Is it safe to have sex during COVID-19 self-isolation? Here’s the expert advice.

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Earlier today, the Australian government announced a range of new restrictions cracking down on the spread of COVID-19, including the cancellation of many activities deemed ‘non-essential’. What does that mean for your sex life?

This week began with the Australian government introducing a range of new restrictions cracking down on the spread of COVID-19. As 'non-essential' activities continue to be shut down or cancelled, you might be wondering what that means for your sex life.

Can you have sex while in self-isolation? Is it okay to meet a new partner while this crisis unfolds? Here's the latest expert advice on the situation in Australia right now.

Can I have sex while I'm self-isolating due to COVID-19?

First off, let's make sure we're all on the same page about self-isolation. Right now, all Australians are being encouraged to stay at home as much as possible, cancel non-essential outings, and keep their social distance. We're not all in the same boat, though.

For most Australians right now, self-isolation is voluntary (though highly encouraged). For anyone who arrived in Australia after midnight on 15 March 2020, or anyone who may have been in close contact with someone confirmed to have COVID-19, self-isolation is mandatory for 14 days, and the rules are much stricter.

Mary-Louise McLaws is a professor of epidemiology, hospital infection and infectious diseases control at UNSW. She's also an advisor to the World Health Organisation Covid-19 Infection Preparedness Group. She says that without a doubt, people in mandatory isolation should not be having sex -- in fact, ideally, they shouldn't be sharing houses with anyone not in isolation.

"In Australia, we're unlike Singapore and some other exemplars that require people to be isolated away from their family," Professor McLaws said.

"Also, people who are under isolation in Australia are allowed to stay at home or share their apartment while waiting for their results or waiting for the time to be up, and they're not being monitored very much at all."

Under these circumstances, Professor McLaws recommends that anyone in mandatory isolation try to have as little contact as possible with other people they live with. That includes sleeping in a separate room, using the bathroom at different times and cleaning it with alcohol wipes afterwards, and eating separately.

"That's what's best practice, and sex does not come into that," Professor McLaws said. It's only 14 days.

Can I have sex if I'm only in voluntary self-isolation?

If you haven't travelled recently and haven't been in close contact with someone who has a confirmed case of COVID-19, you're likely in voluntary self-isolation, or social distancing. With the government urging people to cancel 'non-essential' social activities, where does sex fall?

Paul Hunter is a Professor of Medicine at the University of East Anglia in the UK, and his advice is straightforward.

"If you are free of symptoms but are social distancing, then there are no reasons why you cannot continue to have sex with your partner when you live together," Professor Hunter said.

"If your sex life is rather more bohemian and you cannot get to have sex without mixing with some/many other people, this mixing is advised against so stay at home. This is especially important if you are in one of the at-risk groups."

Professor McLaws agreed, stressing that voluntary self-isolation is "a different scenario".

"If anything should happen so that you become a potential case and have to go into isolation, then it's different. But in the meantime, you've been sharing germs anyway, you've been close."

The point of broader social distancing measures right now, Professor McLaws said, is "so that you're social distancing from strangers, not from intimate and close family ties."

"So I think that's fine, because you're continuing to share in that bubble together."

What if my partner doesn't live with me?

Right now, as of March 23 2020 in Australia, Professor McLaws says it's probably okay for anyone not in mandatory self-isolation to have their partner over for sex. The date and location of this advice matters, though, because things could change.

"My understanding of the data is that the majority of people who are at risk to us are travellers from overseas," Professor McLaws said. "I would say there's very little evidence that unknown exposure is driving the epidemic so far."

In that case, if you know your partner well and have confirmed that they have not travelled or been exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 case, they're probably safe to visit.

However, if the virus reaches a 'second wave', where more and more cases are appearing with unknown origins, Professor McLaws says we'll need to adopt a more intense lockdown.

As for how you visit your partner, common sense still needs to play a role. Right now, private transport is your best option, though public transport users can find ways to lessen the risk. One way might be avoiding peak hour travel; Professor McLaws also suggests not speaking.

"I'd ask everybody who's using public transport not to talk when they're using public transport, because we push the droplets and the aerosol particles out as we're talking," she explained.

"We can't keep the correct social distancing while we're in public transport, so just keep quiet, and that should reduce the risk of catching even influenza, though hopefully you'll have an influenza vaccine."

What happens to casual sex in the age of coronavirus?

Sorry, folks: don't have casual sex right now. As Professor McLaws explains, the aim of social distancing efforts right now is to reduce our exposure to strangers.

"I think it's time to have a break [from casual sex]," Professor McLaws told The Feed.

"Because those that are in your close social groupings, you've got a good idea whether or not they've been exposed to travellers or anybody off a cruise ship, and they're the most important risk groups at the moment."

"But a casual sex partner, you're requiring them to fully disclose. They may not even know their risk factor as well as they should. So just from an epidemiological perspective only, I'd be saying reduce your risk, and maybe just have a break from casual sex while COVID-19 is sadly on the trajectory upwards."

Are any particular sex acts safer or more risky? Do I need to wear a mask or something?

If you've been hunting for advice on safer sex in the age of COVID-19, you may have noticed that the New York City government's health department has released an information sheet on safer sex during the coronavirus pandemic.

That fact sheet features a few handy tips -- for one, it points out that "you are your safest sex partner", and that masturbation will not spread COVID-19 so long as you clean your hands and sex toys well before and after you do it.

The NYC fact sheet also breaks down the relative risk of a range of sex acts, warning that kissing and analingus are high-risk activities given that COVID-19 has been detected in both saliva and faeces (it has not yet been detected in sperm or vaginal fluid).

Professor McLaws told The Feed that right now, it's much more important to limit who you're having sex with than to try to identify the lowest-risk sex acts. Once an infected person is close to you, pretty much any kind of sex will put you at risk.

"It's very hard to imagine that you could have sex at least 2.5 metres away from each other, so that you're not spreading the virus while you're breathing, panting, laughing, or any other activity that has to do with breathing and that oxygen exchange in a close, confined area," is how Professor McLaws put it. Best to be very careful, and very selective, with who you let into that 2.5 metre bubble.

What's the quick summary?

If you're in mandatory isolation, even without symptoms, you should not be having sex. If you're voluntarily social distancing, it's okay to have sex, but safest to limit this to sex with a person you live with, or a partner you know well and see regularly. Right now, you really shouldn't be having casual sex.

Finally, the advice in this pandemic changes rapidly. This was the advice we received on March 23rd; if the coronavirus has escalated seriously in your area since then, it may be appropriate to take further precautions.

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Currently, only people who have recently travelled from overseas or have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case and experienced symptoms within 14 days are advised to be tested.
 
If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit), or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
 
If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

Australians must stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people. Indoors, there must be a density of no more than one person per four square metres of floor space.

SBS is committed to informing Australia's diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.