Sex during COVID-19: What strategies did gay, bisexual, and queer guys use to stay safe?

COVID-19 brought unprecedented changes to the way we socialize, but what did it mean for sex? For many queer men, the pandemic meant less activity between the sheets, but it also meant creative solutions like camming and sexting, or changes to in-person sexual encounters. 

As part of the Engage-COVID-19 study, we explored the techniques queer guys used to keep safe while having casual and anonymous sex during the pandemic. Between November 2020-October 2021, we interviewed 93 gay, bisexual, and other queer-identifying guys in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. We asked them about the impacts of COVID-19 on their sex lives and sexual decision-making. 

One finding was that a quarter of guys continued in-person sexual relations, but limited sex to regular partners or those they already knew and trusted. This strategy was described by participants as “sex bubbles”. 

Another quarter of participants did have sex with first-time or anonymous partners early in the pandemic, but often used safety strategies. For example, they asked whether their partners had COVID-19 symptoms, resumed sex only when COVID-19 cases were low, wore masks, and had sex outdoors.

 Many of these measures, according to one participant, were influenced by HIV/STI prevention: 

I guess like with having sex, or back then with HIV, they said if you sleep with a guy, you were sleeping with everybody that guy has been sleeping with. And that’s the same thing, I guess, with COVID-19. (50s, HIV-negative, Mixed Race, Vancouver)

More recently, vaccinated participants discussed incorporating “vaccine sorting” into their safer sex practices, choosing only to have sex with other vaccinated individuals. For some, this strategy was analogous to HIV prevention:

I mean, it might be similar to like an HIV prevention strategy where it’s like I’m vaccinated, so it’s like I’m on PrEP […]. It’s like talking to someone who’s like, “I’m poz, but I’m undetectable” or “I’m on PrEP too.” (30s, HIV-negative, White, Vancouver)

As these findings suggest, navigating risk and sexual pleasure is nothing new for queer guys. Much like using condoms to prevent HIV/STIs, guys wore masks to prevent COVID-19. Instead of “social bubbles,” they formed “sex bubbles.” Similar to using antiretrovirals as a prevention tool for HIV, they used vaccines as a prevention tool for COVID-19. 

So, what can we learn from these findings? In the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and future pandemics, community organizations should continue to respond in ways that combine fun, pleasure, and safety. Although social distancing has been critical in reducing the impacts of COVID-19, people’s sex drives haven’t gone on pause. Work to affirm healthy sexual expression while reducing risk of COVID-19 transmission can have an important impact on people’s well-being. 

Public health institutions and policies should also consider queer men’s desire for intimacy. As in the case for HIV and STI prevention, our response to other infectious diseases (like COVID-19) will be most effective if we make space to discuss sexual and romantic desire in this work. 

Keep up to date with the Engage COVID-19 study:

These findings were shared in more detail at the 2022 Canadian Association for HIV Research virtual conference. The findings will also be shared in an upcoming paper, titled “‘I did not have sex outside of our bubble’: Changes in Sexual Practices and Risk Reduction Strategies and among Gay, Bisexual, and Queer Men in Canada during the COVID-19 Pandemic” by Emerich Daroya, Shayna Skakoon-Sparling, Cornel Grey, David Lessard, Ben Klassen, Jody Jollimore, Nathan Lachowsky, David Moore, Jordan Sang, Gilles Lambert, Trevor A. Hart, Joseph Cox, Darrell H.S. Tan, and Daniel Grace.

Emerich Daroya and Daniel Grace
Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto 

May 18th, 2022