Is oral sex more Covid-safe than kissing? The expert guide to a horny, healthy summer

·9 min read

“Hugs,” everybody keeps saying. “Who do you most want to hug on 17 May?” It’s an absurd act of prudishness. The real headline of next Monday is, of course, that this is the first day on which it will be legal (in England and most of Scotland, but not yet Wales or Northern Ireland) to have sex with a stranger since 22 March 2020. As we look ahead to the post-Covid dating world, the rules are very much a work in progress. From every quarter, one hears the same message: there is no such thing as zero risk. An acceptable gamble to one person will look like outrageous recklessness to another. The pandemic hasn’t treated us all the same, and we’re likely to emerge with different versions of what “moral” and “responsible” look like. Old friends have a hard enough time navigating new schisms, but what about total strangers? How do you meet new people in this scared new world – and what to do if the worst comes to the worst: you also fancy them?

Here is a guide to some questions you might be asking about post-pandemic dating, answered by the experts.

Should you do a lateral flow test before going on a date?

Dr Eleanor Draeger, a sexual health and HIV doctor, says: “What I worry about is giving people false reassurance. When you do a lateral flow test, this means it is likely you were not infectious on the day the test was done. That’s probably not the green light you’re looking for.” If you want to be absolutely sure you won’t infect or be infected with Covid, whether having dinner or having sex, lateral flow tests will not deliver that.

In terms of manners, therefore, it becomes a matter of whether you can live with uncertainties and individual discretion. William Hanson, a 31-year-old etiquette coach and host of the podcast Help! I Sexted my Boss, says: “It would not be right for me to criticise somebody for their own interpretations of what’s safe; it’s fine for them to be in control of their life and risks, but I’m in control of my life and risks.”

A note from Draeger: it’s not just about the tryst. It might be more important that you take a lateral flow test or self-isolate afterwards, before you see a friend or relative with compromised immunity.

Is it OK to go on a date having just had one dose of vaccine, or should you wait until you’ve had two?

Medical opinion is pretty solid: two doses offers better protection, so wait for the second. However, Will Nutland, honorary assistant professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, co-founder of the Love Tank, which researches health inequalities, and author of a brilliant online resource, How to Have Sex These Days: Navigating Covid When Horny, offers some insight from the longer view. “We can stand collectively and say: ‘Don’t have sex, it’s dangerous’, but what we learned from 30 years of HIV is that telling people what to do doesn’t work. If you help people reduce their risks, they’ll listen to you.” That goes doubly for Covid-unsafe-sex, since, even at the height of HIV, sex was never against the law. “For me this is the fundamental problem with the abstinence message,” Nutland says. “People then won’t come to you for help and support, since you’re asking them to disclose something you’ve already said is morally and ethically wrong, and also illegal.”

Wait until you’ve had two doses, in other words, but don’t feel like a pariah if you didn’t.

Is it OK to ask someone for proof of vaccination status?

In a word, no. Hanson says: “I think that if you’re that worried, don’t go on the date. Just wait until you know statistically that their age bracket would have been covered. Asking for proof is a mood-killer.” (The mood you’re looking for, incidentally, is a modicum of human trust.)

And what about putting your vaccination status in your dating profile?

Opinion is divided. Debora Robertson, the author (with Kay Plunkett-Hogge) of the book Manners: A Modern Field Guide, says: “Like anything you put on any kind of profile, you’re saying that this is important to you – like if somebody says: ‘I am a competitive cyclist’, or ‘I climb mountains’. If you were the other person and you thought: ‘That’s a bit much’, that’s OK as well. But somebody who would ridicule you for doing that is somebody who would ridicule you for your other boundaries as well.”

Hanson, though, thinks it’s de trop. “Most of the younger generation haven’t been vaccinated yet, so it’s a bit: ‘Look at me, I’ve got something you haven’t got.’ It’s showing off, and showing off is never right.”

I had Covid months ago – would it still be possible for me to pass it on to someone?

You’re not infectious from that episode of Covid. But we know it’s possible to catch Covid more than once, so you should behave as you would if you’d never had it.

What is more dangerous – kissing with tongues or having sex (with no kissing)?

“Intuitively and pragmatically,” Nutland says, “if there’s lots of close mouth-to-mouth contact involved, that will increase the risk.” There’s a lot we don’t know about how the disease is passed on, says Draeger. She adds that it’s not a sexually transmitted infection in the normal definition of the term, but “if I talk about where the virus is, that might help: it can be found in saliva, in semen and in poo ... Ebola stayed active in semen for six months; that isn’t a sexually transmitted disease, but can be transmitted sexually.”

Is oral sex Covid-safe?

Even though there’s a perception that oral sex is safer, it doesn’t pay to be too literal. “What I say to teenagers,” Draeger explains, “is if you’re going to have sex with somebody, body fluids are going to touch other body fluids. Not exchanging saliva will lower the risk of getting or spreading Covid but won’t take the risk away.”

If we decide to have sex, should we wear masks?

Masks are definitely the new condoms, sex-wise. The same caveats apply, as Draeger says. “If you think about using condoms for gonorrhoea, even wearing a condom does not totally prevent you passing on the infection. A lot of touching goes on when people are in that situation that isn’t just when the condom is on.” Experts in the fields of both etiquette and sexual health agree that expecting people to keep masks on while having sex is quite unrealistic.

Is dating a fully vaxxed person actually any safer?

Yes. It’s as much safer as doing anything else with a fully vaxxed person, which is to say, it is still not impossible to pass on the virus, but is 80-97% less likely, depending on which vaccine you have had.

Is it safer to kiss outdoors than indoors?

Nutland says: “Can I put my hand on my heart and say that only having sex outside is absolutely safe? No. But the global evidence right now suggests that it’s much easier for Covid to be transmitted in closed, poorly ventilated spaces.” That being said: if you have Covid and cough directly on someone, being indoors or outdoors won’t make any difference.

Would passionless (non-sweaty) sex be safer than passionate (sweaty) dancing?

It’s not really about the activity – oh, and it’s not transmitted through sweat, by the way – it’s a numbers and indoor/outdoor game. If we take it as read that everyone is without symptoms and assumes themselves to be Covid-negative, then it’s safer to be outdoors having sex with one person than indoors dancing with 100 people. What you’re trying to weigh up is the probability that someone will have Covid and not know it, rather than the probability that you’ll get close enough to catch it. So the more people there are, the more likely that is.

What extra precautions should you take if you want to date a former shielder?

The most cautious you can be is to take a lateral flow test, be moderately sure that you didn’t have Covid on that day, then self-isolate for two weeks, then go on the date. But it’s very infantilising to think that shielding people can’t make their own decisions. It’s better to ask them what precautions they would like you to take, and make a call on whether you’re happy to follow them.

How do you work with the fact that everyone has had different experiences of the pandemic?

Robertson says: “The most important thing is to be understanding about things you don’t quite get. Dating is excruciating anyway, we’re going to have to be patient with each other.” On the specific subject of bereavement, be careful about minimising the virus – for instance, making any jokes about it being no worse than a hangover – until you know whether the other person suffered a loss, or had long-term health effects themselves.

If someone says they have been bereaved, Robertson says: “Don’t do that horrible thing of trying to close anything down. Don’t look at your shoes not knowing what to do, or try and relate it to your own experience of grief, so suddenly it’s all about you. ‘I’m really sorry that happened,’ is a full sentence. You don’t have to waffle on. Because sometimes that person wants to say that just to get it said, but then they’ll want to talk about something else.”

What should you do if your date turns out to be a Covid-denier?

“Find something else to talk about,” Hanson says. “Move the topic along. If they keep going back to it and you cannot stop them, be quite bold and just say: ‘Shall we talk about something else?’ You don’t owe them anything in this exchange and you’re probably not going to take the date any further anyway. But don’t be mean to them.”

I’m really anxious about Covid – is there still a good argument for me going out and having sex this summer?

Robertson counsels being kind to yourself. “It’s your health, and there’s nothing more important than that.” Draeger agrees: “Everyone needs to be kind to themselves and to other people. Because we might find a lot of things anxiety-provoking right now. I’m single, and I’m listening to myself talk, thinking: ‘I’m never going to meet anyone again.’” Nutland has a variation on that theme: just walk a mile in another’s shoes. “Imagine being 25 and being a little horndog and being locked up for six months. I couldn’t have done it when I was 25.”