Casual sex and dating during COVID-19 can feel a little bit like bringing a hookup to your room in New Residence Hall, except this time, instead of asking for their ID and signature, you’re requesting information about their contacts, soliciting a detailed travel log, or inviting them to join your exclusive bubble.
Seven months into a pandemic, it’s natural that those of us who are single are yearning to go on a date or have a casual Tinder hookup, but do the benefits outweigh the risks? With Montreal having recently entered an orange zone and Quebec having 400+ new cases a day, it is more important than ever to practice social distancing. In my own personal experience on Tinder, I see a lot of “swipe left if you have COVID” bios – while most of these people are probably joking, I can’t help but think about all of the asymptomatic carriers who may be transmitting COVID on a date or during a one night stand.
How can we explore healthy sexuality and dating while avoiding being a public health risk? Surely, this will involve tough conversations and prioritize informed consent. And, even for people who live with their partners, it’s hard to know what services are currently available in terms of STI testing, contraception, and abortion when healthcare websites are so confusing and update pages haven’t been edited since March.
Understanding and Following Public Health Guidelines
As of the time of writing this article, the government of Quebec is recommending that private gatherings not exceed six people and that people from different households must maintain a distance of two metres (or six feet). This may be easy on dates, where you can meet at a park or sit on opposite ends of your dining table, but doesn’t lend itself well to sexual partners. The government of Quebec reconciles this, in some ways, by saying that it is permissible to have one exclusive sexual partner who lives outside of your home, provided that they are not putting themselves at risk and do not display symptoms of COVID-19. The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada suggests that if your partner does not live with you, it is a good idea to limit back and forth travelling by staying with each other for longer periods of time.
These guidelines may be helpful to people who are in long-term, monogamous relationships, but what about singles, people in polyamorous relationships, and those who want to experiment with different partners? McGill’s Student Wellness Hub suggests that if you are not comfortable with the level that a partner is social distancing, they live far away, or they have been in contact with someone showing symptoms, you may want to try virtual sex through things like video chats, texting, and phone calls. While the Shag Shop is unfortunately closed at the moment, this may be a good time to try out a new sex toy from a local shop or support sex workers on sites like Onlyfans. The same idea rings true for dates – it’s a good time to catch a flick together on Netflix Party, have a jam session together over Zoom, or send a romantic letter to the person who has caught your eye. The Wellness Hub also suggests that when seeing partners in person, it is best to explore options that limit contact, including using barriers like dental dams and condoms and avoiding kissing.
In the interest of public health and safety, the government of Quebec notes that “having anonymous partners or partners whose personal information is unknown can prevent public health authorities from ensuring proper follow-up in the event of infection with COVID‑19.”
Setting Boundaries and Having the Tough Conversations
With all of these guidelines and rules, it can be hard to navigate setting boundaries with others and setting rules. While it might be easier to communicate with long-term partners and best friends, it can be more difficult and awkward to discuss health boundaries before going on a first date, or with casual relationships such as friends with benefits.
Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist and researcher at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute has explained that all pandemic dating is like being long distance, and therefore, communication is more important than ever. When speaking to the Washington Post, he said that “the people who have high levels of communication, who are really trying to get to know each other at a deeper level, are more likely to succeed.”
This is easier said than done. For lots of us, especially folks with anxiety disorders, neurodivergent people, and those who do not have a lot of experience with dating or casual sex, direct communication and confrontation like this can seem extremely nervewracking. This can be even more difficult when you’re a disabled and/or immuno-compromised person talking to someone who isn’t as at as much of a risk if they contract COVID. But it’s not impossible: this texting guide/template from @sexedsunday on Instagram provides some guidance in speaking to partners about your boundaries around social distancing.
There are also resources available to folks who have questions about sex and relationships in general. SextEd is a confidential and anonymous texting hotline run by the Education for Prevention Department at AIDS Community Care Montreal where individuals can ask questions about sexual health and dating. All texts are answered within 24 hours, and there are informational articles on the organization’s website. To reach SextEd, text 514-700-4411.
Contraception and STI Testing
Contraception and STI testing can already be difficult to access, especially if you are an international or out of province student. This may be complicated even more by COVID-19. Fortunately, there still are options available.
At the moment, the Student Wellness Hub is offering a limited number of appointments, which are mostly being conducted online, with some in-person appointments available on Mondays and Thursdays. Drop-ins are not currently available. You may see a doctor at the Student Wellness Hub for a contraception consultation, HPV vaccine, STI test, and other services. The Wellness Hub is not offering pregnancy tests at this time. If you have a medical question but do not need to see a professional in person, you can also make a telephone appointment with a nurse by calling 514-398-6017. Appointments at the Student Wellness Hub are available at no cost to McGill students covered by insurance (including the Studentcare and Blue Cross plans). However, students who are currently residing outside of Quebec cannot access Hub services, including virtual appointments.
Options for getting condoms and dental dams on campus are more limited. As of right now, the Shag Shop is closed, and there do not appear to be any clear plans for reopening. In addition, while Queer McGill is offering plenty of online programming this semester, they are not currently able to operate their co-op. While the Union for Gender Empowerment is currently operating a co-op where you can purchase pay-what-you-can packers, naloxone kits, and reusable pads. However a representative of the service said that they will not be able to distribute safer sex supplies again until they regain access to their office.
Head & Hands, a community youth health organization, which is located in NDG and serves people ages 14-25, is still holding medical appointments in its clinic, but is not offering drop-in hours. The organization believes in healthcare for everyone, which means that you can access their services whether or not you have a RAMQ (Quebec health) card or other health insurance. If you are covered by insurance, however, they ask you to present your insurance card. To make an appointment, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 514-481-0277.
For individuals with a RAMQ card, appointments for contraception consultation and HIV testing are also available at other clinics including Clinique médicale l’alternative and l’Actuel. L’actuel offers prompt appointments for targeted groups (i.e. men who have sex with men, intravenous drug users, and sex workers). Please note that out of province students and international students will have to pay upfront for services at these clinics. However, out of province students can apply for reimbursement through their provincial healthcare coverage. Based on the language of the International Student Health Insurance Plan, it is unclear if STI testing is covered for international students. You can get more information by calling Blue Cross Customer Services at 1-888-873-9200.
While the Student Wellness Hub does not offer abortions, people who are pregnant can make an appointment there to discuss their options with a medical professional and receive more information on where they can access an abortion. The Wellness Hub also has a list of clinics where abortions are performed.
Individuals with a RAMQ card can terminate a pregnancy at no cost through clinics such as Clinique médicale l’alternative and clinique médicale fémina. However, fees for this procedure can be very steep for out of province and international students, and regardless of insurance coverage, anyone without a RAMQ card is required to pay upfront. International students are covered for both abortions up to 24 weeks and therapeutic abortions in full through Blue Cross insurance. For Canadian students from outside of Quebec, coverage varies by province and is not covered by the Studentcare plan through SSMU.
Overall, it is important for us to recognize that this is a context that we are not used to navigating. Even seven months into the outbreak, it is normal and understandable that we are having difficulty figuring out how to date and maintain relationships. Under these new circumstances, we’re all creating new norms and boundaries together and it’s important to stay patient, listen, communicate, and support those around you as best you can.
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