What Sex Educators Can Teach Us About How To Socialize During COVID-19

Lydia Bowers, a sex educator in Ohio, and her family have remained fairly isolated throughout the coronavirus pandemic. They’re a blended family, and her daughter goes to her dad’s house every week. With two households to consider and a few people in their group in the “vulnerable population” category, they’ve had to play it especially safe.

“We feel guilty for keeping our kids away from grandparents or relatives, all while watching people going out to restaurants and bars as if nothing’s wrong,” she told HuffPost. “We often feel like we’re overreacting.”

Still, she sticks to her guns. When relatives or the kids’ friends ask to hang out, Bowers actually borrows heavily on lessons she teaches about consent and safe sex in her work: “No” means “no,” even when it comes to socially distancing.

“I’ll say something like, ‘I really do want to see you, and I can’t wait until we can. Right now I don’t feel it’s safe,’” she said. “I don’t think you owe anyone any further explanation, but it’s also OK to explain your reasons, whether it’s health conditions or cases going up.”

Bowers is one of many sex educators who say they see parallels between the conversations we’re having about setting boundaries while social distancing and the kinds of conversations we have about safe sex.

Some of the similarities are clear as day: As with sex, we know that abstinence-focused education doesn’t work but that a harm-reduction approach can get you far. That type of approach is also more realistic as far as the coronavirus is concerned, said Aida Manduley, a therapist and sexuality educator.

“It doesn’t meant you choose to either throw caution to the wind or cloister yourself in a box for five years,” they said. “It means working to minimize harm and often making very tough choices and sacrifices in order to do so, while keeping in mind our health as well as that of those around us.”

As more people expand their “COVID social bubbles” or form loose “quaranteams” as a way to limit socializing to two or three households, the concept of consent is also useful, said sex educator and sexologist Jill McDevitt .

Sex educators say there are quite a few parallels between the conversations we’re having about setting boundaries with family and friends while social distancing and the conversations we have about safe sex.

In the sexual realm, consent means actively agreeing to be sexual with someone and letting them know that sex is wanted. More generally, though, consent is simply permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something.

In our new socially distant world, consent can look like agreeing to meet up, but only if everyone wears a mask.

“That’s similar to consenting to have sex, but only if a condom is used,” McDevitt said. (McDevitt recently wrote a great explainer on how decades of research on condoms can be used to convince folks to put a face mask on.)

Having informed consent conversations might also mean you talk about the social distancing practices others have employed, which isn’t so different from talking to a new partner about their safe-sex practices, or lack thereof, with past partners.

“Just because someone is family, sadly doesn’t mean that they’ll respect us or our decisions, and then we have to be clear about our values and boundaries around this.”

– Aida Manduley, therapist and sexuality educator

Here’s how consent might work with a socially distant get-together: Let’s say it’s been months since you saw your sister because of the quarantine. You’d love to have her over for a socially distant picnic the backyard, but there are some questions you need answered first: How safe has she been really? When it comes to masks, has she been putting one on as vigilantly as you and your family have or leaving it at home? Has she been tested? Whom has she socialized with in the last few weeks, and what’s their exposure level?

All of these questions are worth asking, especially with family; while it can be easy to assume that families are all on the same page with social distancing expectations, you might find out you and your family member are totally at odds in your approach, Manduley said.

“Just because someone is family, sadly doesn’t mean that they’ll respect us or our decisions, and then we have to be clear about our values and boundaries around this,” they said.

How do you make sure you’re being as clear as possible? Below sex educators further break down how lessons we learned in sex ed can help us make better, more informed decisions about the people we see during this pandemic.

Accept that, like safe-sex talks, the conversation might get awkward

Unless you endured the 1918 pandemic or are immunocompromised, conversations like this are probably completely foreign to you. Because of that, it’s probably going to be awkward at first, said Galia Godel, a Philadelphia-based sexuality educator.

“I think that’s partially why it’s so difficult to have these conversations,” Godel said. “We’re uncomfortable with safer sex discussions because we are uncomfortable asking other people to share their accountability and safety measures and asking other people to be honest about their health. The same is true here.”

As with the safe-sex talk, many of us are struggling to say “no.” We think we need to have a “good enough” reason to “not go all the way,” with say, an invitation to a backyard socially distant picnic. If we want to beat this thing, we have to normalize voicing our concerns. For instance, maybe you’re comfortable going to a picnic if the three people have been tested, but are wary to go if everyone is completely maskless. You should be comfortable telling the host that.

To make these tough conversations a little easier, practice what you’ll say before heading into them. Give some deep consideration to what you feel comfortable doing, whom you feel safe with, and then respond to that invitation, Godel said. (In other words, there’s no need to go into the conversation cold.)

“There isn’t a rush to make a decision, in fact, this is the kind of situation where moving slow is better,” she said. “And if they give you more information that might change your answer or where your boundaries lie, tell them that you’ll need to think about it ― or consult with someone you live with ― and then you’ll get back to them.”

If your friend changes her mind about dining al fresco after going out with you earlier in the month, you have to be OK with that, Godel said.

If your friend changes her mind about dining al fresco after going out with you earlier in the month, you have to be OK with that, Godel said.

Get comfortable saying ‘no’

If you’re struggling with how to say “no” to an invite, consider the “compliment sandwich” route, said sexuality educator Elle Chase. During a hookup, that might sound like, “I really want to have sex with you, but I’m not on the pill and neither of us have a condom handy. Maybe we can just touch ourselves together and really let the anticipation build for when we can do it safely.”

In a social distancing scenario, similarly bookend your boundaries with two positive statements, Chase said.

“You might say, ‘That’s so thoughtful of you to invite me to dinner. Unfortunately, I’m feeling particularly cautious and would rather not risk it for both our sakes. But I look forward to hanging out and eating dinner at your place sometime in the future. In fact, I’ll bring the wine!’”

Be explicit when talking about your potential exposure

While this “safe sex” and consent analogy is helpful, Manduley stressed that talking about coronavirus exposure needs to be far more expansive; unlike sex, your risk doesn’t come from just one person.

When discussing your risk and exposure, be as clear and explicit as possible: Have you been tested? How long ago was that? Are there others in your house who may have been exposed to the virus, say, a roommate who manages a supermarket or a spouse who works at a hospital? Do you or the other person live with anyone who’s high-risk? Then, ask the same highly specific questions to your friend.

“It’s not a time to mince words,” Manduley said.

Don’t settle for generalizations, either. “I should be fine, I hardly see anyone,” isn’t going to cut it during a pandemic. Remember that there’s a high percentage of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases.

Don't give a loved one a hard time or try to coerce them if they say they'd rather not have visitors. 

Don’t give a loved one a hard time or try to coerce them if they say they’d rather not have visitors. 

Approach the conversation from a place of compassion rather than fear and shame

Avoid any judgment or shame when you talk about this, as you would with the safe-sex conversation. Don’t say, “I know you went to all those protests; I’m really worried I could catch COVID-19 from you so let’s wait to get together.” Instead, Manduley said, come at it from a place of concern and love.

“Think of how different the conversation feels when we say, ‘I need to know these details so I can keep myself and others, you included, safer. I do this because I care about my health, yours, and that of those around me,’” they said.

If someone says ‘no, I’d rather not,’ respect that

If you’re on the receiving end of a “thanks, but no thanks,” accept that response with grace, Bowers said.

“If they’ve said they don’t feel comfortable hanging out or hugging, don’t push it,” she said. “Don’t try to convince them why it’s OK, or send articles on why children aren’t transmitting it as much as they say, or whatever you feel proves it’s safe. They’ve said ‘no’.”

Don’t forget, she said, there are still tons of ways you can connect: FaceTime, Houseparty and care packages, to name a few.

Like with sexual consent, you or your friend can change your minds at any time, for any reason

If, in the middle of sex, your partner wants to stop, you’d listen and not push them further. Consent is always an ongoing conversation, Godel said, and that’s true here too: For instance, the friend you met for al fresco dinner earlier in the month may have been fine with it then, but has had a change of heart since because of the uptick in cases. Given how our knowledge of this virus is constantly evolving, that’s completely understandable.

“Anyone can change their mind at any point, even if you’ve already seen each other in person, or merged bubbles,” she said. “If a loved one is no longer comfortable with the safety precautions in their bubble, they can choose to set fresh boundaries and lock their bubble back down.”

Again, no need to try and coerce them to come out. There will be a day when you can engage and socialize again, but in the meantime, you and your friends’ safety has to come first. Dinner outdoors at your favorite restaurant can wait.

Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.