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Wellness

Sexual Health in the Age of COVID-19

Marybeth Bock, MPH


If you're like most parents, you don’t relish discussing sex with your children — particularly when they're old enough to roll their eyes and say things like, “Just stop! I know how to take care of myself.”

And this fall, if we do have a student starting or continuing their studies on or near a college campus, our health worries have been laser-focused on COVID-19 and making sure they had plenty of hygiene items like hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and masks.

We may have conveniently avoided discussing sexual health, and we also may have assumed that our kids certainly would not be risking having an intimate relationship with a new partner in the second half of 2020.

But as the media keep reminding us, some college students are still behaving like some college students always have — seeking out others, looking to make new friends and new hook-ups. So that means more than a few of them will be engaging in sexual activities, despite the health threat of a viral pandemic.

What's Changed for College Students and Intimacy in the Age of COVID-19?

With so much public health emphasis on prevention efforts like hand washing and physical distancing, we really haven't heard much news about sexual health and COVID-19. Recently, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, made international headlines when she recommended that people stop kissing and wear masks when engaging in any sexual activities.

And while this guidance makes perfect sense from an infectious disease and public health perspective, it feels completely unnatural when considering how people normally go about establishing a new physical relationship. This is certainly an additional area where young adults need to adjust to a “new normal.”

It's important that our college students are aware of the facts and myths surrounding sex and COVID-19, and college health centers are working to get out the word. For both parents and students who may not be aware of the findings, here are some data from Planned Parenthood:

  • COVID-19 is not a sexually transmitted disease, although it is spread through direct contact with saliva or mucus, so intimate activities can easily spread it — hence the mask guidance.
  • So far, there is no evidence the virus is in vaginal fluids, but it has been detected in semen. However, scientists are not yet sure if it can be spread via semen.
  • COVID-19 may also spread through feces, so it may be possible to get COVID-19 from sexual activities that could expose someone to fecal matter, including unprotected oral/anal sex, or use of a sex toy that’s been in contact with fecal matter. For these reasons, careful use of condoms and dental dams remains extremely important.

For anyone not already in an established, intimate relationship with someone they know to be healthy, the safest sex to have is with yourself. Masturbation is a term that still makes many parents uncomfortable, so perhaps we all need to embrace the expression “self-love,” and remind ourselves that sex is a natural part of life, sexual release is good for mental health, and living through this pandemic has been stressful for people of every age.

And since the spring, when quarantines began rolling out across the country, there has also been a marked increase in video calls on dating apps, and in signups for 21+ platforms such as OnlyFans. Young people are finding creative ways to connect intimately with others, in completely virtual settings, yet they still need to be mindful about safely and respectfully navigating these digital spaces.

In an August 2020 Teen Vogue article titled “Coronavirus Sex Guidelines Must Consider Virtual Safety,” public health experts share a few goals from comprehensive sexual health and safety resources about how to more safely and respectfully navigate digital dating and sex:

The first goal is to increase individuals’ critical thinking abilities and sense of self-efficacy to reduce both theirs’ and others’ risks of online coercion. Platform users need practical tips on how people can safely negotiate consent, recognize red flags, and protect their sensitive information while online. Guidelines should include information on how to employ “netiquette” and respectfully navigate sexting. Finally, we should provide folks with the necessary tools to identify and report cyber-sex trafficking and other internet-facilitated sexual offenses.

What Has Stayed the Same?

  1. Mutual consent continues to be the most important requirement when it comes to all intimate behaviors that college students may be contemplating. It is crucial that everyone understands that if a partner, new or established, does not want to be intimate for any reason, including anxiety related to getting COVID-19, that decision needs to be respected.
  2. The use of alcohol and/or drugs before and during sexual encounters decreases inhibitions and good decision-making. With easy access to alcohol and binge-drinking behaviors prevalent on many college campuses, some students remain in a higher risk category for experiencing sexual assault and contracting STIs (sexually transmitted infections) — and now COVID-19 — if they are frequent users of alcohol or drugs.
  3. Just as with STIs, many people with COVID-19 may appear to be completely healthy, especially college students who are more likely to experience mild symptoms if any. Young people need to remember that just because someone looks healthy, or says they feel completely fine, taking precautions when becoming intimate is necessary. The CDC estimates that up to 40% of COVID-19 infected people exhibit no symptoms.

How Do We Get Them Talking?

The big question for most parents remains, “How do we get our college student to open up and discuss sexual health with us?”  I find it’s important to always broach the subject in a casual and non-confrontational tone, and to use humor whenever possible.

An easy way is simply to ask if your student has utilized their campus health center for any reason, and to point out all the services that they do offer.

Another way is to inquire if they've seen any news about sexual health during this pandemic, and to discuss the news or text them links to helpful articles (like this one) when you come across them.

I have also suggested to my own college students to follow certain organizations on Twitter and Instagram. Good ones to recommend are the American College Health Association, Sex, Etc., @4CollegeHealth, Scarleteen and PRH (Physicians for Reproductive Health).

It’s also a good idea to encourage your college kids to stay connected to extended family members, not only to serve as sources of helpful information and advice should they want any, but to help them normalize any worries by letting them know that everyone experiences some occasional anxiety surrounding relationships, particularly during this time we are currently living in. If you sense your student might have questions or concerns and doesn't want to open up to you, perhaps they would talk to a favorite cousin, aunt or uncle.

And as always, assure your young adult that they can and should discuss all matters of sexual health with a healthcare provider. Telehealth appointments these days are extremely convenient and a great place to start if your college student has any concerns.

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    Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two college students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as an Army wife, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites.
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