Recently, I found myself in the all-too-familiar position of texting a new date before our first meet-up at an outdoor bar, studying my punctuation for signs of overzealousness (are exclamation points desperate?) and carefully selecting only the most elegant of emoji. Amid the usual so-what-do-you-do banter, though, was a more urgent question I didn’t know how to ask: “When was your last COVID-19 test?”
If we were merely getting together for masked outdoor drinks, I wouldn’t have necessarily felt the need to pose this question. What’s so often unspoken on a first date, though—for myself and many of my sexually active friends, at least—is the awkward question of whether the night will end in a passionate street make-out and a furtive shared cab ride home. Bradshaw-style, I couldn’t help but wonder: Could a casual, should-be-spontaneous sexual encounter possibly survive the requisite amount of health-info processing beforehand?
That sense of how-will-tonight-end mystery used to be one of the fun parts of dating, but in the COVID-19 era, it’s a potential risk factor; for months, I didn’t date or meet new people in person at all, letting Zoom take the place of my preferred first-date diner. Seven months into the pandemic, though, I find myself communicating with potential partners in a way I never did before, exchanging negative test results before dates and explicitly discussing who else I’m seeing (and, more crucially, sleeping with) in an effort to contact-trace myself in the direction of romance.
Every time I do sleep with a new person, I know it technically counts as COVID-19 exposure, no matter how careful we both swear we’ve been or how recently we’ve been tested. In June, New York’s Department of Health issued Centers for Disease Control-sanctioned regulations for sex during the COVID-19 pandemic, advising New Yorkers to “have sex only with people close to you.” What does that mean, though, when sex with new people is a regular part of your life? The average American, after all, has sex about 60 times per year, and it’s somewhat unrealistic to think that number would fall to zero for people not in monogamous relationships, even under the looming threat of a pandemic.
I’m not the only single person who’s talking COVID-19 protocols with new dates in the wake of the pandemic, as it turns out. For many straight people, sex in the age of corona has meant having the kinds of conversations their queer peers might have been long accustomed to. “As someone who was queer long before the pandemic,” says Eva, 30, “I was already talking about testing and contraception when necessary.” Eva, a queer cis woman who has cis and trans partners, says she has been “way more communicative with cis men about our health and lifestyle choices during the pandemic. They’re usually so much more evasive, in my experience. But at this point, it’d be super gauche of them to avoid the topic! I’m pretty blunt about telling them to get tested before we see each other.”
Not all queer people have embraced a more open mode of communication, however. Jake, 33, who describes himself as “a cis gay in New York,” says there’s little discourse about COVID-19 or any other transmissible disease on the dating apps he frequents. “I can’t speak for the straights at all, but with gays, if you’re on hookup apps, there’s very little conversation about this stuff. Like, it’s assumed everyone’s on [HIV prevention medication] PrEP,” he says.
The attempt to find a middle ground between total abstinence and wanton indulgence has characterized pandemic-era sex for men like Miguel, 28. “Before, I never felt super concerned about the amount of partners I’d have at the same time, but now I’m actively trying to limit the number,” he says, adding, “At the end of the day, I just want to make sure I’m with someone who has been relatively as responsible as me during the pandemic. That means outdoor activities, masking up around others, and being upfront about any potentially COVID-risky encounters. Chances are that we’ll be fine, but it’s better safe than sorry!”
For some, the pandemic has mean not a greater degree of precaution, but perhaps less. “I feel like because of isolation, people are really going for it,” says Jackie, 25, who’s been having what she calls “COVID chats” with potential new sexual partners in the wake of a nasty breakup: “My best friend just got a hotel room with a stranger, and another friend slept with four guys in a week. I’ve had my first group experiences [during the pandemic]. I think maybe the pandemic has really changed people’s sexual practices in the opposite way from how it was supposed to; there’s more instead of less.”
For those sexually active singles who aren’t taking precautions before sleeping with new partners, there’s often an element of postcoital guilt to reckon with. “I’ve casually hooked up with my ex a couple times and, frankly, have had zero COVID-19 discussion with him either time, which I know is…not great,” admits Jessica, 24: “I justified it to myself and to others by saying I know he’s been being careful…but really, there’s no way to know what someone is actually up to.”
“You are your safest sex partner,” the CDC reminded New Yorkers in June, and it’s undeniably true that abstaining from sex or physical contact of any type with new people is the safest thing you can do from a risk-management standpoint. However, sex isn’t only about sex; the act can lower blood pressure, improve self-esteem, and reduce stress overall. That “there’s no way to know” about another person’s sexual behavior is true, but it doesn’t only apply to sex; as TV’s Dr. House was so fond of repeating, everybody lies, and people aren’t always aware that they’ve been exposed to COVID-19. Maybe the best thing we can do, from a public-health standpoint, is decrease stigma around casual sex and instead promote an attitude towards sex that mitigates risk while still allowing for human error (and, more to the point, human desire).