COVID-19: how to look after your sexual health during coronavirus lockdown

Social distancing guidelines as a result of the coronavirus outbreak are having a major impact on the physical contact we have with others, and that includes sex and intimacy. Whether you're single, coupled up in captivity, or living apart during the COVID-19 lockdown, we ask the experts how to look after your sexual well-being.

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Sexual intimacy is an important part of life, but with government guidance instructing us to keep our distance from others, it's time to get creative about how we manage our sex lives.

Although there's currently no evidence that coronavirus can be transmitted through genital contact, it can be passed on by saliva and mucus, so kissing and close contact are a major risk. Unless you're able to have sex with a partner who lives in your household, it's important to find sexual satisfaction through other means during the lockdown.

You are your safest sexual partner

"Masturbation will not spread COVID-19, especially if you wash your hands (and any sex toys) with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after sex," advises Dr Mark Lawton from the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH).

Use this time alone to enjoy sexual fantasies and perhaps order a new sex toy online.

Scientific research shows that masturbation can enhance sexual health and relieve stress and anxiety, whether you’re single or in a relationship.

"Masturbation and self-exploration can be really important right now," says psychosexual therapist Kate Moyle. As one of the experts featured on BBC TV series Sex on the Couch, Moyle helped couples to work through their sexual and relationship challenges.

"Sex toy sales have gone through the roof at the moment," she continues. "Having time on our own, with fewer opportunities to go out, means that people are finding ways of trying something new whilst staying in. You might also find audio erotica fun - apps like Ferly and Dipsea have erotic stories."

Sex at a distance

Whether you're online dating or currently living separately from your partner, there are plenty of ways to connect, but make sure you stay safe, says Moyle. Do not arrange to meet with a partner for sex during the lockdown, the same way you shouldn't arrange to go to a friend's house for coffee.

"You might want to try flirting over text, sexting, phone sex, things like that. It's important though for any couples who are sexting, having phone sex or sending each other images to make sure they agree on rules for what is OK and not OK."

Remember that in the UK it is illegal to send or receive 'indecent' photos of someone who is under 18 years of age - only consenting adults should engage in sexting.

Consent applies to all sexual interactions, including if they're virtual. For example, you may agree it's important not to record calls, download and save images, or share images with others. If possible, use an encrypted connection to ensure no one else can hack into your connection or device.

"A lot of people feel awkward about trying sexual stuff on the phone," adds Moyle. "But if you try it and it doesn't work, just laugh it off. Don't put pressure on for it to be perfect or have unrealistic expectations. You might also want to face time and try some playful games - try asking each other 10 questions to connect and find out more about their deepest desires. You can buy games like this online."

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Living together in lockdown

If you're living together with a partner and your usual routines have been disrupted, you may be finding it tricky to find time for yourself and for each other, especially if you have kids.

"At the moment many people are struggling with not having clear boundaries between work, home and parenting," says Moyle. "Where possible, try to put boundaries in place, otherwise all the aspects of our lives start to merge into one. You need to switch off to turn on. Book a time in when you'll go to bed early and spend time with each other as a couple. Scheduling sex might seem boring, but it does build anticipation and excitement as well."

If you are having penis in vagina sex and want to avoid pregnancy, make sure you are using effective contraception.The last thing you want to worry about is emergency contraception during lockdown. However, it is worth remembering that if you do have unprotected sex, many pharmacies now offer emergency contraception, sometimes with a video consultation rather than face to face in person. Log on to Patient Access to find local services.

Use barrier methods such as condoms and dental dams if there is a risk of being exposed to STIs by having sex.

Changes in desire

The pandemic is likely to have an impact on everyone's sex lives, not only in a practical sense as a result of social distancing, but also in terms of sexual desire. Sex helps us feel connected and alive, so some people will experience an increase in sexual desire during lockdown. Many of us though will notice a dip in desire as a result of the changes we're facing.

"If there's nothing exciting or desire-prompting going on and you can't go out and share inspiring experiences, together or alone, then that spark can be harder to find," says Moyle. "We know that in women desire is particularly context-dependent. So if we feel we can't escape the home and there's carnage everywhere - from home working, toddlers, laundry and so on - that doesn't necessarily allow us the right headspace for sex."

Trying something new as a couple is always a positive for the relationship and now more so than ever.

"Desire is often prompted by novelty, excitement and the unknown," says Moyle. "So try something new, whether that's sex toys, sharing fantasies or doing something you haven't tried for a while."

Sexual health services - what's available during lockdown

If you have a sexual health issue during lockdown, how and where you seek help may change as most NHS sexual health clinics are currently offering a limited service.

"We are all working very hard to maintain our services through these challenging times," says Dr Lawton of BASHH. "But undoubtedly, the ways in which you get care will change and will probably be less flexible. Some services may need to close and shift care to larger centralised clinics where staff can be pooled."

Overall there will be fewer appointments, though many clinics are offering telephone consultations. Many services are exploring alternative options such as working with postal pharmacies to send medication out, so this may be an option depending on what's available in your area. If you are eligible for home STI testing services, many are still operating as normal, although results may be delayed as kits are taking longer to arrive by post.

BASHH has released contingency plan guidance on the changes we may see to services across the country in the next few weeks.

"Your local clinic should have a telephone triage service set up to advise you further on the best contraceptive choice for you," continues Lawton. "Abortion services are still being provided, but a move to video or telephone clinics is happening to minimise contact and risk of COVID-19. Arrangements for treatment and post-abortion care will vary across the country."

Local sexual assault referral centres are still operating along with Rape Crisis centres and offer confidential treatment and help.

For sexual health support, visit NHS sexual health services for a list of clinics across the UK. Your local service will be able to advise on the options available to you at this time.

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