Using COVID-Communication Skills to Talk About Sexual Health
Living through a pandemic for over a year has certainly been taxing–mentally, emotionally, and physically. Despite the isolation and grief, many have managed to stay in touch with families and friends through new modes of communication. From using FaceTime to visit parents and pets, to attending Zoom birthday celebrations and planning House Party game nights, folks have found new ways to connect with loved ones. But beyond learning how to use these innovative tech platforms for social connection and communication, we have also experienced a collective, crash-course in open and honest communication about our health.
Talking about your COVID test results has become normal, as has asking friends, family, and roommates about the protective measures they’ve taken to prevent exposure and mitigate risk. Now that COVID vaccines are more widely available, we are renegotiating our safety boundaries and slowly expanding our “bubbles.” Through these discussions, we have gained critical communication skills that are transferable to other aspects of our lives. And while it has not always been easy to talk about quarantine lengths and mask etiquette, these conversations have prepared us for difficult or awkward conversations about our sexual health.
Perhaps the most obvious way these skills are transferrable are when talking about STIs and contraception with your partner(s). Just about all sex acts can lead to an STI, so it is important to be cognizant of how to avoid transmission–though, as a reminder, there is no shame in testing positive. So it is important to be cognizant of how to avoid transmission–though, as a reminder, there is no shame in testing positive. Additionally, some sex acts can lead to pregnancy–whether intended or unintended. While it can feel uncomfortable to talk to providers and new partners about STIs and pregnancy, it is also important to be on the same page–what that page looks like is up to you. Whether you are agreeing to regular STI testing or discussing your contraception options, you can use the communication skills you developed during the pandemic to start these often-challenging conversations.
Beyond STIs and pregnancy, communications skills are also incredibly useful when it comes to conversations about consent and boundaries. When engaging in sexual activity, you and your partner(s) should be actively, enthusiastically consenting–it’s not a box you check once and then move on, but rather requires regular communication with your partner(s). Similarly, creating and enforcing boundaries should be a normal part of sex and relationships. Your boundaries can range from physical to verbal to emotional. Perhaps a certain sex act or kink is off the table; maybe certain words trigger past traumas; or maybe you are discussing monogamy or polyamory with your partner. No matter what your boundaries are, you have every right to have them.
You can also utilize these newfound communication skills to discuss pleasure. While often left out of the conversation about sex, pleasure is a key component–after all, sex should feel good! Whether you are trying to achieve orgasm or are more focused on what is satisfying in the moment, you should not feel embarrassed to communicate with your partner(s) about what works for you. Maybe you need lube or want to use sex toys or visual aids–there is no shame in talking about it! You and your partner(s) deserve pleasure.
Communication is an essential part of relationship building, yet it is often an obstacle to intimacy and connection. But this doesn’t have to be the case! By applying the skills developed from living through a pandemic for over a year, we can all improve our sexual health. There is power in healthy communication. So keep the power on and continue the conversation.
Samantha Berg earned her Master of Public Health and a Certificate in Sexuality, Sexual and Reproductive Health from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in May 2020. As the Policy Fellow for PTD, Sam works on state policy and telehealth access, which align nicely with her passion for public health and reproductive justice.