Illustration: By Stevie Remsberg
Kate promised herself she wouldn’t see him until all of this was over. She and a longtime friend had confessed romantic feelings for each other in March, just before social distancing measures were put into place in Toronto, where they live. Even though they wanted to meet up, the two felt a moral obligation to be “good citizens” and resisted the urge, instead resigning themselves to “long, meandering phone calls.”
Then one day, about a month into self-isolation, Kate went on a socially distanced walk and stepped into a convenience store, where the cashier’s hand accidentally brushed hers. “I felt an electric shock go through my arm,” she says. “I really noticed the absence of human touch in that moment.” She quickly went home and washed her hands, pushing the incident out of her mind, but the longing lingered. A few days later, she and her friend were on the phone. “It had been so long since I’d hugged a person or felt another person at all. He said ‘come over.’ So I did.”
When she arrived, he held out a bottle of hand sanitizer. She squirted a drop into her palm. They had sex. In the morning, he brought her a bowl of fruit to eat in bed. “He peeled me a tangerine and we forgot for a few minutes what was happening outside,” she says.
Since physical distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 were implemented across North America two months ago, public-health experts have warned against coming into contact with anyone outside our households. “You are your safest sex partner,” advised New York City’s health department. “Masturbation will not spread COVID-19, especially if you wash your hands.” Sex became the domain of cohabitating couples only, the rest of our trysts indefinitely delayed. The safe thing to do, according to doctors and epidemiologists, is court through a screen. Dating apps promptly rolled out new features to expand their consumer bases, and membership ticked upward (just like it did with webcam sites). Zoom dates quickly became commonplace before losing their novelty altogether. People got really good at taking nudes. But can they keep this up for months on end?
Quietly, people have already been breaking the rules to have sex. Some, like Kate, have tried to abstain but eventually conceded. Others have brazenly defied regulations from the beginning. Many more seem to be tottering in between, looking for a near-impossible bargaining agreement that would permit them to have sex without compromising their conscience.
For the first few weeks of self-isolation, Maggie, a 20-something New Yorker, was among the most rule-abiding and afraid in her circle of friends, at times bursting into tears as she imagined the virus spreading beyond containment. She worried about people dying. She hunkered down in her apartment alone, wistfully texting friends everyday. But after a month, she started to crack. She invited a guy over.
“The alternative was reenacting Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and having sex with random people in alleyways,” she says. She’s only seeing this man for now, and refers to the arrangement as being in one another’s “bubble.” “I’d already been flirting with the idea,” says Maggie. “A couple of my single friends started to have sex, and it definitely normalized it for me.”
Maggie’s surely not defecting alone. According to a survey conducted in early April, the overall rate of compliance during American stay-at-home orders has been high. However, an analysis of the survey done by a group of researchers suggests that obedience, which is largely dependent on what people see each other doing, will likely slip. “Measures themselves may spur negative emotions, which will enable people to cope through offending,” reads the study. “Once more people start to offend, social norms will start to shift and non-compliance may normalize.” In other words, if we know that our friends are breaking the rules, we’re more likely to do it, too.
And after you break one rule, it’s tempting to break more. Recently, a young woman named Gina went to a friend’s apartment to do laundry; she figured it was safer than going to a laundromat where she lives in New York, even though it’s technically against the rules. (She lives alone, and has been self-isolating since the first week of March.) While she didn’t lug her dirty laundry to her friend’s place with any premeditated intentions, the two ended up having sex once her clean clothes were stuffed into a bag, ready to be hauled back home. It was a spontaneous decision, but one that made Gina fleetingly feel like herself again. “I think it helped me place my own identity in a context I’d been missing for a month,” she says. “I’m not able to really see myself in the world right now. I can dress up in my apartment, I can dance at home alone, but being able to affect someone else, that’s very difficult to give up.” She doesn’t know what this means for the future. “I will try to not do it again. That’s the best I can do.”
There are also people who never considered abstinence in the first place. At the beginning of March, about a week before social distancing measures were implemented where she lives in Toronto, 24-year-old Ana broke up with a longtime boyfriend. She was excited to start dating again, and quickly met someone on a dating app. “This is where it gets a little tricky, because he went to Chicago for St. Paddy’s, then came back and was supposed to be quarantined, but we hung out pretty consistently,” she says. The two have been sleeping together since, but she’s still on Hinge, and interested in meeting other people. “I’m open to the idea of going on a walk with someone. If they don’t have symptoms or don’t appear to be sick, maybe I’ll sleep with them, too.”
Ana feels comfortable with the amount of risk she’s taking, but has decided to only tell a select group of friends about it; she knows that most would judge her. This, she says, is also part of the appeal of sex during a pandemic — it’s forbidden. “It’s pretty sexy,” she says. “Everyone’s scared of getting caught. The fact that the government is getting stricter and stricter adds a fun, spicy element to this. It’s kind of going behind the law. It’s like prohibition.” But while the secrecy is fun for Ana, it feels a little more shameful for Maggie — she’s afraid to even tell her therapist. “This is something I would usually discuss with her, but now there’s a stigma attached to it,” she says.
Many people I spoke with were upfront about prioritizing their needs over the common good. “I know it’s selfish, but for my own sanity I feel like I need to see at least one other person,” says Vince, a recent transplant from London to Toronto, who travels to the apartment of the woman he’s dating once a week. Her roommate’s longterm boyfriend also regularly comes by to visit her. Vince describes the overall mood regarding pandemic sex at the apartment as “chill.” “It’s easier for me, on a purely selfish basis, because I don’t have any family here,” he says. “If my grandma was down the road, it would be a different story, which is selfish. Because it might not be my grandma, but it’s someone else’s.”
Julian, a 41-year-old from Austin, was also forthright about his need for sex. “You can still communicate with people through phone and video chat, but it’s like the old Coca-Cola slogan — ‘you can’t beat the real thing.’” Throughout the stay-at-home orders, Julian has continued to sleep with four people, with whom he has preexisting relationships. He says he has sex a few times a week, usually at his house. “As an intelligent adult who pays attention and uses common sense, I’m not going to let the government decide what I can and cannot do,” he says.
Some people also wondered if, based on a hypothetical rating system of least to most risky behavior, sleeping with one person might be less bad than other transmission risks. “I find any gathering with a group of people or even grocery shopping to be far more hazardous than two people hanging out,” said Phil, a 31-year-old from Los Angeles who started sleeping with a woman prior to the pandemic. In April, the two decided to pause and wait for things to blow over before seeing each other again. “Months without IRL sex would for sure not be the ideal situation,” he said. “Quite possibly we may break and see each other.” He was right: they only held out for two weeks.
“I don’t really see sex as the taboo,” says Rich, a 29-year-old from Washington, D.C., who’s been continuing to see the person he’s dating. “I think hanging out with people outside of your housemates is the taboo. If I found out that people were just going around to people’s houses and playing board games or having a few beers, I’d probably think the same as if someone was going over to someone’s house to have sex.”
However, this is probably wishful thinking. “It’s quite likely that being physically intimate with someone has a higher probability of exposure than just being within 6 feet of someone,” says Dr. Anna Bershteyn, an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “It’s possible to be within 6 feet of someone with a lot more precautions — it’s possible to wear a mask, it’s easier to be in a well-ventilated space, like outside. That’s much more challenging if you’re going to be physically intimate with somebody. That would be a very intense exposure.” Bershteyn says everyone should still be adhering to the guidelines issued by New York’s health department, which advise against any new sex partners. “It just is not safe to start dating in these circumstances.”
As some couples are discovering, even the most carefully made plans aren’t foolproof. Because of the pandemic, 28-year-old Tamara recently found herself at last in the same city as her long-distance partner. He’d been temporarily laid off from his job, and she’d just returned home from living in Bali. The two had been in close, daily contact over FaceTime for over a year, but had never actually met. So they made a plan: both quarantined alone for two weeks, as many responsible couples have, before Tamara took a leap of faith and moved into the man’s Toronto Airbnb with him. “The fact that we’re willing to see each other at all during a time like this shows that if [either of us did get sick], it would be worth it,” she told me before the move.
But a few days after joining her now real-life boyfriend, Tamara came down with severe symptoms of COVID-19. She was so ill that she wasn’t able to communicate with her family. Her new partner had to send updates on her behalf. (“Not how I planned on them meeting,” she says.) Tamara doesn’t know where she picked up the virus, but suspects it might have happened while traveling through airports on her way home. (Her partner does not appear to have any symptoms.) Her test came back negative, though she suspects the result was false — weeks later, her symptoms remain significant. Still, she says, she’d do it again.
As the weeks become months, it’s anyone’s guess when social distancing measures will no longer be necessary. What everyone seems to be wondering, and what no one has an answer to, is how this period of imposed abstinence can go on. Some are beginning to think about the formation of “pods,” similar to what Maggie referred to as a “bubble,” but there is little official guidance on whether this is safe. Health departments across the country, including New York’s, still advise against having sex with new partners. “Now is the time to be careful,” says Bershteyn. “Just try to hang in there.”
“If this goes on for the foreseeable future, let’s say over three months, it’ll be interesting to see if people hold the same standards as they did at the start,” says Vince. “It’s a moral dilemma for me. You have this feeling about society as a whole, and what’s important for society. But I still have to look after my own sanity and my own happiness.”
For many, it’s not temporarily going without sex that’s hard to grapple with, but the idea of indefinite celibacy. “Everybody is making sacrifices, and I’m certainly not opposed to making those,” says Kate. “I don’t want to sound like an asshole, but could I go another month without touching someone? Sure. Could I go another six months? No.” Kate sighs, then reconsiders. “We’re all capable of so much more than we think we are. Could I? Yes. But I would be in a darker, uglier place.”
Some names have been changed.