Why Your Single Friends Are Having Sex in a Pandemic

January 7 6 min read

Early on in the nightmare that was 2020, a ray of hope shone down on the bleak landscape of public health. Diagnoses of STI's like gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia were dropping in the United States. This seemed like a huge win at first, given the "steep and sustained increase" in transmission rates of these diseases observed by the Centers For Disease Control between 2013 and 2017. The sad truth was soon revealed: the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus had caused sexual health clinics to close and testing supplies to be diverted to fight COVID-19. 


'Potentially spreading and contracting COVID by sleeping with someone you don't live with is the new sexual taboo'.


Declining numbers masked another unspoken truth: people are absolutely out fucking during this pandemic. It's just that the fallout in terms of STI transmission is going underreported. Anecdotally, it seems like people have suddenly gotten shyer about sharing their antics on the internet. It makes sense: given that the virus is easily transmitted through common sexual activities like kissing and panting, it's kind of a de facto STI. Potentially spreading and contracting COVID by sleeping with someone you don't live with is the new sexual taboo.



I am absolutely one of these sex-having singletons. It sort of...just happened. The first encounter was back in June when I visited a friend. She lives alone and works from home, plus we'd been friends for a few years and had slept together before. The mutual trust and strong bond made it feel safer. Not long after that, I met a man online with whom I began a brief but intense relationship. It was conducted mostly within his home because he lived alone and had already contracted and recovered from the coronavirus. (Side note: that guy also survived malaria while serving in the Marines, and he said he wasn't sure which illness was worse, so... a friendly reminder to wear a mask!)


Here's the thing. It's not realistic to expect everyone who isn't happily cohabitating with a monogamous partner to forgo touch and sex for months on end. Government-issued prevention guidelines have varied wildly by state, when provided at all, and precious few have acknowledged our very human needs. One exception is this incredibly progressive memo from the New York City Department of Health, reminding us that "you are your safest sex partner" and even offering some suggestions for IRL sex involving face masks and "physical barriers, like walls."


'It's not realistic to expect everyone who isn't happily cohabitating with a monogamous partner to forgo touch and sex for months on end.'


These ideas are epidemiologically responsible and certainly creative, but they still leave single people in a bit of a bind. I talked to a few other singles who have had sex this year about navigating this strange new dating world. There were some clear trends, like choosing partners who lived alone, or who required repeated testing through their occupations. Most connected with people with whom they had an existing relationship, deciding not to finding a new person via a dating app - these folks were clearly COVID-conscious, and weighed risks carefully from the very beginning.


Apps like Hinge, Tinder and OKCupid did actually see an increase in new users alongside the addition of new virtual dating options. But were users still meeting in real life? Well, it turns out not many people using Tinder actually meet up anyway. When researchers interviewed a sample of millennial users in 2017, 70 percent had never met up with anyone they'd matched with, citing their main reason for using the app as 'confidence-boosting procrastination'. 



"I'm not sure people who live with someone truly understand how absolutely debilitating being totally isolated from other humans is," she said. "I don't think they really understand what it's like not to be touched at all for months." 


I wanted to know: had the pandemic made risk-awareness conversations with sexual partners easier? Was it easier to talk about condoms and STI prevention when the threat of COVID-19 has made talk of disease and precaution commonplace? 


A 24-year-old-woman named Leigh* who dates men exclusively didn't seem to think so. "I've found that guys are just as hesitant to talk about the virus as they were about STIs in the Before Times. It's made it that much harder to determine who is a safe partner."


Virtually everyone I interviewed expressed an intense fear of judgment, from loved ones and strangers alike, and frustration at being put in this position at all. I asked Atlanta-dweller Claudia* what she wished other people understood about her decision to have sex right now. "I'm not sure people who live with someone truly understand how absolutely debilitating being totally isolated from other humans is," she said. "I don't think they really understand what it's like not to be touched at all for months." This answer underscored the torture of skin hunger: the physiological component to our aching need for each other, and it can't just be shut off at will.  



Cheyenne* was entirely in agreement. She was in a relationship with a woman she met online that began and ended in 2020 and has no regrets about intentionally pursuing a partner during the pandemic. "The need for companionship is very powerful and not something that can be put on indefinite hiatus. I have to believe we're all doing the best we can to stay safe because it's hard for me to judge people about this right now. We've been failed by every institution that was meant to care for us. I have to care for myself now."


Even with the vaccination rollout officially underway in the United States, having sex with non-cohabitants remains risky until we reach herd immunity. With any luck, it won't be long before this affection drought is in the rearview mirror and we can just go back to worrying about regular STI's, or not-so-regular ones like a potentially untreatable strain of "super-gonorrhea" unleashed by overuse of antibiotics during the coronavirus pandemic. Until then, the shagging in secret will continue, and I'll definitely keep asking people about it.

* Names changed to protect sources' identities. 

Aria Vega
« Aria is a poet, essayist, and advice columnist (ASK ARIA @ Lustery POV) based in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work explores sexuality, relationships, and somatic experiences. When she's not daydreaming about living underwater, she's probably talking to her houseplants or meditating under the moon. " » All posts →