COVID-19 and your sexual health: Managing sex, relationships, STIs and more

Updated: May 7

By Jenelle Marie Pierce


Springtime: the time of year when mother nature proudly displays her ability to proliferate with an abundance of blossoms and a wealth of tiny baby creatures wandering about! That display usually inspires some new relationships or an increase in intimate activity across established partnerships, but how should that dynamic change during a global pandemic? A time of year that typically encourages us to organize and make space for new, both literally and figuratively, is now mired with restrictions and uncertainty.


Through global distress, social distancing, and limited resources, we are presented with a heightened obligation to assess our sexual health needs and goals from the lens of personal and public safety. How should a global pandemic impact our relationships and our sexual activity? Does everything get put on hold while a public health crisis takes center stage and drains our resources?


The answer falls in a grey space. While some publications have tended to advise against new relationships or partnered sexual activities during COVID-19 precautions, that’s not realistic or practical for all people. Connection, relationships, intimacy, and physical touch are part of a human’s overall wellness. And while each person needs those things in different measures, recommendations that tend to assuage those basic human needs are not sustainable. So how do we balance our needs while limiting risk?

First, we need to consider what we know about the coronavirus, pair it with our unique sexual health needs and goals, and then understand how our personal situations and access to resources might impact our overall health and wellness.


How is the coronavirus transmitted?

When a person with the coronavirus coughs, sneezes, or talks they can spread the virus through the tiny droplets that get sent into the air. The closer in proximity you are to someone with the coronavirus, the more likely you are to contract it from them. General guidelines advise against coming within 6 feet of others, which is approximately 3-4 chair lengths away.


Although not believed to be the primary mode of transmission, the coronavirus can also live on surfaces like countertops, doorknobs, or nightstands, and you can contract it by touching the surface that was recently touched by someone with the coronavirus.

We know that the coronavirus has not been found in genital fluids, but that does not mean you cannot contract it from sexual activity.


The virus is found in saliva, mucus, and feces, so contact with those things substantiates a very high risk, but when someone is in close enough proximity to engage in sexual activities with someone else, they are still at a relatively high risk of contracting the infection, even when they avoid activities that involve saliva, mucus, or feces. Therefore, activities like kissing or rimming would be especially high risk, but other partnered sexual activities involving close proximity (less than 6 feet) are also higher risk.


Remember, the coronavirus is often asymptomatic, which means the people who have it can have no signs or symptoms. So even if you or your partner(s) feel fine, there’s a chance of contracting it or transmitting it.


Who can I be sexually active with, and how do we reduce risk?

Connection, relationships, intimacy, and physical touch are an important part of our health and wellbeing. So how do we reduce our risk while still meeting our needs?

A lot of publications have reminded us that activities like self-pleasuring and masturbation are our safest options, but we also understand that doesn’t suit all relationship dynamics or satisfy all personal needs.


We also know that the next safest option is a partner who lives with you, but again, that doesn’t always support all relationships, relationship structures, and it does not address the needs of sex workers. So, let’s talk about the different ways you can reduce your risk whether you’re solo, sheltering-in-place with a partner(s), in multi-home relationships, polyamorous, or a sex worker!


Activities to consider that can reduce your risk:

  • Virtual activities like video dates, sexting, phone sex (try talking about desires, fantasies, wants, and needs) – be mindful of anything you share virtually, establish boundaries about text and images, and keep names and identifying information out of foreground and background images and video.

  • Mutual masturbation from 3 to 6 feet away.

  • Washing hands for at least 20 seconds before and after activities and before and after touching shared surfaces.

  • Abstaining from in-person activities if a partner is not feeling well or has symptoms.

  • Abstaining from kissing or rimming (these activities that are known to be high-risk).

  • Incorporate barriers such as dams and condoms for all sexual activities (hand stuff, mouth stuff, and all penetrative stuff).

  • Abstaining if you or your partner(s) has a medical condition that might make them more susceptible, like lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, or a weakened immune system.

  • Reducing the variety of sexual activities with each partner.

  • Reducing your number of in-person partners.

  • Reducing the number of times you travel to and from a partner(s) residence.

Risk factors and guidance for specific populations:

Should I get tested for STIs, and where can I access sexual health services?

For routine sexual health services, many health care providers are postponing appointments or using phone or video appointments (telehealth) instead of in-person visits. Check with your healthcare provider, local health departments, clinics, urgent care centers, Planned Parenthoods, hospitals, or online providers to see what sexual health services they offer.


At this time, the CDC recommends that people delay routine screening for sexually transmitted infections. But if you have any symptoms (anything that is unusual for your body), you have engaged in sexual activities with someone who you know has an STI, or you are pregnant, you should contact your health care provider or clinic right away.


STI Testing:

Usually free or low cost: Your healthcare provider, local health departments, or clinics (call to see if they offer testing and ask about their appointment procedure).

Low cost or sliding scale: clinics, or Planned Parenthoods (call to see if testing is available, and ask about cost and their appointment procedure).

Sometimes pricey: Urgent care centers, hospitals, or online providers. Below is a list of some online providers (prices vary):

How do you notify your partner(s) if you learn that you have an STI? Consider the options below for anonymous notification:


Birth control:

Many providers are currently offering birth control via phone or video appointments (telehealth) and some are currently seeing patients in-person. If you currently have a birth control prescription, ask your provider to give you multiple refills at one time so that you can reduce your number of trips to the pharmacy. (This could include the pill, patch, and ring).


Or, consider ordering your birth control through telehealth to get your prescription via mail without an in-person visit.


Where can I seek help if I’m experiencing an unhealthy or abusive relationship?

If you’re in an unhealthy relationship, social distancing with an abuser(s) can be even more challenging and risky. This is also true if your family mistreats you because of your sexual orientation or gender identity.

  • For support and counseling, you can live chat with the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Futures Without Violence compiled a resource list for survivors who may be experiencing increased isolation and danger due to social distancing measures.

  • Prepare a safety plan and have an emergency bag hidden in your home should you need to leave quickly. If you have access to a phone, internet and/or social media, stay connected with external family and friends.

Being proactive about your sexual health during times like these involves considering the precautions that will be best for you and your relationship(s), while also deciding which adjustments to your sexual health routine are practical and realistic. Whether in a pandemic, in a position where resources are limited, or when considering unique relationship dynamics and structures, you are the only who can decide what is best for you, your body, your sexual health, and your overall wellness.



Need more quarantine resources?

Check out our list of birth control providers, urinary tract and yeast infection products you can have delivered, and more


Jenelle Marie Pierce is the Executive Director of The STI Project: Breaking the Stigma®, the Founder of the herpes activists network, HANDS, and a Spokesperson for PositiveSingles.com. As an STI+ Sexual Health Educator and content creator, Jenelle has been dismantling stigma by reclaiming STI narratives® through awareness, education, and acceptance since 2012.


Jenelle also tri-chairs the Communications Action Group for the National Coalition for Sexual Health (NCSH), and she is a member of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), the International Union Against Sexually Transmitted Diseases (IUASTD), the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association (ASTDA), the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable (NVHR), the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD), and The Intermountain West HPV Vaccination Coalition.


Jenelle's work has been featured in popular TV, radio, and print outlets such as: The Washington Post, CNN, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Jezebel, Forbes, HuffPost Live, NPR, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Refinery 29, The Daily Mail, Bustle, and many more. Current bylines can be found in O.School, SELF, HepatitisC.net, Kinkly, PornHub’s Sexual Wellness Center, Allure, and more.

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