How to Make New Relationships, Add New People to Pods and Have Sex More Safely During the Pandemic

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Ruby Seago, Sam Wall and Heather CorinnaIt really sucks that during something that can make us feel lonelier than ever, the most dangerous thing is being close to other people. It is still safest to limit our up-close-and-personal contact, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still safely seek out and experience intimacy with new people, nor that there aren’t things you can do to make it safer if you do decide to get physically close to someone. Here are some basics to get you started.

It really sucks that during something that can make us feel lonelier than ever, the most dangerous thing is being close to other people. That’s been especially hard on people who live alone, live only with family members, or live with roommates who would do anything at this point to get away from each other.

It is still safest to limit our up-close-and-personal contact to everyone as much as we can, especially people we don’t live with. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still safely seek out and experience intimacy with new people, nor that there aren’t things you can do to make it safer if you do decide to get physically close to someone.

These are just the basics to get you started: for more specifics and nuance, you can hop over to one of our other pieces, or come into our direct services and talk with us. Online and other virtual communication is our longtime normal, so one thing you don’t have to do without is one-on-one help from us if you need it.

How to More Safely Pursue New Relationships 

If you’re interested in looking for or starting a new intimate relationship, whether that’s about friendship, community, romance or sexual intimacy, the safety basics are the same. We’ve got some other pieces on the site that can also come in handy for one or more of these situations or during this time:

Dating During the Pandemic: Tips for Young People Who Are Living at Home
Self-Care and Social Distance
This Isn’t Going to Be Your Forever
How To Actually Date Yourself
Hookup Culture and the Impact of COVID-19: An interview with Lisa Wade, PhD
Libido and Lockdown
How can I ask someone out if social distancing rules are in place?
How do I cope with loneliness and depression during COVID-19?
Being Single During Lockdown: A Surprisingly Empowering Experience

If you don’t already know each other in person, use online, phone or mobile contact — like texting, voice calls or video chats — as much as you can for as long as you can. Mixing up ways we communicate can keep things more interesting and help us feel less like we’re missing out, so, for example, if you’ve never been a phone call person before, this might be a good time to give some calls a try.

If you’re using dating apps, some of them allow you to say what kind of dating you’re comfortable with. Our best advice would be to avoid people who are still coming at dating or otherwise connecting — either in their noted preferences or what they’re asking you for — like nothing has changed and there aren’t still big risks.  Someone quick to meet you in person, or who is cavalier or dismissive about precautions you want is waving a bright, red flag in your general direction. Chances are they themselves are a big risk, especially if they have been seeing others in close contact as they’re looking for (which they probably have if given the opportunity, since it’s an opportunity they want). Via apps just like other ways of connecting, you want to take things as slow as you can and keep them virtual for at least a while, if not until we’re on something that looks like the other side of this.

Before you make plans to meet in person, talk in depth and detail about what that will involve: what have each of your possible exposures been? Have you been socially distancing? How? Who do you each live with, and what are their exposures like? Have you been tested? When? Can you both perhaps get tested and quarantine before you meet? Make agreements about safety measures. What are you going to do to protect each other and any other people in your households or who you have in-person contact with? Don’t forget: if you live with other people, make sure that you’re also in agreement about any in-person meetup plans. After all, they’ll potentially be taking on extra risks, too.

If you decide to meet in person (or already have, like at work, but decide you want to hang out), pick somewhere outside — like a porch, stoop or park — stay masked, and keep six feet apart. Some restaurants have setups outdoors or indoors by open windows, with tables six feet apart, if that’s something you both feel comfortable with. Just be sure not to share any food or drinks and to keep your space apart. If you’re meeting someone for the first time, don’t forget about your overall safety, too: see if another friend or family member can also be nearby or at least in touch with you by text.

Be careful with anything that can impair your judgment, like alcohol or cannabis, when seeing other people in person: those things can make it much easier to forget or to just care less about what you need to do to keep yourself and others safe.

Ideally, you still want to keep from being physically intimate for now. Don’t forget that there are many ways to be intimate and to build intimacy: physical contact is only one of them. If you want to be physically intimate with someone new, it’ll be something for each of you to first talk about with anyone you live with.  If everyone isn’t on board to even talk about it, you’ll need to let it go until and unless they are. It obviously isn’t okay to nonconsensually put anyone at risk when they’ve said no. If you both live alone or all the folks you live with are on board, then you’ll want to have talks with each other and all your people about doing this as safely as possible, and in ways that everyone involved is okay with. For more on that, or in-person sex, keep reading.

What do the vaccines change?

The current vaccines need two shots to be effective, and those shots need to be administered within a specific time frame. If you have — or someone else has—  only had the first shot, you’re not clear to be meeting up yet.
Don’t go out and meet people to celebrate after your second dose. It takes time for your body to build protection after any vaccination. The COVID-19 vaccine may not protect you until a week or two after your second shot.
The vaccine will be rolled out in phases, with people who are high risk in terms of their health or their level of exposure to COVID-19 getting vaccinated first. Planning dates or get togethers now based on the vaccine may be premature.
The vaccine is only currently authorized for those age 16 and over, so you may pr may not be old enough to get it yet.
Even if you or someone you know has had COVID-19, it is still advised you get the COVID-19 vaccine.
If you’ve received both doses, you still need to be aware of who in your pod or your daily life hasn’t received them. Studies of the new vaccines only measured whether vaccinated people developed symptoms, not whether they got infected. That means that you could still potentially pass the virus on even if you’re vaccinated.

How to More Safely Add Someone New to Your Existing Pod 

We’ve been in pandemic times for more than half a year now. This means you may not have seen some – or any – of your dear friends, family, or even partners up close and personal in a long, long time. Touch starvation, loneliness, and wanting a conversation that isn’t over zoom or from 6 feet away is REAL. I wanna have a sleepover with someone, gosh darn it!

Some days it may cause yearning to the point of tears. Some days it all may feel significantly impactful to your mental and emotional wellbeing. If you’re at home with your family, it might feel like you’re under a lot of stress and you would give anything to get out of the house, or to interact with someone, anyone, who isn’t them. You might, alternatively, be feeling pretty okay. Maybe you’re happily housed with a partner or your family and you’re okay with keeping your pod close and cozy. That’s great! We want to keep things as low risk as possible. But if you feel like you’re at the end of your rope and NEED to expand your pod, you can do so with adequate imagining, planning, communication, and consistency.

There’s one thing that is already the answer to most questions you may have: communicate, communicate, communicate. With yourself, with your podmates, with your potential new podmates. Ask each other questions, be honest with your answers. Try not to take things personally, and let yourself feel hard feelings without taking it out on others. Remember that this is a time of spiked anxiety, grief, and stress, which may show up as via increased attempts at control. Talk about it. Speaking things into the open will make everything feel lighter, more clear, and more real.

First, figure out who’s in your pod already. Do you live with people? They’re in your pod, even if you aren’t in active communication about who you’re all hanging out with or what you’re doing. If you aren’t talking with them about this, try to start ASAP. Weekly or monthly house meetings to connect and update on how you all feel to be in your pod and what each of you are doing are important. Even if you don’t all agree about things like social distancing, or don’t all have the same circumstances, like having to go out to work, try and all be as honest as possible about what precautions you’re taking (or not taking) with the people you interact with outside of the house, what a job situation is like, and who any of you want to introduce into your pod. You can’t, in good faith, expand your pod if you aren’t all an active part of it to begin with.

Consider who you want your expanded pod to include. Keep it small – one or two people is plenty. Remember, you might think your pod is just five people, but if even one person in your pod is interacting with one person outside of it, and that person has their own pod of five, you’re interacting with way, way more people than you realize. It’s a lot like safer sex: this isn’t just about you and these other people, but you, them, and all the other people all of you have been with, even if that just means, in this case, the person you stand next to while bagging your groceries at the cash register.

Imagine what you want your relationships to look like. Are you going to be in this new pod indefinitely, or will it just be for three weeks, so you can celebrate upcoming birthdays together? Do you want your new podmates to come over for a snuggly movie night every now and then? Do you want to start sleeping with someone consistently? Do you want to be able to see your mom in her home every month? Get as specific as possible so you can communicate this to your podmates and potential podmates.

Make sure that the new people you want to include in your expanded pod are also ready, emotionally, physically, and mentally, to be in your pod. They may feel like their existing pod, if they have one, is already hard enough to manage. They may feel unwilling to be around some of your existing podmates, even if they want to be around you. Can you trust them to keep to agreements you make to keep everyone safe? If possible, include your potential podmates in conversations with your existing podmates, over zoom, text, or FaceTime.

Figure out what your boundaries are. What do you need your new podmates to do to help you feel safe and happy? What do you need to do for them? What would make you feel like someone wasn’t respecting your boundaries? What would that mean for your relationship with that person?

This is a lot like managing poly relationships, and you can apply the same principles and ethics. Consider ripple effects and harm reduction, like we mentioned before. Consider how important honesty is to allow those to fully consent to things that happen to them. Consider some or all of your pod (pre-existing and new) getting tested, regularly, for COVID-19, if possible. Consider different dynamics between different folks in your pod. Prepare for temporary discomfort to come with expanded freedom and joy. It may help to be talking to someone outside of your pod, whether it be a trusted friend or therapist, about everything that’s going on so that you can get outside advice and not become lost in the swirl of pod politics. Check out Mo’s primer on polyamory and our troubleshooting guide for relationship structure for more info.

If expanding the pod feels like a YES for you, everyone who’s already in your pod, the new folks and their pods, you’re all willing to dedicate to regular communication, you feel secure in your agreements to respect each other’s boundaries, and you’re clear on what your new relationships will look like, you can go ahead with expanding your pod. If any of these areas feel shaky, uncertain, or like you’re feeling a straight-up NO or hearing that from those you’re in relationship with, hold off. Continue to see your people, masked, outside, from a distance, if you can.

If it’s a yes, continue to check in regularly with everyone involved about your agreements. Are you all aware of any new risks? Does anything need adjusting or need to become more or less strict? Check in with yourself: are you listening to your body, your nervous system, your boundaries? Are you enjoying your expanded pod, or did things feel better before? Remember, there are no mistakes, and you can change your mind at any time, so long as you communicate before taking action one way or another.

If it’s a no, honor that. Whether the no is coming from you, your new potential podmates, or your original podmates, respect those boundaries no matter what and ask others to do the same. Have compassion for any disappointment, grief, frustration, or miscommunication that might arise if expanding your pod is not working out or going well. Remember that this is an experiment, and that these are very trying times, so you may learn through trial and error what works for you all and what doesn’t. Even if you’re bummed, don’t see new people at a close distance anyway. This is not going to be how things are forever, but it is how things are right now, so hang in there and continue to talk with your podmates about how you can all feel your needs are being met. Get creative!

If you want to engage in in-person sex, keep reading.

How to More Safely Engage in Sex In Person 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been going for over six months, and some people are looking for ways to be sexual while still managing the risks presented by the illness. COVID-19 isn’t an STI in the common sense of the word, but since in-person sex involves close contact and breathing in each other’s space, it presents a major risk of COVID-19 transmission. However, many people still want to have partnered sex, and if decades of failed abstinence-only education has taught us anything, it’s that simply saying “Just don’t do it!” doesn’t result in people making safe, informed choices. It’s better to equip everyone with the information we need to gauge risks and make smart choices about sex during the pandemic.

As with many things during COVID-19, the guidelines around safer sex have shifted as more research has been done and more information about things like transmission risks and the effectiveness of different barriers has come to light. Too, there hasn’t been any research specifically about the transmission of COVID-19 during sex.  With that in mind, we’ve rounded up the key recommendations for safer sex during COVID-19, and will continue to update it as new information comes to light.

The following parts of sex can transmit COVID-19: breathing, talking, kissing, contact with semen, sharing sex toys, and anal play.

Masturbation is your friend. It’s becoming cliché to say that you are your own safest sex partner, but when contact with other people can transmit an illness, it’s the truth.

In terms of safely choosing partners, a partner you were already living with prior to the pandemic is safest. If you prefer casual partners, limit them to a small pool, or to one specific person. If you want to add any partners outside your existing household or pod, do that only within the guidelines above Ruby outlined and with the consent of everyone involved.

When choosing a partner, it’s safer to choose someone who has been following the safety guidelines, which includes wearing a mask around others and limiting how much in-person contact they have with other people.

Do not assume you can tell someone’s COVID-19 status just by looking at them.

Talk about COVID-19 the same way you would other STIs: you and a potential partner should share what information you have about your exposure or testing history, talk about what risks you each are and are not comfortable taking, and then what steps can be taken to reduce any risks of the activities you do want to engage in. If you haven’t been tested and aren’t sure if you should be, you can use this tool from the Mayo Clinic to determine if one or both of you ought to get tested for COVID-19.

Limiting your number of partners lowers your risks. As with any other part of life during COVID-19, the more people you have contact with, the greater the chance that you will be exposed to the virus, or, if you have it and don’t know it, exposing someone else to it.

Clean any surfaces involved in sex. While not as risky as in-person contact, COVID-19 can still transmit via surfaces. That means sheets, sex toys, or any other items used during sex that can be cleaned should be cleaned. The timing of the cleaning is also important. Clean them after they touch one body and before they touch another.

Wearing a mask during sex can lower the risk of COVID-19.

Wash your hands before and after sex (this lowers your risk of other infections as well). Showering before and after sex can also help remove any droplets that may be on your skin, which removes another potential source of transmission.

If you or your partner are feeling ill, don’t have sex.

Opt for long distance sex if possible. Phone sex and sexting are both options with no risk of COVID-19, and there are ways to do them safely.

If you want a lower risk, in-person option, mutual masturbation with at least six feet between you, with you both wearing masks, is one of the better choices.

To decrease risk during in-person sex, some health departments recommend not kissing during sex and choosing sex positions where you and your partner aren’t facing each other.

Remember that health services in your area may be impacted by COVID-19. If you rely on such services for contraception, STI testing, or PrEP, factor that potential delay into your schedule of renewing or refilling things.

Continue using the safer sex precautions that you already do, such as barriers and contraception.

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