure as I age. Some of the advice Chang has given in her series is that communication and honesty are key. Choosing an in-person sex partner, whose level of exposure to the coronavirus might be unknown to you, means having almost clinical conversations about health and mindset. How serious does your potential lover take COVID-19 and its spread? Do they work outside the home? What is their level of exposure outside of work? Are they regularly tested for the virus? What are they sexually open to that doesn’t include sharing certain bodily fluids? If you’re not an assertive and effective communicator and you’re not willing to have these kinds of sobering (and maybe unsexy) talks before sex, you could increase your risk of catching (and spreading) the virus.

Physicians are pretty clear about the safest ways to have in-person sex during COVID-19 if you’re a single person who desires sex with someone outside your household. Sex, even with those you are quarantining with, carries some risk of exposure, especially if your sex partner is exposed to the virus through work or other human interactions outside of the home. You should be aware of the risks of infection if you choose to have sex at all, but should be especially aware if you choose to have sex with people outside your home. Having a minimal number of sexual partners reduces the chance of the virus spreading. Avoid kissing and other sexual behaviors that risk fecal-oral transmission or the transmission of urine or semen. Wear a mask! Shower before and after sex, and clean the physical space where sex will happen both before and after. The risk, and even planning, around sex during COVID-19 is dizzying. Part of our new normal will be deciding how we will have our needs met—that includes intimacy and sex. I’d love to hear how you’re approaching sex in the time of COVID-19, if you’re willing to share. Find me on Twitter and Instagram at @jonubian!


Josie Pickens
by Josie Pickens
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Josie Pickens is a womanist professor, cultural critic, and radio host whose many works explore the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Much of her writing seeks to curate expansive conversations about love, pleasure and healthy relationships. Follow Jo on Twitter: @jonubian.