DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My girlfriend and I are 60+ years old. We are both concerned about getting the COVID virus. We have separate homes and practice social distancing when we spend time together. My question has to do with sex. We do not kiss, massage, have intercourse, oral sex or manual sex at all now. I think we could safely use our hands to manually give each other orgasms. She thinks this could not be done safely. I think with masks and hand sanitizer we could enjoy it safely. It has been four months of abstinence and thinking of possibly a year or longer seems too long. Are their safe options to give each other orgasms?
Hard Up in Hanover
DEAR HARD UP IN HANOVER: I feel the need to preface this with my standard disclaimer: Dr. NerdLove is NOT a real doctor, so I am probably the literal last person you should be going for for medical advice. Take my advice with all applicable levels of salt and possibly a second opinion from an actual medical professional.
That having been said:
The COVID-19 pandemic has been playing merry hell on everyone, whether couples in long-term relationships, single folks who want to meet other sexy singles, even folks who are just missing their friends. Hell, poly relationships are facing all kinds of challenges — the relationship anarchy model starts to fall apart when the partners who don’t live together are left out because the rest don’t want to risk breaking quarantine.
But if there is one truth to humanity, it’s this: sex almost always wins in the end. Sex is as primal a need as you can get; when people were risking death before the pandemic in order to get laid (such as LGBTQ individuals in countries where being queer is a literal death sentence), COVID isn’t going to stop them either. Sometimes people look at la petite morte and decide that maybe la grande morte isn’t that scary. So… yeah, a lot of folks are deciding that sex really is to die for.
However, while even the threat of death and disease isn’t enough to make people choose abstinence (well… for very long, anyway), there are ways of getting your thrills without bringing the pandemic to the party. The key is to recognize just what the risks are and how you can mitigate them. And while COVID is a new virus that we still know comparatively little about (hence the name: novel coronavirus), the current science tells us that it’s primarily transferred through airborne respiratory droplets, such as when someone speaks, sneezes or coughs, and those droplets land in the nose or mouth, or get aspirated into the lungs. This is part of why masks are an important part of preventing the spread of the virus; the masks keep the droplets contained, instead of flying through the air. Similarly, it’s why social distancing helps reduce the chances of infection; the distance makes it less likely that the droplets will find purchase in your lungs or mucus membranes.
That’s also why the disease can be spread during sex: vanilla sex tends to involve a lot of face-to-face contact with kissing, consistent heavy breathing, gasping and talking and various other exhalation and inhalation. But if you take the primary risk out of the equation — kissing, etc. — you can drastically reduce the odds of transmission. This is why the New York City Department of Health and the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control suggest, amongst other things, using barriers that allow for sexual contact but don’t allow for face-to-face contact (i.e. glory holes), rear-entry sexual positions and keeping masks on during sex. They also recommend having sex in larger, well-ventilated spaces, washing your hands thoroughly before and after sex and to make doubly sure NOT to touch your face with unwashed hands.
But there are lots of other activities that you can do together as well, especially if you don’t want to risk penetrative, penis-in-vagina sex. The more you expand your definition of sex beyond penetration, the more options you both have. Mutual masturbation, whether in person or via Zoom or Skype is an obvious one. So too would be masking up and masturbating each other, erotic massage or using sex toys on one another.
However, there is another option if the two of you want to get your freak on but don’t necessarily want to drill a hole in the drywall. One of the ways people have adapted to the quarantine so that they can be safe and have their social needs met is the formation of quarantine pods (or quaranteams, if you’re feeling clever): a closed circle of people, all of whom are incredibly conscientious about hygiene, health practices, masking and social distancing. Everyone agrees to certain rules — testing, not seeing anyone outside the pod, two weeks of self-isolation if they DO spent time with friends or family members outside the pod, staying home as much as possible and taking all sensible precautions when they leave the house — and then they’re able to visit and socialize in person, without the hurdles of masks or maintaining a six-foot distance at all times. These pods have been lifesavers for people who’ve been feeling cut off or isolated, especially when Zoom calls and social media aren’t enough to help them get their social needs met. It isn’t always easy; it requires that everyone follow the rules EXACTLY to minimize (not eliminate) risk, and God knows there’re been folks who can’t or won’t do that. But it creates a space for that social contact amongst a close-knit group.
If you and your girlfriend are strictly monogamous (or will be so for the duration of the pandemic) then this is an option that you could look into pursuing. It takes a certain amount of pre-planning and making sure you’re being scrupulously careful, but it would allow you to have a physical relationship that more closely resembles what you had prior to the lockdown and quarantine. Start with the two of you getting a COVID test. If you both test negative, then you can start laying the groundwork: what rules you’ll both follow to minimize exposure, how often you’ll see each other, who else you can spend time with and under what circumstances, etc. Then, if you’re both being rigorous about your safety protocols — wearing masks whenever you go out or visit others, practicing social distancing, washing your hands like you were cutting jalapeños and you need to take your contacts out, staying socially distanced and not going to bars, restaurants, etc. — then you can take the plunge and have standard, mask-free sex… as well as the hugs, casual touching, cuddling on the couch, meals, massages, even sleeping together that you’ve both been longing for.
Now to be clear: this reduces the risk and likelihood of exposure; it doesn’t eliminate it. So you both have to assess just what level of risk you’re willing to tolerate. Even these precautions might not be enough to ease your girlfriend’s fears — and that’s legitimate. If that’s too much risk for her, that’s too much risk for her, and that’s entirely understandable.
However, life is inherently a full-contact sport. We assume a certain level of risk just by existing. The key is to find the level of risk you are both comfortable with, and work from there. But with a little creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, the two of you can find some practices that’ll help you stay connected and give you the intimacy you’re missing.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org