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Can Coronavirus Spread Through Sex? No — and Yes, Experts Say

Dating during the pandemic presents some risk when attraction is involved

spinner image Concept of romantic relationship at quarantine, safe sex or protective measures
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Worries about the pandemic have put a damper on dating. Should those concerns also discourage sexual activity?

Intimacy and intercourse may not transmit COVID-19, but nearly everything else about sex with a partner increases your chances of getting sick, according to immunologists and health experts.

Bodily fluids exchanged during intercourse and genital contact isn't what infects people whose partners are COVID-19 carriers, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at Vanderbilt University. Instead, it's intimate contact like heavy breathing, kissing and close proximity that causes risk.

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Though coronavirus has been detected in semen, so far there's no evidence it can be passed on that way.

"There's nothing sexual about the transmission,” Schaffner says. “[It's] the intimacy part of sexuality rather than the sexual organ functionality."

Not giving up on intimacy

So if you're dating and don't want to give up sex, what's the best way to curtail risk when it comes to transmission of COVID-19?

Pandemic safe sex guidelines released by the New York City Health Department last year recommend limiting sexual partners to those in your own household or pandemic bubble. The sexually explicit guidelines, which were parodied in a Saturday Night Live segment, suggest the safest sex is masturbation (wash your hands first) and offered “sexy Zoom parties” as an alternative with partners not in your household. The guidelines also said people should refrain from kissing and should wear coronavirus-preventing masks during sex.

Despite a certain amount of risk, older adults aren't ready to give up on dating or sex. Instead, many are checking in with partners and adapting their sex lives to stay safe.

Communication with sexual partners is key

Tanya Henderson, a 63-year-old Nashville native, says she is always concerned about her sexual safety, not just during the pandemic.

"I am committed to remaining sexually active,” Henderson says, and before the pandemic hit, she would get tested for sexually transmitted infections as part of her adult sexual wellness efforts.

spinner image Tanya Henderson
Courtesy Tanya Henderson

When the pandemic began, Henderson reserved sexual intimacy for a trusted partner she'd previously been intimate with, although the two were not in a committed relationship. In September 2020, Henderson did find a regular, exclusive partner and has since been in a relationship for a few months.

Henderson says frank conversations about COVID-19 with partners are essential, and says she and her initial COVID intimacy partner both wore masks in public and self-isolated to prevent the risk of getting sick. She also said both kept their circles “guarded” and small, only spending time with others who'd been tested or hadn't had a lot of exposure to the illness.

"We were confident … we were safe,” Henderson says.

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Tom Sommers, 57, who is pansexual and lives in Washington, D.C., says concerns about the coronavirus led him to delete his dating apps for four months. But he's slowly starting to feel more comfortable taking precautions and being sexually active. But one issue has nothing to do with virus transmission.

"I have a roommate who, frustratingly, rarely leaves the house,” Sommers says. “COVID's had a big impact on my dating, but [it's] more than just the pandemic. It's been the lack of privacy."

— Tom Sommers

Pandemic Safe Sex

According to experts, there are precautions older adults can take for safer sexual activity. They include:

  • Limit sexual partners to those in your own household, or those in your pandemic “bubble.”
  • Consider using technology like sexting, Facetiming, texting or video calling as alternative ways to enjoy intimacy with your partner.
  • Know the science and talk to your partners. Make sure everyone agrees to the same social distancing and mask procedures and that each partner is comfortable with the other's pandemic precautions. “The coming together should be preceded by a conversation ... you need that element of trust,” Schaffner says.
  • Practice good hygiene by washing up before and after sex.

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