January is not a particularly sexy month. The sparkle of the December holiday season has faded. It’s cold and dark and, even in the best of times, going out may not be particularly inviting. But in a school setting, there was always something alluring about a clean slate, new classes and the possibility of meeting new people.
If you’re a post-secondary student, you might be trying to have as normal a year as you possibly can, whether you’re living in residence, in an apartment off campus or at home with your parents. But school is already stressful enough, and with a global pandemic still ongoing, it’s safe to say that academic stress is amplified this year. And while young people turn to various outlets as a means to blow off steam and de-stress, from exercise to bread baking and Netflix marathons, one of their other outlets is no longer really an easy option—or at least as safe an option as it was pre-pandemic: having sex.
In early September 2020, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s top doctor, recommended using barriers, like masks, when engaging in sex with people outside your bubble, and trying positions that aren’t face-to-face in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Or just abstaining from sex with another person at all (because you know, you can do it yourself). But winter is lonely. And a pandemic winter is even lonelier, so it’s a natural time to want to find someone to cozy up to, whether that’s for a couple of months or for a couple of nights. In a normal academic year, there’s the allure of the cute person in your class giving you sideways glances, or the gritty glamour of dorm parties to fuel new connections and strange conversations. (Having gone to school in the Maritimes, I can confidently say that even a rollicking sea shanty singalong can lead to romance.)
But with lockdown measures in place in Ontario and Quebec, how students should navigate dating and hooking up going forward isn’t so clear, especially when we’ve already seen institutions like Western University report COVID-19 outbreaks less than a month into the 2020 academic year. ICYMI, in mid-September the Middlesex-London Health Unit released a visualization that showed just how these cases spread. Activities ranged from meeting up on campus, masks on and physical distancing in place, to hanging out in their friends’ houses without masks, to going out to bars, to sharing an e-cigarette. While CBC reported that the outbreak in September mostly involved students who live off campus, the health unit declared another outbreak in October, this time in a student residence. Sex between people who don’t live together wasn’t on this list, but it’s safe to say that students are still getting down and dirty.
Face masks and physical distancing are part of our new reality—but how that factors into our sex lives isn’t so straightforward. While COVID-19 isn’t necessarily spreading faster on university campuses than it is in the general public, there have been instances of community spread that link back to universities. For example, in December 2020, positive cases in Kingston, Ont. were traced back to house parties around the city’s University District. All of this means that students need to reframe the way they think about hooking up in the age of COVID.
Students *are* still hooking up—it just looks a little different
Just because there’s a pandemic doesn’t mean that all sexually active students—or those who want to explore their sexuality—are becoming celibate.
Dr. Shemeka Thorpe is a sexuality educator and researcher at the University of Kentucky. Most students she’s spoken to are using dating apps this year, are generally sticking to virtual dates and are keeping IRL dates outdoors, and at a distance. This shift in dating might mean taking things slower. For some people, the getting-to-know-you phase might last a whole lot longer, until COVID numbers settle down enough for them to be comfortable getting close with someone new, and for others, this could mean going on more distanced dates before physically hooking up to ensure you’re comfortable with a potential partner’s level of exposure and safety measures.
Frankie*, 26, graduated post-secondary school a few years ago but started dating a University of Toronto student in early September 2020. They met on a dating app and knew that they wanted to have some sort of distanced sexual encounter when they eventually met up. When it came to determining what both partners were comfortable with regarding COVID and sex, the risk assessment wasn’t boring and awkward—they just built it into their flirting. Their date, Jamie*, had recently gotten a COVID-19 test, after someone in their program at school had tested positive. Frankie says, “I [didn’t] have symptoms, I was tested a month [before], so I was just laying it out like, ‘I haven’t been tested very recently, but these are my risk levels. This is where I go out, this is where I don’t go out;’ that sort of became pillow talk.”
Which, honestly, isn’t as different of a conversation as many people have—or should be having—pre-sex, even during non-pandemic times. “Before COVID, you would want to know how many partners is someone currently intimate with, what barrier methods are they using, when was the last time they got tested, and what were the results of that test. And the conversation’s the same now,” says Deirdre McLaughlin, a registered counsellor and sexual health educator in Nelson, B.C. McLaughlin would ordinarily start the school year giving talks at universities around sex positivity and consent. This year, conversations around consent look the same as they always do, just with an added layer of COVID-19 info, they told FLARE. They said they notice that when people are newer to sex, the conversations around safe sex are sometimes the hardest ones to broach. Typically, they do a lot of coaching around how to make those conversations more positive, and all the more so during the pandemic.
Biologist and science communicator Samantha Yammine says that COVID risk mitigation messaging has a lot to learn from sex-positive sex ed. “It teaches us about communication… [and] about not shaming and stigmatizing. We know that from years of HIV research, that when you shame and stigmatize people with an HIV positive status, it doesn’t help the pandemic,” she says. “Instead, when you empower people with the tools to take care of themselves and other people, and people feel comfortable having open conversations, the negative impact of HIV can be mitigated.”
And as for the public health recommendation to try more *literal* barrier methods, like glory holes—that option wasn’t so appealing to Frankie and their partner. “I did a bit of research into that before going on my quest for boinking,” they said. “This is not quite practical to how a lot of people need intimacy and need physicality. It won’t satisfy those things. I would rather incorporate someone into my bubble.” Which is what Frankie and Jamie ended up doing for a while—agreeing to only sleep with each other; eventually, that relationship ran its course.
Another factor to note: With many universities implementing no guest policies—meaning people who don’t live in the building aren’t allowed inside—according to Frankie, if you’re hooking up with someone in a dorm, “there will likely be sneaking in.” The Chestnut residence at the University of Toronto implemented their no-guest policy back in March of 2020. While they haven’t listed explicit consequences, their residence policy states that continued disregard of COVID-19 guidelines in shared spaces might result in “sanctions.” McMaster’s residence agreement contract doesn’t allow for guests during COVID-19 either, and references possible disciplinary action ranging from notice to eviction.
That doesn’t mean everyone feels safe getting close in person—or close at all
But while people like Frankie and Jamie were looking for ways to experience physical intimacy, that doesn’t mean that *every* sexually active student is thirsting for physical touch amidst a pandemic. In fact, sexuality and sex science educator Eva Bloom—who wrote A Compassionate Guide to Sexuality & COVID-19, an e-book on sexuality during COVID—found the opposite to be true; a lot of people she works with are reporting experiencing changes in their sexual habits during the pandemic, like having less sex with their partner.
“We’re basically living in a constant, low-level state of stress all the time,” Bloom says. “And a lot of our support system, like being connected with friends and family, has been taken away or restricted.” She points to a University of British Columbia study showing that stress is an incredibly common contributor to low sexual desire. It can be hard to get in a sexy headspace these days. Throw a bunch of term papers and online group projects on top of that, and you’ve got a recipe for a very unsexy semester.
“It’s the emotional capacity for grief and trauma, because we’re also in a racial justice uprising,” says sexual health and consent educator Samantha Bitty of the past year, and the renewed energy around the Black Lives Matter movement. “Folks recognize what their capacity is to be emotionally, physically, spiritually available to another person. I think that people opt out [of sexual encounters] because it’s overwhelming.”
Students, and young adults in general, are also living with their parents in much higher numbers during the pandemic. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, 52% of 18- to 29-year-olds in the United States are living with their parents, a level not seen since the Great Depression. Beyond any potential awkwardness of bringing home a hookup while Mom and Dad are watching The Crown, there’s also the issue of potential health issues. While the thought of getting COVID-19 can be scary for anyone, it’s *especially* scary if a parent has a pre-existing health condition.
Confusing public health messaging around sex and COVID didn’t exactly help
And it’s no surprise that young people would want to opt out of sexual encounters all together, because vague and unrepresentative public health messaging around intimacy and COVID isn’t only confusing, but it’s also partly to blame for uncertainty around best practices when it comes to hooking up. The overriding misstep when it comes to public health messaging, Bitty says, is that it really doesn’t reflect people’s lived experiences.
“It was abstinence-only type education, and there was a glaring absence of sexual health or relational information,” Bitty says. And when they did start talking about it, the messaging only really reflected a heteronormative, monogamous narrative.
“A lot of public health messaging has kind of operated under the assumption that people live in a singular kind of family,” Yammine says. This largely ignores single people living with roommates, in dorm settings, or couples living separately. If people don’t see their own circumstances reflected, Bitty says, it’s that much harder to make individual decisions that benefit a collective well-being. Or to take said well-being seriously.
Pointing to the messaging about masked sex and glory holes as an example, Bitty notes that this messaging was a 180-degree pivot in public health communication, which had been fairly conservative and more focused on sex that happened between people who already lived together. Because of this, “most people just thought it was funny and dismissed [the messaging], or they can’t imagine having sex in a way that’s rooted in a risk-aversion in that specific way,” she says. “We can’t even get people to wear condoms to have oral sex. Do you think they’re going to wear a mask?”
Not to mention the fact that many people in their late teens and twenties just find the guidelines straight-up confusing. Yammine conducted an informal survey through her Instagram about the challenges young people are facing in the pandemic—the key theme in their responses? Despite trying their best to reduce risk, they didn’t feel they were getting relevant advice and had no guidelines to work from. Some schools, like McGill, Queens and Ryerson, are integrating COVID-19 advice into their sexual health materials, and McMaster has put out a comprehensive COVID-19 Dating and Hookup Safety Guide, but many others have not.
The McMaster resource recognizes that some students will meet up for sex, even if it breaks stay-at-home orders. In the disclaimer, they write that they’re not *encouraging* in-person partnered sex. Rather, their aim is to provide tips to stay as safe as possible during partnered sex. Their harm reduction approach gives students practical, actionable tools to make informed decisions about their sex lives during a difficult and confusing time.
They organize tips in order from lowest to highest risk, starting with masturbation and fantasy and leading up to in-person partnered sex. They suggest lighting candles and reading erotica as ways to make masturbation more satisfying than just a quick way to get off, and offer a list of questions to discuss before going into a partner’s house.
“At this point, people still saying ‘just stay home’ is tired. You can’t keep saying that same message because we’re [almost a year] in,” Yammine says. “Abstinence-only has never worked well—not when it comes to sex education, and not when it comes to a pandemic. We need to talk about harm reduction and empower people with tools to make lower-risk decisions in all aspects of their life, including their personal life.”
There are some ways to get down and dirty—safely
Despite somewhat shoddy public messaging, there are ways to stay connected and forge intimacy during this time. While keeping guidelines top of mind, of course. “First and foremost, the public health guidelines take precedence,” Yammine emphasizes. This might mean trying your hand at (safe) sexting—either with a human partner or chat bot, and listening to audio erotica.
“Right now, we’re currently in lockdown [in Toronto] and being asked not to see anyone. And so I would say, maybe now is the time to do virtual dating and get to know people. And then when lockdown ends maybe then you can choose who’s worth seeing in person,” Yammine says. When it comes to dating, almost all of our experts suggested asking about the COVID precautions the other person is taking as a way to see if your values align with your potential partner. If wearing a mask is important to you, but they’re maybe a bit of an anti-masker, that’s probably a good sign that you’re not compatible in other ways, too.
Some universities have also developed online tools for less experienced students to work on their relationship skills. Farrah Khan is the manager of Consent Comes First, which offers support for students who have experienced sexual assault, at Ryerson University. A lot of research, she says, suggests that one way to address sexual violence is to provide people with relationship skills and skills around sexual health and boundary creation. Khan teamed up with her counterparts at Wilfred Laurier University and Carleton University (Sexual Violence Response Coordinator Sarah Scanlon and Bailey Reid, a Senior Advisor in Gender and Sexual Violence Prevention and Support, respectively), to create an online community called the Curiosity Lab, an online relationship lab that meets once a month to talk about things like flirting, online dating and harassment. “Sometimes it feels safer for folks to participate this way,” she says. If participants are living with their family and don’t have a lot of privacy, they can participate interactively through shared Google Docs.
Of course, with the vaccine rollout in Canada underway, it may be tempting to jump into a life of all make-out sessions, all the time. But Yammine says it won’t be quite that easy. “I think what people aren’t expecting is [that] the vaccine will come and then it’s over, snap your fingers. But in fact, it’s probably going to take several months,” she says. Depending on where you are, the first vaccine phase will likely consist of priority groups—populations that are more at-risk and front-line workers. “We’re going to still have to use other public health, non-pharmaceutical interventions like distancing, masks [and] ventilation, to continue to keep the spread low.” The hope is, once the priority groups receive their immunization, we’ll start to see things like hospital deaths declining. Once the situation becomes less dire, we may be able to slowly open up in stages. While it’s still hard to say exactly when more of the general public will be vaccinated, two web developers made a calculator that can help people estimate when they might expect to get the vaccine. Factors like age, whether you’re an essential worker, and whether you live in a congregate setting are all considered—though dorms aren’t specified in particular.
“Just try to have a little fun while dating and make the most out of this year that you can, because it is different and it’s new and, truthfully, we’re all learning. Although having some of these conversations may be awkward, they’re also awkward for everyone else,” Thorpe says. She explains that a healthy sex life is still within reach, even for those of us making our way through a lockdown winter without a regular partner. “To me, a healthy sex life is one that’s pleasurable, it’s one that keeps you safe…. But it’s one, too, that’s also intimate.”