Last summer, the COVID Destroyers took to Fire Island.
The thin sliver of land off the south shore of New York‘s Long Island is known for its beaches, resorts and thriving gay scene, which comes alive in the summertime with parties, performances and, yes, sex. For years, the HIV/AIDS prevention organization GMHC, along with local entertainment promoters, have headed to the beach to hand out condoms and information on safe sex with a nonjudgmental and sex-positive approach.
But in 2020, they decided to change things up a little. The group worked with drag queens and go-go dancers to greet people as they arrived not just with safe sex information, but also with face masks, hand sanitizer and encouragement to partygoers to protect themselves against COVID-19.
“The response was actually tremendous,” says Lynnette Ford, senior vice president of programs and prevention services at GMHC, which is based in New York City. So much so, she says, that the advocates dubbed the COVID Destroyers received $100,000 in funding from Janssen Pharmaceuticals to return to Fire Island this year. The money also will go toward a number of other initiatives, such as town halls on the way COVID-19 has impacted people’s lives.
Portraits of Resilience
The effort is part of a focus by some groups to promote safe sex during the pandemic – a goal that may take on additional urgency as the country moves toward more vaccinations, more COVID-19 immunity and a potential summer of love.
“At this point, we’re 12 months into the pandemic, so many people are craving and have been craving close contact,” says Susan Gilbert, co-director of the National Coalition for Sexual Health. “So our goal is to give people guidance.”
“If we do our part, if we do this together, by July the 4th, there’s a good chance you, your families, and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day,” Biden said in his March 11 remarks. “That doesn’t mean large events with lots of people together, but it does mean small groups will be able to get together.”
The notion of a brighter future caught fire on social media, unleashing hope that Americans, many hungry for physical connection, could be in for a fun summer – or at least one that’s more fun than the last. (Potentially fueling that fire: Rapper Megan Thee Stallion has hinted at a sequel to her popular song “Hot Girl Summer.”) Even before Biden’s speech, Dr. James Hamblin wrote in The Atlantic of a summer that could at least feel “revelatory“: Though important work remains to be done to end the current pandemic and prevent the next one, “people could travel and dance indoors and hug grandparents, their own or others’,” he wrote. “In most of the U.S., the summer could feel … ‘normal.'”
For many people, that feeling of normality may fuel efforts to make up for lost time. And those efforts may involve sex.
“I think it’s a bit of seizing-the-moment kind of thing for a lot of people, so once they kind of have that freedom back, or they feel like they have that freedom back from the vaccination or the pandemic being under control, they’re going to make up for lost time,” says Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist and a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.
Lehmiller was the lead researcher on an article published last summer that looked at how the pandemic, with its lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, reshaped recreational sex.
In an online survey completed by 1,559 adults between March 21 and April 14, 2020, nearly half reported a decline in their sex life. Yet 1 in 5 also reported expanding their sexual behaviors by incorporating new activities such as sexting, trying different sexual positions or sharing fantasies. This pattern was particularly pronounced among young, solo people, Lehmiller says. And those who made new additions to their “sexual repertoire” during the pandemic were three times more likely to report an improvement in their sex life.
“People said that they tried something new in their sex life since the pandemic began, and that took a lot of different forms,” Lehmiller says. “It could include virtual and long-distance behaviors like sexting and phone sex and cybersex, but it could also include new in-person partner activities, such as acting on your sexual fantasies or having sex in a new position or new location in the home.”
Lehmiller says there were a few reasons tied to participants’ sexual exploration during the pandemic: People were turned on by the novelty of staying home all the time and simultaneously desperate to break out of their typical sexual routines. Sexual exploration also served as a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety.
“I think novelty is a way that people try to help focus their attention to some degree,” he says.
But how does this translate to a post-pandemic future? Lehmiller says his continued research on sexual behavior during the pandemic, particularly as restrictions waned during the warmer months, saw no sudden rebound of sexual activity. In other words, people didn’t necessarily go immediately back to their normal behaviors.
“However, we did see that as time went on, people were less likely to report decline, even more likely to report improvements in their sex life and relationships,” Lehmiller adds. “Even though they weren’t necessarily having more sex, the overall impact seemed to lessen,” suggesting people became better at coping with the impacts of the pandemic.
And, Lehmiller says, ongoing research he’s done asking people how the pandemic may impact their sex life going forward shows a mixed bag: Some people report wanting to be more adventurous and have more partners, while others say they are reluctant to meet new partners.
“In terms of the long-term impact, I think we’re going to see things go in different directions for different people,” Lehmiller says. At the same time, he adds, the pandemic may have shifted some people’s priorities when it comes to sex, as it showed them how unpredictable and uncertain life is, making them more willing to try new things.
Some organizations, like GMHC, are now thinking ahead on how to do two things: continue to urge caution when it comes to the pandemic, but also recognize people’s need for intimacy and help them approach sex safely. For groups like Planned Parenthood and the National Coalition for Sexual Health, that involves leaning on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for vaccinated people, which allows for some in-person interaction with unvaccinated members of an additional household.
Another aspect is focusing on getting people screened for sexually transmitted infections before they resume sex. Combined cases of the common sexually transmitted diseases chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis have hit all-time highs in recent years, and a report out last week from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine notes the pandemic has disrupted needed STI care.
“Under-resourced STI programs have had to compete for resources with a major new public health threat, and their staff have been diverted to the COVID-19 response,” the report’s summary says. “This has translated into less attention to STI services and fewer critical services being delivered.”
At Planned Parenthood, the organization is encouraging people to take part in STI screening.
“We were in an STI epidemic before this pandemic started, and there’s no reason for us to think that it has gone away,” says Dr. Krishna Upadhya, vice president of quality care and health equity for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “It’s possible that it’s gotten worse because people have not had the same access to care that they would have had prior to the pandemic.” She encourages people not just to get routine STI testing, but also to catch up on other necessary screenings, like for cancer.
At GMHC, Ford says they’ve actually seen a recent increase in requests for STI testing.
“I don’t know if that correlates to increased sexual behavior during this time,” she adds, but the requests have prompted the service provider to reopen its STI/HIV testing center twice a week. It also can send at-home HIV testing kits to people who request them, and follows up to connect people with services should they test positive. A majority of GMHC’s clients are people of color as well as people who identify as LGBTQ+.
On top of testing, GMHC also is working to provide actionable guidance to people who want to date and have sex in the age of COVID-19. Its lineup of free workshops has included offerings on sex in the age of COVID-19 and virtual sex, giving people tips on sex positions that are not face-to-face and can include face masks, or on how to safely use different websites for online sex.
“Just providing tips on how people, you know, can be safer, if they are engaging in sexual activities, specifically, as it relates to new partners, partners who … do not live within their household,” Ford explains.
“I know we hear a lot about Zoom fatigue,” she adds. “But we have experienced an over 120% increase in attendance in our webinars when we compare them to in-person workshops.”
Meanwhile, the National Coalition for Sexual Health plans eventually to expand upon the material it has already put out, Gilbert says: The coalition prepared fact sheets last year on dating and having sex safely during the pandemic. That information, Gilbert says, isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
“Right now, in terms of COVID, it’s really too soon to lay your guard down,” Gilbert says. “Not enough people are fully vaccinated. We’re still at a point where we need to follow guidelines. We need to get to a vast majority of people vaccinated. We still need to practice some behaviors that are going to return us to normal.”
But the group’s guidance does recognize people’s need for intimacy, she says. And in a lot of ways, she says, it adds to the public health messaging already widespread around COVID-19, encouraging testing and the wearing of protection. She says encouraging people to be transparent as to who they’re spending time with and the risk they’ve taken during the pandemic may translate into conversations about safe sex.
“I’m hoping that people will be able to build on those open conversations, and have easier conversations around things like safe sex and STIs,” Gilbert says.
She anticipates that these questions will remain important, particularly among teenagers and young adults who might not get access to vaccines as quickly as older adults.
“I think we’re kind of at a place where we still need to remind people that at this point in the pandemic, we still need to follow these guidelines. But hopefully, if things improve over … the next couple of months, that we’ll be able to move into messaging that touches on other topics,” Gilbert says. Those topics could include preparing for sexual encounters by getting tested for STIs and getting back on birth control, for example, as well as advice on having a healthy relationship.
At GMHC, Ford credits the organization’s communications department for keeping a continued spotlight on sexual health during the pandemic, using Facebook, Instagram and Google-boosted ads to share information on testing and safe sex.
“For our condom distribution projects, (we’re) putting different infographics on Instagram, you know, like: ‘It’s chilly outside, so make sure you wrap it up,'” Ford says.
In a pandemic world, Ford says bringing people a positive message on reducing harm works best, whether it’s how to reduce COVID-19 transmission or STI transmissions.
“Shaming people for any aspects of their lives is not an effective strategy,” she says.