The Future Of One-Night Stands In The Age Of Coronavirus

Here's how the COVID-19 pandemic could affect casual sex and hookups.

A 2017 survey of 500 Americans and 500 Europeans from Zava, an online doctor service, found that 66% of respondents have had a one-night stand at least once in their lives. But how comfortable will people be having more casual sexual encounters in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the new potential health risks involved?

First, it’s important to note that the virus is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets emitted when an infected person sneezes, coughs, breathes or speaks. Because sex typically involves close physical contact — like kissing and heavy breathing, for example — you’re at risk for contracting or spreading the virus. While the virus has been found in the semen of some COVID-19 patients, there’s currently no evidence that it can be transmitted this way.

And while states have started opening up, social distancing guidelines are still in place — and likely will be until an effective treatment or vaccine is available. That means recommendations to stay at least 6 feet away from anyone outside of your household and wear a mask when you can’t social distance are unlikely to change any time soon. However, quarantine fatigue has set in for many. And given the length of this ongoing public health crisis, is it realistic to expect people who are not in relationships or do not have a consistent sexual partner to abstain from sex altogether?

“I don’t think it’s reasonable,” Dr. David Bell — an adolescent medicine physician and associate professor at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City — told HuffPost. “It is human nature to need human connection, sex and intimacy.”

So how might the pandemic shape the future of casual sex? Read on to find out.

Some people are, understandably, reluctant.

“Typically, the decision to have one-night stands impacts only ourselves and our partners,” said therapist-in-training Sula Malina. “These days, however, the activity has more widespread implications.”
Tara Moore via Getty Images
“Typically, the decision to have one-night stands impacts only ourselves and our partners,” said therapist-in-training Sula Malina. “These days, however, the activity has more widespread implications.”

Writer Alex Ebel, who lives in New Orleans, penned a piece for HuffPost Personal in late March titled: “2 Weeks Ago I Could Have Sex Whenever I Wanted. The Coronavirus Changed That,” about how he was turning to virtual mediums, like video chat, to connect during the pandemic.

By mid-June, Ebel said his stance about meeting up for sex IRL hasn’t really changed much.

“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, and just because people got too bored and decided to go to the mall again doesn’t mean it’s actually the smart thing to do,“ he said. “The same can be said for casual sex and one-night stands — though arguably that does seem a little safer than going out with your ‘brunch squad’ or whatever it is stupid people say when they’re drinking mimosas with their masks around their necks. Of course that’s assuming they wore masks in the first place.”

The stress of the pandemic has also worsened mental health conditions — like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder — for some people, which could lower their sex drives, while also making them more wary of one-night stands.

“As we repeatedly consume messages about social distancing, even the notion of shaking a stranger’s hand can be intimidating — and best avoided,” said Sula Malina, a therapist in training at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City who uses the pronouns they/them. “Given the sex-negativity that permeates today’s society, many people already perceived one-night stands as in some way ‘immoral.’ This has likely only been compounded by messages of social distancing as the morally ‘right’ thing to do.”

“Typically, the decision to have one-night stands impacts only ourselves and our partners,” they added. “These days, however, the activity has more widespread implications.”

And even once the spread of the virus slows down, this residual fear about physical contact may persist, Malina said.

“We are experiencing this pandemic as a collective trauma; understandably, it will take some time for us to move out of our natural fight-or-flight response and into total comfort with physical contact,” they said.

“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, and just because people got too bored and decided to go to the mall again doesn’t mean it’s actually the smart thing to do. The same can be said for casual sex and one-night stands.”

- Alex Ebel, writer

In addition to dating apps and sites, bars and clubs — where the alcohol is flowing — are among the most common places to meet a one-night stand partner. As nonessential businesses, many of these places were closed for several months and are just now beginning to reopen. Still, not everyone is comfortable patronizing those establishments just yet.

“It’s understandable that when people go to bars and get a bit blasted they’re more likely to end up being disinhibited and having a one-night stand,” said New Jersey sex therapist and neuroscientist Nan Wise, author of “Why Good Sex Matters.” “Given that up until now it has been hard for people to find bar-type settings to promote the kind of boozy socializing that fosters that kind of behavior, people would have to be more intentional about setting up these rendezvouses ahead of time.”

Bell, the physician mentioned above, said some of his single patients have found short-term monogamous partnerships in quarantine “with or without expectations for the long term.”

However, he said he does “not have any evidence that the pandemic will affect people’s feelings about having one-night stands for the long term.”

Others are proceeding as usual.

Experts share their advice to make sex safer in the midst of a pandemic.
Shestock via Getty Images
Experts share their advice to make sex safer in the midst of a pandemic.

Sexuality coach and sex blogger Ashley Cobb of Sex With Ashley said she doesn’t think the pandemic has really affected people’s views on casual hookups.

“I think a lot of people are still having sex and have never stopped,” she said. “Especially now since the country is opening back up again, those who might not have been engaging before most definitely will now. People are touch- and companion-deprived and mainly plain, old-fashioned horny, which leads to people taking more risk to get their sexual and emotional needs met.”

People with more adventurous sexual personality types might be more open to one-night stands despite the potential health risks, Wise said.

“For example, what I call ‘The Explorer’ is a person who needs more novelty both in and out of the bedroom and is more likely perhaps to take risks,” she said. “These people tend to have a high level of sexual desire and might not be content to wait out the coronavirus storm.”

For others, the threat of COVID-19 might make them pause but ultimately wouldn’t stop them from having a one-night stand.

“HIV — a known sexually transmitted infection — may have affected feelings about having one-night stands, but did not substantially change any behaviors,” Bell said.

How To Have Safer Sex During The Pandemic

Know that your safest safe partner is yourself, followed by a partner you live with and then followed by a person outside of your household who you know and trust. However, if you are going to have sex with someone you just met, then you should do what you can to minimize your risk of contracting or spreading the virus — and that includes limiting your number of sexual partners. Here are a few ways to do that, but you can check out the New York City Department Of Health’s guidelines for more recommendations.

Before you meet up, ask your partner if they’ve experienced COVID-19 symptoms or have come in close contact with anyone who has.

Symptoms may include fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and new loss of taste or smell, among others. Don’t have sex if you’re exhibiting symptoms or have been in close contact with an infected person. And if either of you has an underlying condition that makes you higher-risk for severe illness — like diabetes that’s not well-managed, heart disease or a compromised immune system — you may want to hold off on sex altogether for now.

Know that some infected people may be asymptomatic, presymptomatic or have symptoms so mild they go unnoticed. Also, the median incubation period (time from exposure to onset of symptoms) is 4 to 5 days, but could be as long as 14 days. That means it’s possible that one of you could have been infected but felt well at the time you hooked up and didn’t start exhibiting symptoms until afterward. So be sure to contact each other if one of you becomes sick so the other knows to self-isolate.

“Inherent in the nature of a one-night stand is the foundational point that you don’t know the person usually,” Bell said. “You don’t really know what they did yesterday or the week before. From my peripheral and contextual view as a medical provider, cursory questions of exposures to STIs may be asked beforehand, but often are inquired about after the hook-up. It will be interesting to understand if partnerships are assessing personal COVID-19 risks before one-night stands.”

Get tested for COVID-19 if you can.

“Consider getting tested prior to and following sexual activity, just as you would for STIs,” Malina said.

Some places, like New York City, Los Angeles county and the state of Tennessee, offer free tests whether or not you’re experiencing symptoms. But check the health department website in your city or state for more detailed testing information and requirements in your area.

While you await test results, stay home as much as possible, continue practicing social distancing, wear a facial covering and follow hand-washing protocols to reduce your chances of becoming infected in the interim.

Skip the kissing.

“Avoiding face-to-face activities like kissing would be a good idea,” Wise said. “Having sex from behind where their faces are not close together would be a good idea as well as would be keeping your mask on.”

Yes, that’s right: These days, it’s prudent to wear a facial covering during sex.

“Maybe it’s your thing, maybe it’s not, but during COVID-19 wearing a face covering that covers your nose and mouth is a good way to add a layer of protection during sex,” according to the New York City Department Of Health’s website. “Heavy breathing and panting can spread the virus further, and if you or your partner have COVID-19 and don’t know it, a mask can help stop that spread.”

It’s best to also avoid rimming (mouth to anus contact) as the virus has been found in feces.

And, as always, you should practice safe sex by using condoms or dental dams to protect against sexually transmitted infections and an effective birth control method to prevent pregnancy.

Try mutual masturbation.

In the age of social distancing, masturbating separately but together could be a less risky option because you can be in the same room getting yourselves off without physically touching each other.

Consider virtual sex, too.

“Our reasonable hesitation to have physical contact with a new person is also an opportunity to explore other forms of sexual contact: including phone sex, sexting, and sex over video chat,” Malina said. “Of course, in exploring any of these platforms, do your research to ensure your information and any photos shared are as secure as possible.”

Risky Business: Love And Sex In A Germaphobic World is a HuffPost series exploring the way that coronavirus is changing the way we date, have sex and enjoy intimacy.

A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus

Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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