Make Some Love: Sexperts on Staying Safe During COVID-19
A global pandemic puts a serious wrench in the plans of any feminist seeking an active sex life. Luckily, there are concrete steps that can be taken to increase safety, without sacrifice.
Just in time for our first COVID-era Valentine’s Day, Ms.’s Roxy Szal spoke with three experts about pleasure, self-love and self-care during the pandemic and beyond. The virtual panel on Thursday, Feb. 11, featured:
- Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley, the CEO of Power to Decide and a widely recognized expert in sexual and reproductive health with experience as a practicing ob-gyn. Prior to joining Power to Decide, Dr. Raegan worked in various roles at both Planned Parenthood of Maryland and Planned Parenthood Federation of America for over a decade.
- Dr. Megan Stubbs, a sexologist, relationship expert and body image specialist. With degrees in biology and human sexuality, she is able to combine two of her favorite things, science and sex, into a cohesive platform to impact her audience. Dr. Megan is mindful of inclusion and brings a sensitivity to an ethnic diversity rooted in her own complex heritage. Dr. Megan is also coming out with a new book this April, called Playing Without a Partner: A Singles’ Guide to Sex, Dating, and Happiness.
- Vanessa Geffrard, the founder of VagEsteem, a workshop series and podcast that encourages good and healthy sex through courageous conversations about love, sex and relationships. Geffrard is a life-affirming sex educator who wears a multitude of hats. She manages and implements middle school programming, adult trainings and community workshops. She also trains and educates adults, parents, and community groups around sexual health topics like consent and boundaries, STI prevention, contraception, teen pregnancy and abortion stigma, healthy relationships, LGBTQ inclusion and much more.
The #MakeSomeLove Power Talk, hosted by Bedsider, an online birth control support network which is a project of Power to Decide, the campaign to prevent unplanned pregnancy—was part of a discussion-led series that engages leaders in the sexual and reproductive health field. (The first Power Talk, hosted on Nov. 14, celebrated birth control and tackled barriers to access.)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Roxy Szal: With mandatory mask wearing and physical distancing of at least six feet becoming the norm around the nation, the question remains: Is sex safe? If so, what types of precautions should people be taking? How can someone bring this up to a potential partner, and what are the alternatives for those who feel that sex is just not safe right now?
Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley: I think it’s important to acknowledge that sex often has some medical risks to consider, even in the absence of a pandemic. As a provider who encourages people to make empowered decisions regarding their sexual health, I actually see this as an opportunity to prioritize and emphasize these important conversations about risks that people should be having, ideally, anyway, with their partners.
You want to discuss condom use and what types of condoms are appropriate for the types of sex that you’re having. You want to discuss sexually transmitted infections and if that’s a possibility to pass to your provider—because even when you use condoms, some sexually transmitted infections, like herpes and HPV virus, can still be passed, even with appropriate condom use, and then, of course, you want to discuss coronavirus exposure.
How much has your partner been socially distancing. Do they work outside of the house? Have they been around someone who’s been sick? We should be having these conversations even in the absence of a pandemic and be transparent with your partners about the risks that you may be bringing to the relationship or the sexual act so that you can get on with the business of just enjoying sex together.
You want to obviously avoid having sex with someone who has symptoms of the coronavirus. You want to minimize the number of partners that you have to minimize exposure to other people and the virus, and then possibly use masks if that’s a possibility for you. The CDC is now recommending tight-fitting masks or using both a surgical mask covered by a cloth mask. You want to try to avoid kissing and close respiratory contact. So, you might want to adjust your positions for sexual acts so that your face isn’t close to your partner’s face, and again, I want to stress condom use. Coronavirus particles have been identified in semen, although there’s no current clinical evidence that the virus can be passed sexually, but again, it just stresses the importance of wearing condoms.
Dr. Megan Stubbs: I want to second everything Dr. Raegan said. We should also be talking about what is safe for us. So, what would be safe for your friend, who’s engaging in sex acts with her partner—maybe that looks different than what would be safe for you. Really get specific on what your needs and your boundaries are, to make sure you’re comfortable in a sex act.
Vanessa Geffrard: Just something to add on, I’m often doing a lot of education now around cuffing during COVID. For some of us, we are feeling like full-on sex kittens right now, during COVID, and we need that companionship, and for some of us, we’re like, “give me some popcorn, just put on Bridgerton.”
Looking at that spectrum, we really have to honor our needs and give ourselves grace during this time, but if we are choosing to be intimate, it’s really important to think about who’s on the roster—who is willing to be honest about their exposure, who’s willing to bring you the snacks and be honest with you?
What are the parameters that we’re putting in place? Are we going to be in each other’s pods? And engaging in those sexual acts that don’t require you to necessarily kiss or to be face to face … I say crack a window. I’ll walk into anybody’s house right now and crack a window to keep that air circulating, to minimize that risk.
Szal: I love what you just said, Vanessa, about giving yourself some grace. I think during a pandemic, that’s some of the best advice: Don’t be so hard on yourself, but also be hard with your boundaries.
It does sound like masturbation is clearly the safest sex option while we wait for all adults in the U.S. to be vaccinated. In addition to being safe, masturbation has also been shown to have so many benefits. It relieves anxiety, it helps you sleep better… But even still, in a recent national survey, roughly one in five women say they have never masturbated in their lifetime. Why don’t more people with vaginas opt for this?
Stubbs: I think despite, you know, having these conversations here on social media and having this exposure, there’s still a lot of cultural shame and upbringing shame around vulvas and especially around pleasure in touching them. Growing up, we couldn’t even name it—vulva, vagina, clitoris. We say nose, elbow, lips, and so, getting comfortable with just the terminology is the first step, and so, then to branch out into actually touching, viewing, deriving pleasure from that, there may be a disconnect.
The more we have these conversations, the more we normalize masturbation—it’s not reflective of your value, it’s not going to make you dirty or sinful or cause infertility. We just have to dispel all those myths and put out the information that this is okay.
McDonald-Mosley: As a provider, I’ve been really surprised over the years at how much there’s a lack of knowledge about people’s own bodies, right? Like, people often have no idea what their anatomy is, and a lot of my job is educating people about what the vulva is versus the vagina. Those two terms are often misused, right? And so, in addition to all of the social stigma of people feeling like or being taught that masturbation is dirty or unhealthy or unethical, people also don’t understand their own body and their own anatomies, and they need a lot of education about that.
So, that’s why having these discussions are important. That’s why having resources for young people to learn about their bodies are critically important. As a nation that’s struggling right now with providing access to contraception and sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment, now more than ever, we need to be encouraging people to do the safest thing possible. So, masturbation’s a good option, and providers should be comfortable talking to their patients about this as an option for risk mitigation.
Vanessa Geffrard: The thing that comes to mind for me is this is why I created VagEsteem—literally building confidence in and of your vagina and vulva, I do believe will lead to a more satisfying and healthy sex life. There is capitalism in place that tells you that your parts are nasty, they funky, they smell, like they’re weird looking. We feed into this stuff, which then perpetuates the shame that Dr. Megan’s talking about. I feel like a lot of our work needs to be around rewriting those scripts for ourselves.
And if the shame is coming from religion, a lot of times, we are taught that other people can do things, but you can’t do it for yourself. Whatever those scripts are, whatever you have to undo and unlearn, it definitely starts by becoming more acquainted, learning about what those parts do and what they are.
For people who have vulvas, you never have to look at them on a daily basis. So, we really have to take that extra moment. I’d say start on a weekly basis, get more comfortable, take a look, grab your mirror, and then decide for yourself what sexy is or what makes you feel sexy. Is that candles? Is that looking at yourself in the mirror? Is that toys? Is that your hands? And just, again, give yourselves some grace as you’re walking through this process, especially if it’s not something that you might be all the way comfortable with.
Szal: According to a recent Bedsider poll, 51 percent of respondents say that they’d like to be masturbating more. What advice would you give to beginners? And even for those of us who already enjoy it, we’d love to enjoy it even more. What are some masturbation techniques that you think listeners should try?
Geffrard: So, I mean, for me, I would like to know what was keeping us? Because if you ain’t got time, put that on the schedule. Let’s find out how we can incorporate that more.
But if it is around shame, and if it is around like lack of understanding, then, you know, there are so many resources on the Power to Decide website and Bedsider that can definitely support in doing that work and learning.
McDonald-Mosley: I’ve had patients who’ve come to me, and they think something’s wrong with them, or their body’s broken because they’ve never had an orgasm. I start with the basics, like we were talking about. If patients are comfortable, I have them look in my office with a mirror to identify those things for themselves. If they’re not comfortable with that, then we just go over it with pictures, and they can do that at home, and then encourage them to experiment and see what works for them.
But you’d be surprised at how many people just honestly do not understand their anatomy. Sometimes, we have to dive into some of the psychosocial things more, right, because it is more of just the stigma that has gone along with touching themselves or being involved or even experiencing pleasure. For a lot of people, they’ve been sort of taught that that experiencing pleasure, itself, is bad.
Just start with the basics and make sure people are comfortable with that, so they can have those conversations with their partner, and they can experiment with themselves and bring that pleasure into that space.
Stubbs: Make sure you have time to do this and explore in a safe place. So, are you in a place where you can be comfortable? Are you worried about your mom coming in? Make sure you have some time dedicated to actually explore your body.
Go slow. Try different sensations, you know, maybe light fingers, maybe it’s rubbing, maybe it’s a percussive tap. The sky is the limit here, and if you want to add lubrication, that’s awesome. I think there’s a big misnomer of “if you’re not wet, you’re not turned on,” but that’s not true. There’s many factors that go into that, and so, always having lube on hand is a great idea. You know we say the clitoris is the hotbed of pleasure. There are other areas of your body that can derive pleasure, too. So, maybe it’s your neck. Maybe it’s your nipples. Maybe it’s you playing around with your butt. There’s no rules, especially because it’s your body, so, explore.
Geffrard: I think something so, so key is that we don’t judge ourselves for what it looks like. Whatever that is, it doesn’t need to look like anybody else’s. So, you have to determine that for yourself.
Szal: Say you’re someone that doesn’t have lube at their house because it never even occurred to you. Are there household items that you can use, or things that you should stay away from if you’re toying with the idea of using lubrication to get started?
Stubbs: I would look to something natural, like maybe you have organic coconut oil at home, and you want to use that. That being said, not everyone can use coconut oil. They might find it irritating. It might be infection-causing, but that is a safe alternative.
Don’t grab conditioner. Don’t grab the laundry detergent or the fabric softener. You want to go with a natural product—maybe an olive oil or an almond oil. But we get into kind of a sticky area when it comes to using that with partners. So, if you’re using a latex product like a condom or a barrier, we don’t want to be using oils with those.
McDonald-Mosley: Natural oils should be fine as long as you’re talking about self-pleasure. You definitely want to avoid anything with sugars in them because that could put you at risk for getting a yeast infection, so check the ingredients. But exactly as Dr. Megan said, you cannot use those in conjunction with latex condoms if you’re having sex with a partner, because that can degrade the condoms and sort of erode their efficacy for both pregnancy prevention and prevention of sexually transmitted infections. But for self-pleasure, that’s fine.
For condoms and pleasure with partners, you’re going to want to use something that’s water-based, and I would recommend something that you get from the store that’s commercially made for that purpose. Vaginas can be sensitive. Vulvas can be sensitive, and so, you might have to sort of play around until you find a product that works for you.
Szal: According to that same Bedsider poll that I mentioned, over 47 percent of respondents said that they’ve never used sex toys during partner sex but would like to. What tools or toys, other than your hands, can people use alone or together or both?
Stubbs: There is a wealth of sex toys that are available on the market. That being said, though, not all sex toys are created equally or priced the same.
So, I think a great entry-level toy for a beginner would be a small bullet vibrator. They are not expensive. They are readily available in most stores now. So, you can use that and experiment with that and see if you like that sensation. Maybe you like a buzzy sensation, or maybe you like a more rumbly sensation. So, you can really get specific on what kind of sensations feel best for you, and then, take that knowledge, and then branch it out into maybe a dual-motor toy. Maybe you like a feeling of fullness, so you want to experiment with dildos or butt plugs. Maybe you want to have nipple sensation, so you get some nipple clamps or nipple suckers.
Once you know what you like, once you get in touch with yourself and say I like this, you can look for toys that do this, this, and this.
Geffrard: When you do buy a toy, the plastics used on toys are not regulated, and so, if you open up a package and you can smell that plastic, the plastic is seeping, you need to throw that away. Some of them are made out of glass, and you can have those for life. Some of them are made out of silicone. Some of them are also porous.
So, you want to look at the different materials that your toys are made out of and just make sure that you’re getting the safest toy for you once you recognize what you need.
McDonald-Mosley: This question is definitely more in the area of expertise of Dr. Megan and Vanessa, but I will add that it’s also important to make sure that you’re washing your toys appropriately with soap and water and things that aren’t going to be irritating to your skin, and if you’re using toys with partners, you also need to be using condoms and barrier methods on those.
Stubbs: So, expanding on that, touching on materials and washing, I like to have people look to the kitchen as far as like what toy materials you can use. So, think of things like glass, like silicone, like stainless steel, like ceramic. Those things can all be fully sterilized. Maybe you have this toy you purchased from some kind of home party, and it has that funky weird smell. You still can utilize that toy, but I would highly recommend using a condom over that because those toys, the phthalates are leaking out.
Szal: It is a common misconception that condoms and other barrier methods decrease libido and can cause impotence or that condoms reduce or interfere with sexual pleasure. Is this a conspiracy?
McDonald-Mosley: The reality is that condoms are very safe, they rarely get lost in the vagina, and they’re extremely effective at preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, especially when they’re used, every single time, properly, with every act of intercourse? There are a gazillion types of condoms out there. So, again, kind of like lube, you might have to try different condoms until you find one that works for yourself and your partner.
The other thing I highly recommend to the patients I see is to practice taking the condom out, properly opening it without damaging the condom, knowing how to check the expiration dates, putting it on. You can use something at home, like a piece of fruit or a vegetable, but practice doing that.
The more confident you are in your ability to open the condom properly, put it on yourself, or put it on your partner, then, the more comfortable you’re going to be doing that in the moment and not having to break the sexy moment. So, that’s something I highly recommend and we’ll do in the health center with our wooden penis models with our patients to just get them more comfortable with it.
Stubbs: There’s also a misconception of “they don’t fit me. I’m just too big.” Listen, I teach sex ed, so, you see me put a condom over my whole forearm, so, if you’re bigger than my forearm, we should talk. And they also make a wide variety of condoms on the market. So, whether you need a bigger girth at the bottom, maybe you need more space at the head, there are so many kinds.
Geffrard: It does not need to be this very rigid, awkward thing, but we know that it’s there as a tool for our safety. A tip that I share with my students is you can drop a couple of droplets of lube inside of the condom, if you’re wearing a male or external condom and put it on. So, all the slip and slide is on the inside of the condom. And so, we really want to make this part of the journey that we’re on, but we cannot ever neglect our safety. Your wealth is your health. It’s all we got, right, and so, if we’re not advocating for it, no one else is going to advocate for you.
Szal: One of the barriers to masturbation is the fact that sex ed in this country is incredibly lacking, and even for those of us who are lucky enough to be taught a science-based type of sex ed, there’s always more to know. What are some other resources that you all can recommend for learning about the body?
Stubbs: Obviously, Power to Decide, Bedsider, great resources. I love referencing Scarlet Teen, especially if you are someone who is a young person coming up. There’s a wealth of information there. Planned Parenthood also has really great information, too, and also, sex educators like us. Come find us. Come follow our work. I mean we’re out here dispelling myths and making people feel empowered about the decisions they’re making about their bodies.
Geffrard: I also feel that if you are going to Google, you really need to ensure that what you’re googling is people who know what they’re talking about and websites that actually know what they’re talking about. We don’t want to spread fake sex news, so make sure that you’re looking at who’s a reputable source, and where they’re getting their research from.
McDonald-Mosley: There’s some really great resources at Power to Decide. I wanted to just lift up a couple. There’s Talking is Power, which is a huge resource for parents, champions, and mentors that tells you how to have these courageous conversations with young people and teens in your life. Then, if you’re a young person, we have a Teen Talk series, which provides resources for young people to educate themselves and become their own champion for their sexual health. And I cannot recommend Vanessa and her VagEsteem platform enough.
Szal: Our first full-fledged COVID Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. What is your idea of the perfect self-care Valentine’s Day that can snap people out of a funk, that can help them feel empowered, coupled or single?
Stubbs: Well, I’m super single, so, for me, that is just taking the day to be gentle on myself. I’m sure feeds are going to be flooded, starting this weekend, of gift-giving and extravagance and balloons and chocolates.
So, be kind to yourself. Whether you are partnered or single, give yourself some grace, and then, do something for you. Do something that feels special, that feels good. So, maybe that’s making your favorite meal. Maybe that is buying a really nice bar of chocolate and just eating the whole thing. Maybe that is you taking time to play with a new sex toy, making a safe space, and just exploring your body. So, it’s really up to you to just love yourself. Take yourself on a date. For me, it’s probably going to be a high bun, glass of wine, and my dogs. That’s it.
McDonald-Mosley: That sounds lovely. Whether or not you’re going to be with someone else or by yourself, I would recommend some musical therapy. I come from a hugely musical family. Maybe listen to a sexy album, something old school from my era, like D’Angelo’s Voodoo, or something more current, like Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales. Her voice is amazing. Take a bath. Relax. Spend some time nurturing your soul and your spirit. I think we could all use some self-pampering after the last 12 months.
Geffrard: I believe that my life’s mantra is like luxury, joy, pleasure, and peace. So, whatever you can do to find all of those things, do that. Get yourself a wonderful meal. Clean up your space—for me, like tidiness and having like a clear space just helps me just like get in better moods. I’ve been really into candles lately and like oils. You are the best date.
Szal: This year, more than ever, it’s time to sort of become empowered with your own sexuality and self-exploration, and I hope that you’ve picked up some tips to try from our awesome panelists.
If you want to follow our amazing panelists and their work, you can get in touch with them on social media. For Dr. Megan Stubbs, you can find her on all platforms at @SexologistMegan. For Vanessa Geffrard, you can follow her work at @VagEsteem, and to stay in touch with the work of Dr. Raegan and the whole Power to Decide and Bedsider team, you can find them at @PowertoDecide and Bedsider on all platforms, and finally, you can visit Bedsider.org/MakeSomeLove to sign up for Frisky Fridays and get a chance to win a gift card to one of their favorite sex toy shops. It’ll be our little secret.
This blog was originally posted on MsMagazine.com.