The long-awaited vaccinated spring is finally upon us. The sun is shining. The trees are blooming. Outdoor dining no longer requires dressing up like you’re hiking the Alps. And as more needles make their way into more arms, and dating apps get redownloaded, the more it looks like the US may be in for the raucous, horny summer of the century.
People are counting down till “vaccinated girl summer,” and spreading the good word that you “gotta get vaxxed to climax, gotta get pricked down to get dicked down.” As writer Erin Taylor so eloquently put it, “CDC announced I can finally get railed again.”
After months — over a year?! — quarantined mostly inside and avoiding others, many Americans are looking forward to getting back out and getting busy. “I think people will be making up for lost time, so to speak, and I am fully expecting a period of unfettered sexual expression,” Ina Park, an associate professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News.
But Park, as an expert in sexually transmitted infections, is also preparing for some of the not-so-sexy side effects of this anticipated debauchery. “In the STI field,” she said, “I think we’re going to be overwhelmed with the amount of infections we’re going to see in 2021.”
Sex and dating, like pretty much all parts of everyday life, profoundly changed during the coronavirus pandemic. Typical first-date cocktails in crowded bars became chaste, socially distanced walks or Zoom happy hours (at least for those taking sensible COVID-19 precautions). Many first kisses were stripped of spontaneity and instead were preceded by discussions of the risks: Who else have you been in close contact with? How about your roommate? Have you gotten a COVID-19 test recently? For many people, it was their first time having these kinds of open, sometimes uncomfortable conversations with someone they hadn’t even seen naked yet.
Now, as doctors gear up for a spike in STIs from the unleashing of everyone’s pent-up sexual energy, they are also wondering how the pandemic might affect the culture around sexual health, and if it will make people more responsible or reckless. Could the lessons learned from conscientious pandemic hookup culture — a newfound fluency in discussing testing, exclusivity, and personal comfort levels — be carried on for the better in our new, lusty, post-COVID world?
“Wearing masks is essentially like a condom for your face,” said Marybec Griffin, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health. “So many people have [accepted] ... ‘I have to wear this, it’s a little uncomfortable, yes, it reduces my pleasure about being outside because the lower half of my face is sweating … but if I decrease my pleasure by a little bit perhaps, I can engage in this thing I want to engage in safely.’”
The ways many people learned to discuss and practice safe interactions during the pandemic closely mirror discussions around safe sex, Griffin explained. She now hopes that mentality could help people feel more open in talking to their partners about protection methods and reduce stigma. “Viruses are viruses — they thrive in environments of silence, where we don’t have information, where people aren’t disclosing what they’ve been doing,” said Griffin.
Many experts compare the sexual culture changes that the pandemic may bring about to the AIDS epidemic. When HIV began spreading in the 1980s, particularly among gay and bisexual men, frank conversations around testing and protection became more commonplace in that community. Anu Hazra, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Center for HIV Elimination, said he hopes this sort of proficiency becomes further normalized after the pandemic ends. “I feel like a lot of cisgender, heterosexual folks were having discussions around status and protection and history, and asking these questions that I think a lot of queer folks have been comfortable asking for a long time around HIV and STIs,” said Hazra. “Having these really open discussions around risk and around people’s comfort around risk I think is really important, and I really do hope that sticks around once we’re out of this pandemic.”
If they do, it could be a huge win in mitigating the spread of asymptomatic STIs. Much like more than half of COVID-19 cases are spread by people with no symptoms, many STIs — including chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HPV — spread asymptomatically. Some sexual health doctors are hopeful that a newfound awareness and comprehension of asymptomatic transmission as a result of the pandemic could encourage people to get tested more often for STIs, even if everything seems just fine.
Marcus Sandling, the clinical director of sexual health at Callen-Lorde, a New York community health center serving the LGBTQ community, said that in conversations with patients he has compared masks to condoms and the HIV prevention drug PrEP. “I feel like the pandemic was kind of a useful tool when discussing STIs with patients, particularly after positives,” said Sandling. “Both contracting an STI as well as contracting COVID are essentially episodes of infectious disease transmission where one partner may be completely unaware of their current infection.”
But preventing — or even decreasing — a summer spike won’t be an easy feat, particularly because the spread is quite likely already underway.
Just last week, the CDC announced that reported STIs in the US reached an all-time high in 2019 for the sixth consecutive year. But despite that climb, nonurgent medical treatments were widely deprioritized in the pandemic for a lot of 2020, as a result of patients socially distancing and medical facilities closing or reducing in-person appointments. Naturally, this likely meant a drop-off in STI testing, noted Jen Balkus, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington. “The impact that has really had is going to change our understanding … of what these [STI] increases might be looking like,” Balkus said, “because we weren’t able to test in the normal ways we would for some time in 2020.”
On top of that, many people who normally worked in contact tracing for STIs found their skills more in demand than ever and were redeployed to do contact tracing for COVID-19. “A lot of the systems we normally had in place were really constrained by our need to pivot quickly to address the COVID-19 epidemic in the US,” said Balkus.
Hazra, with the Chicago Center for HIV Elimination, hopes people retain their stronger sense of harm reduction strategies from the pandemic and use it to make healthier sexual choices. Risk perception, he noted, has been a learned skill for many this year which can now also be applied to sex. “The safest way to prevent you from getting COVID would be to never leave your house, but that’s not a realistic demand — it’s not sustainable by any means,” said Hazra. “So folks had to figure out, how do they quantify risk? Risk is not black and white; there’s a million shades of gray.”
Throughout the pandemic, the debate around shaming has been a fraught one — whether it’s a useful and justifiable tool in getting people to comply with safety guidelines, or if it can actually be counterproductive and harmful by driving people to be more secretive about their risky behaviors rather than stopping them.
But shame as a public health tactic can be a slippery slope, particularly for vulnerable and marginalized people, said Jason Rosenberg, an organizer with ACT UP. He recalled how in January one “Gays Over COVID” spinoff account quickly devolved from chastising pandemic partiers to publicly disclosing someone’s HIV status. “That’s literally why HIV criminalization exists — because of that mentality of using shame, bias, and stigma to criminalize people,” Rosenberg said. “Communicable diseases and viruses are public health issues, not criminal issues.”
Instead of shaming, having open, nonjudgmental conversations around safety measures is a far more effective way to prevent the spread of diseases, whether that’s COVID-19 or an STI, said Griffin, the Rutgers assistant professor. “The thing that I am hopeful about is that we’ve been having these conversations around safety, not related to STIs and sexual health and sexual behavior, but around COVID,” said Griffin. “Like, Who have you seen? How many people have you been out with? Have you been traveling? What kind of risk behaviors are you engaging in?”
“The conversations are exactly identical,” she said. “We’ve been practicing a kind of innocuous, benign conversation around another viral agent, and I think it can be so easily applied.”
With all adults in the US now eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine as of this week, experts also said one way to convince the holdouts to get a dose is to sell them on the benefits of being able to hang out safely with other vaccinated people, whether that’s at a dinner party or an orgy. “As things are opening, I think it’s really important for folks to enjoy themselves,” said Hazra. “We need to be saying, You are vaccinated — look at everything that’s open up for you now.”
And if one of the things that will finally be opening up to the public again is, well, yourself, now would be a great time to get tested for STIs.
“It’s never too late to contact your provider and get tested before reemerging from our pandemic cocoons,” said Balkus. “Doing so and getting tested is a great way to know your status, get treated, and ensure you're doing what you can to engage in a healthy and happy sexual life.” ●