Getting Handsy in a Pandemic

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This article was written by Edward Hsiang

It’s no controversy that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives. From work, dining, entertainment, and socializing, sacrifices and alternative arrangements have needed to be made. Our sex lives, and in turn our sexual health, however, remains one aspect where safe compromises can be difficult to achieve. Coronavirus transmission occurs via inhalation of respiratory droplets and contact transfer between infected surfaces and your mouth, nose and eyes (Li et al., 2020). While there is no evidence to suggest it may be sexually transmitted, sexual interaction between non-monogamous partners poses obvious risks, especially considering asymptomatic carriers and the very nature of the activity. Precautions are advised by the government, including the notorious suggestion by the B.C. government to utilize physical barriers (e.g. gloryholes) (BCCDC, n.d.), but most are impractical and have a negative impact on sexual expression. On the other side of things, access to sexual health resources may also be impacted, with many physician’s offices discouraging patients from making appointments without urgent symptoms. Given the importance of sexual expression in most people’s lives, this is an important yet often overlooked consequence of the pandemic we need to address.

Sexual health was defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity” (WHO, 2006). In other words, being able to express yourself sexually is directly linked to your sexual well-being. Current research suggests that all forms of in-person sexual contact carry some degree of transmission risk. Efforts to control the outbreak have therefore included various degrees of lock-down measures; including contact bans, gathering restrictions, and curfews, making casual sexual encounters a finable offence. While these measures are undeniably necessary to keep everyone safe, not many government officials have addressed the corresponding effect on sexual well-being. Additionally, abstinence-oriented health guidelines have been well-documented to fail and foster shame in the community (Santelli & Ott, 2007). 

Alternatives have arisen for many other impacted areas of our lives, such as working from home accommodations, take-out groceries and virtual hang-outs, but few substitutes are apparent for sexual interactions. Even as the world has pivoted to online dating, in-person meetups are still met with hesitation and uncertainty. An online survey of 323 participants in the United States found the majority perceiving all sexual activity as “risky” during the pandemic (Bowling et al., 2021). A comprehensive review of existing literature towards women’s sexual health (Carvalho & Oliveira, 2021) found an overall decrease in the number of sexual partners and sexual satisfaction. In a Chinese study with 3500 young adult participants, 22% reported decreased sexual desire, 41% reported a decrease in sexual frequency, and 31% reported a deterioration in partner relationships during the global outbreak (Cao et al., 2020). 

On the flip side of things, solo-sexual exploration appears to be at an all-time rise. While many will say there’s no replacing in-person contact, people stuck at home have had to make do. Online porn giant, Pornhub, who reported over 39 billion searches and 42 billion visits in 2019, has disclosed up to a 25% increase in traffic during the onset of global lockdowns last March (Zattoni et al., 2020). Marketing for sexual aids and devices is also considered to be at an all time high, creeping into mainstream and social media with brazen frequency.

With restrictions being lifted here in Alberta, experts are now concerned about people making up for lost time. Just this August, headlines have appeared around the syphilis outbreak in Edmonton, with Dr. Ameeta Singh, an infectious disease specialist, claiming that the rate of infection is as high as in pre-antibiotic eras. Dr. Deena Henshaw, Alberta’s chief medical advisor, has also implied that syphilis is one of the leading health threats affecting our province while resources are being tied up with COVID-19. These concerns are further pronounced when it comes to access to sexual health resources during a pandemic. Surveys conducted in B.C. have shown up to 52% of people not receiving the sexual health resources they require between March and July 2020 (Chang et al., 2021). The study suggests that many common reasons for avoiding/delaying access to these services include concerns about catching COVID-19 in a medical setting,  public messaging against seeking non-urgent healthcare, and closures of spaces. Here on campus, the Health Centre has also had its availability reduced to two days a week during the previous term of online learning but has since expanded with the return to campus this Fall. 

When it comes to sexual and gender minority groups, the outbreak may be causing additional stressors.  Given the historical trauma of other pandemics such as AIDS, some communities may be particularly vulnerable to sexual stigma and decline in mental health. LGBTQ2S+ youth have also voiced serious concerns about being confined with unsupportive family members without access to safe spaces or resources (Fish et al., 2020). A survey given to Canadian gay, queer, bisexual, trans, and two-spirit (GQBT2+) further corroborates a loss of social outlets with additional concerns pertaining to the access of antiretroviral medication (PrEP) to protect against HIV, which requires daily doses (Brennan et al., 2020). Recent national research in Canada has also shown that an unequal ratio of LGBTQ2S+ households (52% compared to overall 39%) have experienced lay-offs or reduced employment because of COVID-19 (INNOVATIVE, 2020). 

All in all, it is demonstrable that sexual health is on the decline and disproportionately affected by the current pandemic. Many are weighing the pros and cons of catching COVID-19 vs. their freedom of sexual expression. Now that the ULeth campus is returning to in-person learning, those looking to mingle should do their research and know the risks before getting handsy. For anyone still on the fence, the campus’ women’s centre and the health clinic are now open Mon-Fri, and provide wonderful sex-positive resources to consult with.

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