When it comes to sex and dating in a Covid world, it would seem there’s a lot to navigate. Having spent the last 18 months following changing rules, restrictions, and personal responsibilities, it’s no surprise “summer of love” predictions were widespread.
But while there are people out there just looking to let off—whether that’s getting back into nightclubs or simply a good old hook-up—not everyone’s ready to get their legs akimbo. Couple anxiety around safe intimacy with fake news, and it’s no wonder we’re all a bit confused. That’s why, in an ever-politicised social climate when it comes to conversations around Covid, vaccines, intimacy and what that means for safe sex, both now and in the future, we turned to you—the good people on social media—to submit questions that you need answering.
In a frank conversation with Dr. Vanessa Apea—a consultant physician and the research lead for Sexual Health at Barts Health NHS Trust, also a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians with a Master in Public Health from Harvard University—we talk easing yourself back into the game, Covid sperm, STIs, and taking your sex to new levels of greatness.
When we asked people on social media for their questions around sex and dating in a Covid world, a number of people replied saying it’s not something they’d thought about. But we need to be thinking about it, right?
Definitely. There’s a number of layers to this: first of all, there’s lots of people who have been isolated through Covid, which can make you feel quite institutionalised, so the thought of going out again and how to navigate that can be hard to get your head around—even going out and speaking to your friends can be difficult. It’s completely understandable that some people haven’t thought about this… Some of the work I’ve been doing is supporting people and giving them the confidence to be with someone; to be intimate with someone is a natural thing. That’s one thing. But, during the pandemic, we’ve been told to stay in our bubbles, and now we’re going out there and have to consider the questions you might ask the person you’re meeting and be comfortable doing that. It sounds a bit sterile, but talking about symptoms: some people are doing regular Covid tests, it’s very much part of their lives, and some people are on a wing and a prayer, going out, doing whatever. So getting a sense of someone and a sense of what you feel comfortable with is important. I think more and more people are feeling confident to ask potential partners whether they’ve been vaccinated because these are things to be aware of and navigate, because it’s all about your own risk and vaccines are our best protection. We talk about sexually transmitted infections and knowing someone’s sexual history, so knowing when they last had a test should be commonplace. It’s about knowing where you stand with Covid, a virus related to interactions, and not something to feel uncomfortable to talk about.
There was talk of this summer being the summer of love, but it doesn’t seem to have happened. While some individuals are keen to get back out into the world, there’s another group experiencing anxiety and concern about how to move forward with dating. What would you say to people who don’t feel ready to get back out there?
Stepping back and thinking about the notion of the summer of love, the one thing about Covid is we have to make a lot of predictions and wait to see what pans out, and what’s been hard in making these predictions is it relies on human behaviour and human decision-making. It’s complex, because that’s dependent on what someone’s going through. If you’ve just lost someone to Covid, you might not want to go anywhere. Someone else might be thinking, ‘I’ve got one life! I’m not holding back.’ Those that are finding it difficult to navigate—look, it’s understandable: we’ve never been here before or had to deal with emotions about going out in this way. On top of all of that, now you’ve got a virus that could affect you, your family or friends. So it’s about arming yourself with as much knowledge as possible... Vaccines, if that’s what you’ve chosen... It’s all about armoury in Covid to give you the best protection and help you gain confidence.
That’s inspiring. So is the answer to have outdoor sex? Should we all be going au naturel and getting it on in the woods?
[Laughs] I shouldn’t be endorsing that but even starting to think about it in terms of ‘How can I move from being afraid of everything to enjoying life, and what puts me in the best position to enjoy life?’, that’s the way to go. We know that fresh air indoors when meeting people can reduce transmission by 70%. Often, in a lot of these conversations about vaccines, people say they feel coerced, but now that we’re 18 months into this, think about what it is you want from life and what can give you the best opportunities to enjoy life or do things in the way you want to. Getting the vaccine can give you the protection and headspace to not miss out on enjoying the things that matter to you.
For those that are getting back out on the dating scene, what are the easiest precautions that people—namely couples or potential couples—can take?
It’s being aware of the symptoms and testing yourself regularly. As long as you’re within the guidelines, you need to enjoy one another. If you’re doing as much as you can, be safe—whether condoms, contraception, vaccines or continuing to do Covid tests, it’s all another layer of protection. Take reassurance that 9 in 10 adults are now jabbed and as growing numbers have been vaccinated, fewer people are getting sick.
Looking at dating websites, there’s a trend for flagging your vaccination status. If you’re part of a social group or culture that’s particularly anti-vaccination, how do you navigate the sex/vaccine conversation? It feels really divisive and it can be quite make or break between two people trying to get together.
I’ve got many friends who do not want the vaccine and I’ve been very clear on my position on it. And I’m always clear it’s not about coercion, it’s about making sure people have the right information about it and respecting people and their concerns. It does get divisive when you listen to someone’s rationale, and you then say you don’t believe it. It can come across antagonistic, however kindly you say it. We need to create a culture where we can have this discussion; some people feel very strongly about maximising their barriers to Covid, and there are others that just don’t feel that. Respect that everyone will have different drivers for their differences, and then you can make a decision if you want to be more intimate with that person.
In May 2020, The Guardian ran a story around a study by doctors at a Chinese hospital who’d found that 16% of their male Covid patients had the virus present in their semen. Subsequent articles have suggested that you can, in fact, catch Covid from sperm. Is this true?
It’s tricky. I had to check the latest data… What I will say is that when we looked at Zika and Ebola, we wanted to know if any element of it could be sexually transmitted etc. With Covid, we know close contact—in any guise—puts you at higher risk. The last paper I read said they’d found significant quantities of Covid in semen but they didn’t think that was the main mode of passing it on. It seems very unlikely Covid is sexually transmitted.
Elsewhere on the World Wide Web, it’s even been suggested that Covid can spread through flatulence! True or false?
[Laughs] How has that even been researched or analysed? I was doing a myth-busting thing on TikTok, and while I never say 100% never, I want to know how this was worked out!
People were predicting a big rise in STIs when we came out of lockdown—did that happen?
We were still really busy during lockdown! There was still a need for sexual health services—we had to move things online and do remote testing, but there was a significant amount of testing going on during lockdown. But, definitely, as things have been released, people are having sex with different people. It’s increasing, as you would expect over summer, but it’s not been a big wave.
Is it safe to touch things like sideboards or headboards during sex? Should we be sanitising before and after?
The difficulty is: how realistic is this? You meet someone, you’ve done your tests, you’re creating a vibe, but you’ve got to be realistic. In this era, being mindful of general hygiene is important.
If you’re trying for a baby or are pregnant, should you get the vaccine? There seems to be concern around the vaccine and potential effects on fertility or potential effects on an unborn baby.
There’s a lot of understandable concern around this. The position of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is that there are no reasons to suggest that having the vaccine will affect your pregnancy or have a harmful effect on your unborn baby. We know this based on science and the technology that’s used, but also, building on that, in the early days we were relying just on studies. You wouldn’t put a pregnant woman in the trial, but some people got pregnant during so those results were looked at and there was no evidence to suggest the vaccine caused foetal harm. We’ve got lots of world data now, mounting data, to suggest it’s safe and we know that 98% of pregnant women in hospitals because of Covid are unvaccinated.
Some women have also reported changes in their menstrual cycle after having the vaccine. What would you say to anyone experiencing this and worrying about it?
That’s a really good question. First of all, it’s good to comment and note these things. In the UK, we have the yellowcard system where you can report what you think could be a side effect related to the vaccine, you submit it online via your GP, and it’s put into a national database. There are scientists, medics, analysing this data constantly. Some women have noted some differences, but these have generally been short lived. There’s been no indication it’s affecting fertility or that these changes are long-term, though. It could be any number of things causing it; we need more research, like with the Covid in sperm. Our cycles are hormonal so there’s various hypotheses, but if something’s not normal to you, get it checked out.
You must have experienced real frustration as a doctor, who’s studied for many years, when you’re hearing some of the misinformation about Covid and the vaccine.
Seeing Covid and how it’s affected everyone, especially the Black and brown communities, seeing that impact and seeing we have something, the vaccine, that can change that into something less negative is something I feel really strongly about. We don’t want to go back to what we saw before—particularly the second wave; I never want to see that again—so, when I do see people close to me who are really against the vaccine, it’s hard not to feel impassioned about it due to what I’ve seen. By the same token, what I’ve seen has driven my opinion, but a lot of people won’t have seen what we’ve seen in medicine. It’s always important to check your sources of information are trustworthy and only rely on official sources for medical and safety information, like the NHS website. Everyone’s on a journey with their decision-making so give people space and respect their decision. As long as I’ve given you the information in a kind and respectful way, you’ve got to make your own decision.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Don’t be shy with questions. No question is stupid. We’re all navigating and learning this together. Sexual health services are here and willing to have these conversations with you. Missing sex, there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a healthy response. It’s about having a positive attitude to sex and wellness.
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