Debbie C., a self-employed 20-something from Washington, D.C., had a standard criteria for men she was dating prior to the coronavirus pandemic: Has he been married ― and if so, for how long? Are they officially divorced? Does he want children? Does he have children? Is he voting for Donald Trump? Does he have a soul patch?
Three months into the pandemic, Debbie’s list has gotten a lot more complicated. New, safety-minded questions have come up: Who does he live with? Do any of his roommates work in a hospital or at a grocery store? Has he been to the hospital in the last three weeks? Who has he interacted with in person in the last few months? Is a mask-wearer?
Even if a man does squeak by Debbie’s criteria, she isn’t raring to go on a first date anytime soon (even if she admits to being a little sexually frustrated at this point).
“Talking to a guy face-to-face on a date in a restaurant without masks is akin to the risk of having sex without a condom right now,” said Debbie, who asked to not have her full name published out of concern for her privacy. “Imagine that. It’s like, ‘Oh, hell no.’”
Debbie is not alone in observing an abundance of caution when it comes to first dates and first base. (Rapper Megan Thee Stallion is makeout-averse right now, too: “It’s a quarantine summer, and you know I’m not lit,” she joked in a recent remix of her 2019 hit “Hot Girl Summer.” “Got corona on yo lip, you know you can’t get no kiss.”)
Because of how COVID-19 spreads ― through droplets in the saliva, mucus or breath, even from people who are infected but do not have symptoms ― kissing might even be more dangerous than actual sex, in terms of your chances of catching the virus. (We’re constantly learning new things about COVID-19, but experts have said that the exchange of sexual fluids like semen is not likely a common way it spreads.)
Indeed, when New York City public health officials put out their very forthright advice for singles who might want to get physically intimate during the pandemic, they gave a cautious OK to sex, but warned against kissing.
“Avoid kissing anyone who is not part of your small circle of close contacts,” the officials said. “Wear a face covering or mask. Maybe it’s your thing, maybe it’s not, but during COVID-19 wearing a face covering that covers your nose and mouth is a good way to add a layer of protection during sex.”
Psychologist and sex therapist Janet Brito also thinks kissing just isn’t worth it, especially given the new spikes in case numbers.
“Considering we do not have a vaccine yet, I believe it is best to take extra precautions and avoid deep kissing, unless it is your live-in partner,” she said. “And, if you simply can’t resist your new beau’s lips, then practice the harm-reduction approach.”
Brito said that would require knowing your partner’s health status and openly discussing any risk for exposure. Don’t rush into a kiss, she said. Communicate as much as you can and make sure you both understand the risks and what-ifs.
Paula Cannon, an associate professor of microbiology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, called the current “to-kiss-or-not-to-kiss” predicament a “numbers game.”
To reduce your risk with a partner, Cannon recommends getting tested before meeting in person, then showing each other your results. (The virus’s incubation period is around five to seven days, but it can be up to 14 days, so if you’ve been out in a large group ― protesting, for instance ― wait a while to get tested.)
All this pre-planning might sound supremely unsexy ― you basically have to have the safe sex conversation before kissing (and we know how bad Americans are at having the actual safe sex conversation). But given the heightened concerns for coronavirus, the awkwardness is worth it.
“The good news is that at least where I live, in Los Angeles, you can get tested and get the results back the next day, so you could even enter into an agreement whereby you both agree to get tested, as a way to then not have to do social distancing,” Cannon said.
“You don’t even have to mention kissing as a possibility, just the idea that you could sit closely next to another human!” she joked.
As for now, I’ve no choice but accept that the idea of going to a movie, hitting a bar, having dinner, holding hands and hoping for a kiss at the end of the night won’t be returning for a long while yet. Mark, a retail worker in Durham, England
These pre-kiss conversations can ultimately help singles make better choices, said Shannon Chavez, a sex therapist in Los Angeles. You might just be hooking up or making out, but she said bringing up this topic is a good way to gauge a person’s character.
“Talk about it openly and see how your partner reacts,” Chavez said. “If they have a negative reaction to your concern around testing or contracting the virus, then they probably don’t have the same values around health and safety. It may be better to know this early on before the relationship progresses.”
Jagdish Khubchandani, an associate chair and professor of health science at Ball State University, found the New York Health Department’s guidelines for kissing and sex to be a little unrealistic. He said to focus instead on finding a very trustworthy, time-tested partner.
“Who’s going to be thinking about wearing a mask during sexual activity or kissing ― how many would wear a mask during any of that?” he said. “Early preventive measures and personal judgment is much more effective and logical than that.”
By that, he means really getting to know your intimate partner beforehand. Obviously, a long-term partner, spouse or someone you cohabitate with is safest. Whoever it is, you’ll want to know that person’s behavior and history during the pandemic to see if they’ve had a lot of exposure to people or had lots of sexual encounters.
Once you’ve established that they’re more or less “safe” and intend to limit their exposure, you could do as our Dutch friends have and make that person your official temporary sex buddy: In the Netherlands, public health officials advised locked-down singles to find a “seksbuddy” — a trusted person with whom to have an exclusive sexual relationship, even if it wasn’t a potential long-term partnership.
Dating advice from my mother:
“This is the best time to date and get to know people without feeling pressured to kiss them. You can hang out with them and give them a fist bump goodbye! If they try coming in for a kiss, scream COVID-19 and then ghost them. They ain’t the one.”
— Female Robin Williams (@emeliasherin) March 21, 2020
Abstinence and solo play are valid choices, too. Most of the singles we talked to said they planned to wait it out.
Across the Atlantic, in Durham, England, Mark, a retail worker who’s single, said first dates are difficult by design these days: With bars, restaurants and pubs closed until next month, dating is pretty much restricted to going for a walk together somewhere. Since he’s not going on any first dates, he’s not having any first kisses, either.
“As for now, I’ve no choice but accept that the idea of going to a movie, hitting a bar, having dinner, holding hands and hoping for a kiss at the end of the night won’t be returning for a long while yet,” said Mark, who is also going by his first name to protect his privacy.
But Mark sees a silver lining in our widespread sexual frustration: Singles may actually get to know each other and forge deeper emotional connections before rounding all the bases.
“I think the dating milestones are going to be a lot more staggered and there’s going to be a lot more gauging of the other person’s comfort limits when it comes to physical contact,” he said. “I definitely think the days when you would lean in for a kiss and hope for the best are gone for the time being, because if you’re going to make that kind of contact with someone, it’s going to be with someone who have a high level of trust in.”
For others, like Debbie from D.C., this moratorium on kissing has given her time to reevaluate the men in her recent past and decide if, given all she knows now about coronavirus, they would have been worthy of the risk.
“When I think of all the guys I’ve dated in the last year … none of them are worth getting COVID and dying over,” she joked. “I think I’ll have that lens on when I’m considering new guys to kiss in the future.”
Risky Business: Love And Sex In A Germaphobic World is a HuffPost series exploring the way that coronavirus is changing the way we date, have sex and enjoy intimacy.
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A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus
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.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.