Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a primary care physician in Los Angeles, has treated gay men for decades. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, he said, many patients have so dramatically changed their sexual behavior that they shrug off the need for routine screenings for sexually transmitted diseases.
“They say, ‘I haven’t had any contact since I saw you last, so there’s no need to do any STD tests,’” said Klausner, an adjunct professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at UCLA.
But attitudes among these patients are shifting, Klausner has noticed, now that California and other states are loosening policies on social distancing. “People are starting to think about a return to engaging [in sex],” he said, “and are asking me, are there ways they can remain safe” from COVID-19?
Concerns about sexual intimacy during an epidemic are universal and not limited to gay men, of course. Public health experts, including those long involved in HIV prevention, recognize that a proportion of all people are likely to ignore or reject categorical mandates about sexual behavior — whether they involve using condoms or limiting contact because of social distancing norms.
“It didn’t work when we had to deal with HIV, and it won’t work in dealing with COVID,” said Pierre-Cédric Crouch, a clinical nurse researcher at the University of California-San Francisco, and an expert in HIV prevention.
The coronavirus is known to spread through oral and nasal secretions but not specifically through sexual intercourse. In New York City, the health department issued sex and coronavirus guidelines that counsel against sex with those outside your household but advise those who choose otherwise to “have as few partners as possible.”
The guidelines, which note that “kissing can easily pass the virus,” suggest that people “make it [sex] a little kinky” by being “creative with sexual positions and physical barriers, like walls, that allow sexual contact while preventing close face to face contact.” In the Netherlands, the government has advised single people considering sex to find a symptom-free sexual partner.
For many gay men, especially in urban areas, sexual exploration with multiple partners is a way of life, whether single or not. Many committed male couples maintain open relationships.
Research supports the notion that gay men tend to have more sexual partners than do heterosexuals. A 2012 review of surveys among adults ages 18 to 39 noted that men who have sex with men (a phrase often used in scientific studies that focus on sexual behavior rather than sexual identity) “reported significantly more lifetime partners than heterosexual men and women at all ages.” In the 35-39 age group, the median lifetime number of sexual partners reported by men who have sex with men was 67, compared with 10 for heterosexuals, according to the study.
Damon Jacobs, a therapist with many gay clients, lives alone in Brooklyn and remained celibate for the first month of the lockdown. At that point, he said, he reached out to a regular and trusted sexual partner.
“He’d also been alone for four weeks except for going outside for groceries, and he also had zero symptoms,” said Jacobs, 49.
“So we got together and started hanging out again,” Jacobs added. More recently, he has met up with several other partners after asking about their social distancing practices. He has also found many of his clients dealing with similar issues after months of being on their own.
“Human beings can cope with certain levels of pain and suffering for a specific amount of time if they perceive an ending,” said Jacobs. After more than two months, he added, people who have been physically isolated are “starved for touch.”
A mid-April survey of more than 1,000 men who have sex with men provided a snapshot of how the coronavirus had affected sexual behavior. While about half reported fewer sexual partners than before the pandemic, only 1% reported more, with 48% reporting no change. (The survey did not ask about the number of partners or whether sex was with a household member.)
Many gay men remain cautious. Lewis Nightingale, a retired graphic designer in San Francisco who lived in New York during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, said he had spent much more time using online apps such as Grindr and Scruff to flirt and sext with other men.
He has received, and turned down, occasional invitations to meet up in person, he said. As an older man, he knows he is in a higher risk group for coronavirus complications. But refraining has been challenging, he said, since expressing himself sexually has played such a big part in his life. “For a lot of gay men, sex is pretty essential for a feeling of connection, for excitement, for validation,” said Nightingale, who has been in a relationship for 16 years.
Last month, Eric, a 42-year-old male escort in Manhattan who asked that his last name not be used, began weighing when and how to return to work. A former occupational therapist whose husband is a physician, he shut down business in mid-March and finally started seeing clients again earlier this month.
For now, he plans to limit scheduled appointments. He intends to see only those he knows well enough to believe they are truthful about routinely wearing masks and being symptom-free. And he is meeting people at his home rather than in a hotel room or their place. “I figure if I have people coming here, I’m only exposed to that person’s germs,” he said.
Eric also plans for now to avoid clients who have attended recent protests against police brutality. “I support the protests 1,000%, but I think they are probably pretty good breeding ground for the virus,” he said. “I don’t want to take that risk.”
In advising his gay patients about sexual activity, Klausner, the Los Angeles physician, said he tries to put the risk in context. The majority of coronavirus cases, he noted, have emerged from workplace and residential settings, such as meatpacking plants and nursing homes, as well as big indoor gatherings, such as concerts and religious services. Although the virus can be transmitted one-to-one in more intimate contexts, he said, “individual risk is really driven by people’s potential exposure to these crowded settings.”
A common misperception — that actions can be clearly defined as risky or not risky — can hamper understanding of other people’s actions, said Julia Marcus, a Harvard epidemiologist and HIV prevention expert. As restrictions on social distancing relax, she said, almost everyone will be making choices and engaging in activities that involve some level of risk — yet will likely be judged by various standards.
“There are very few zero-risk situations,” she said. Unfortunately, she added, “the gay guys are going to be shamed for hooking up, while the straight people having dinner together are less likely to be shamed.”