How to Talk to a New Sexual Partner About COVID-19 Risk

two women wearing masks looking at each other

Your heart is beating fast. Your palms are sweating. You can hear your partner’s breath speed up, and you know it’s going to happen: for the first time, you and that special someone are about to take your face masks off.

Dating has been a little different during the coronavirus pandemic, to say the least. While those (un)lucky enough to be quarantined with partners have dealt with the ups and downs of unmitigated togetherness, the singles among us have gotten intimate with our phones and face masks, as virtual dates lead to socially distanced walks in the park and, perhaps, genuine intimacy.

Now, as we adapt to the new normal of intermittent lockdowns and restricted social interactions, many of us are left unsure how to keep ourselves safe while dating. Some, especially those of us who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, may have taken a step back from IRL dating for the time being. But many of us are choosing to navigate the already-choppy waters of real-life intimacy with the added threat of the virus.

How do we determine our physical and emotional boundaries, and have those important conversations with a new partner? How can we make potentially life-or-death decisions about pandemic safety with someone we may not yet know?

I spoke to Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, about how to have these tough coronavirus conversations with new partners. Dating during the pandemic definitely ups the stakes of healthy communication, but these unique circumstances can also challenge us to be clearer about our own goals and boundaries. Ultimately, these difficult times can help us grow to be bolder and more confident on our journey for the love we crave.

Learn About The Risk

“These times can be confusing, but we have to stay safe and be proactive,” said Catchings. That starts with educating ourselves about the risk of coronavirus in our area, and about the connection between physical intimacy and coronavirus transmission.

Staying informed doesn’t mean exposing ourselves to excess negative news. “It is more about learning what is happening in our community and weighing the risks accordingly,” said Catchings.

If you’re currently in an area with increased community spread, it might make sense to confine dating to video chat for the time being. If, on the other hand, cases are down in your area, it may be safe to meet IRL, go on a picnic, and even — if you’ve both been tested — swap some spit.

Can you get COVID-19 from sex?

COVID-19 is spread primarily through saliva, though it has also been found in feces and semen. It’s not clear whether you can get the coronavirus from vaginal fluid. Because of this, the NYC Department of Health said COVID-19 probably doesn’t directly spread through sex — but it does spread through spit, which is exchanged during kissing or even during close-talking, so sex remains a high-risk activity.

Focus on harm reduction

Whatever your choice is regarding physical intimacy during the pandemic, it’s important to educate yourself on the relationship between COVID-19 transmission and sex. The New York City Department of Health offers helpful, sex-positive advice on intimacy during the pandemic.

“Decisions about sex and sexuality need to be balanced with personal and public health,” the Department’s guidelines write. “During this extended public health emergency, people will and should have sex.”

Rather than an abstinence-only approach, the Department advises considering your own boundaries and desires, as well as employing some steps to reduce risk — just as you would to protect yourself from STIs like HIV. This is called a “harm reduction” approach.

Reduce the likelihood of transmission

The surest way to reduce the likelihood of getting COVID-19 is to stick to masturbation alone throughout the course of the pandemic. The next safest sexual partner is someone you live with, as you are already in close contact.

If you are having sex with someone outside the home, it’s a good idea to limit your circle of contacts, as well as other sexual partners, as much as possible. The more people the both of you are interacting with, the more likely you are to come into contact with the virus.

You should avoid having sex if you or your partner have had coronavirus symptoms within the past two weeks, or a positive coronavirus test within the last ten days, or if you’ve been in contact with anyone who has the virus.

You can also reduce your risk of passing or contracting the virus by avoiding kissing or anything else that exchanges saliva during coronavirus. You can wear a mask during sex for an added layer of protection. You can also make sure to wash your hands for at least twenty seconds before and after sex.

Finally, you can get tested for COVID-19 regularly, and avoid sex if your results are positive, until your doctor says it’s okay to leave self-isolation.

Define Your Boundaries

Once you understand the risks around sex and COVID-19, you can make decisions about what’s important for you. What level of risk are you comfortable with? Do you have any conditions that make you particularly vulnerable to the virus, or do you live with others who are particularly vulnerable? What steps do you want to take to protect your health and the health of those around you?

Consider your relationship goals

Defining your boundaries requires some soul-searching, not just about your risk of coronavirus, but about what you want from relationships in general.

Are you looking for a one-night stand, or a long-term relationship? At what point in a dating relationship would you normally become physically intimate with someone? Does the pandemic change this timeframe for you? You can chat with a therapist, compare notes with a friend, or journal to consider these questions.

Then, when you have your answers, you can see where your relationship goals, and your COVID-19 safety considerations, line up. Perhaps you are interested in a long-term relationship, and thus are comfortable waiting a little longer for sex with one person. Or you want a hookup, but will limit the number of people you hook up with for the time being, or incorporate masks into your sex life.

Be mindful of your triggers

Making these decisions can be difficult, since we are receiving so many contradictory messages around the virus. It can also be hard to understand our own boundaries; many of us carry a good deal of trauma around relationships to begin with.

If you have found it difficult to assert boundaries in the past, or if past partners have violated your boundaries in abusive or toxic relationships, it’s important to go slow and listen to your instincts about what feels good for you.

“Learn about or recognize what triggers you,” said Catchings. “When we are familiar with our triggers, it is easier to establish boundaries and priorities.” Catchings suggests preparing yourself by imagining having a conversation about your boundaries with a new partner. What are different ways they could respond? How would you respond in turn? What responses would be particularly difficult for you? “We cannot reflect on and establish boundaries if we are not well-prepared,” she says.

Practice Healthy Communication

It can be nerve-wracking to talk to a new partner about intimacy in general, let alone during a pandemic. “The stigma created about sex and related topics plays a significant role in this case,” Catchings said, about the difficulty of talking about sex.

But communicating our boundaries won’t just help keep us safe from the virus: it’s also a great way to grow in our relationships more generally.

It’s a dialogue

Rather than this being one big, dramatic conversation, you can think of discussing the virus with a partner as a continuous dialogue. It’s a great way to discover how a new date communicates with and respects you, and to discover whether your values align.

If you’re dating on apps or online, a great way to break the ice is to say clearly what you’re looking for in your profile, whether that be a romantic relationship, a friendship, or something in between. That way, when you do strike up a conversation with that new person, they should already respect what you’re looking for.

Communicate respect

“Be respectful and treat others the same way that you would like to be treated,” said Catchings. If your date isn’t doing the same, you know they’re not the one for you.

Communication about safety begins with the very basics of dating: to meet or not to meet? If you’re not comfortable meeting IRL and they only want to meet IRL, that’s a clear sign that they’re not the person for you. In the same vein, if wearing a mask is important to you, but they take theirs off when you’re together, you’ll know they’re not the one.

Practice being assertive

“Being assertive is not about always saying no, but about opting for what is best for you at the moment,” says Catchings. It can be hard to assert ourselves in the heat of the moment, but with a little practice we can learn to be more expressive of our boundaries.

If it’s difficult for you to communicate in tense situations, Catchings recommends using the “GIVE” and “DEAR MAN” methods, acronyms which come from dialectical behavioral therapy. GIVE represents pointers for respectfully communicating with others, including:

  • be Gentle in your approach
  • act Interested in the other person
  • Validate the other person’s experience
  • use an Easy manner when communicating.

DEAR MAN represents pointers for asserting boundaries, including:

  • Describing the situation you’re reacting to
  • Expressing how you feel using an “I” statement
  • Asserting yourself and what you want
  • Reinforcing what you’re asking for
  • being Mindful of your objective
  • Appearing confident
  • Negotiating for an outcome that helps keep you safe

Trust your gut

Your gut is a powerful resource. Things are very strange right now, and it can be difficult to sort through contradictory messages about what activities are safe or not safe, especially when there are different regulations around, for example, bar and restaurant openings within even one state. But the fact that things are so up in the air can also be empowering: it means that you are the ultimate best judge and authority of what is right for you.

“Stay informed, but also trust your instincts,” says Catchings. “If you feel that it is not right or you have a terrible feeling, protect yourself by creating real distance.” If restaurants are open for indoor dining in your area, and your date wants to go, but it makes you uncomfortable, say no. If your date wants to kiss, but you realize you’re not ready yet, speak up for yourself. Listen to that gut instinct telling you what’s not okay for you, or what feels good.

Finally, some behaviors are always objectionable. If a date isn’t listening to you, is ignoring your boundaries, is pressuring you to do something you’re not comfortable with, or is insulting or belittling toward you, that’s your cue to leave. Disrespectful behavior is never okay, pandemic or no pandemic.

Get Creative (And A Little Kinky)

Dating is always vulnerable, as we risk our hearts and, sometimes, our sexual health by becoming intimate with new people. In a time of so much uncertainty, the stakes can feel even higher, and it can be hard to find those rays of joy.

But intimacy is joyful, and dating during these troubled times doesn’t have to be doom and gloom. Even if these conversations are tricky, Catchings reminds us, “Real friends and people who love you will understand.”

We can also find the glimmers of hope in the hardship. The New York City Department of Health has certainly found the humor in the strange dance that is sex in the time of social distancing: “Make it a little kinky,” they advise. From zoom dates to sex with masks on, now may just be the time to let your imagination run wild.

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