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COVID-19 has changed everything—including our sex lives

let's talk about 'sex'

Over the last few weeks, our lives have completely shifted. Duke students are spread all over the world, our communication with people (besides the guy at the Food Lion register) has been almost exclusively virtual, and we should all be staying home unless it’s absolutely necessary to leave. And, even though there are a lot of high-stakes, serious things going on, I still wouldn’t call you selfish for thinking: “What about my sex/romantic life?”

It is pretty hard to have sex with someone who's at least six feet away from you. And does a first date count as an essential reason for leaving home? I don’t think so. So, where does that leave us? In a time of indefinite social isolation, how can we take care of ourselves and each other in all ways, including sexually and romantically? 

Before we dive into these questions, we want to point out that, especially for people now living in their childhood home environments or other situations that give them less autonomy, some of the exploration we talk about in this column might not be feasible. We want to emphasize that we recognize this, we’ve been in those positions and we think it’s always best to do what’s necessary to take care of yourself and prioritize your safety. At the same time, several of the things we unpack below are still possible in an environment where you don’t have full autonomy, and, of course, the things we suggest are just a platform to explore these ideas yourself in a way that makes you comfortable and safe.

With social isolation comes an invaluable opportunity to forge a greater intimacy with yourself, both physically and emotionally. There are two requisites to such intimacy: introspection and exploration. These are certainly tall orders, so here, we hope to break intimacy and its pursuit down into more palatable pieces. 

Though college life as we know it has come to a grinding halt, this does not make  the fall and (partial) spring semester we did spend on campus smaller or less emotionally tangible. Achieving a semblance of closure here is a good place to start. As students, we are stretched in so many different directions; introspection, among other things, often takes a backseat. For those of us who have not checked in with ourselves in a while, here are some questions that can serve as a guide:  

Did you feel satisfied in your relationships this year, sexual, platonic or otherwise? Which features of these relationships do you want to carry with you moving forward, and which would be better left behind? 

How well did you communicate your needs to others? Were you a good advocate for yourself? 

What is a feeling that you miss? 

How well were you able to sit with your emotions, however uncomfortable, without judging or shaming yourself? 

Introspection is a delicate relay and can be challenging under any circumstances, even more so now. Please remember to be kind and gentle with yourself, and take breaks when you feel emotionally fatigued. Growth isn’t linear, and any progress, however small, is valid. Whether the answers to this conversation with yourself are buried in the Notes app on your phone, scribbled into a journal or only take up space in your mind, you will find yourself emerging from quarantine wholler, happier and stronger in your sense of self.

What about a more physical form of conversation? Masturbation is a great means of extending the scope of this self-dialogue. Masturbation is a common, natural and safe method of self-discovery; yet, it is often seen as cause for shame and embarrassment. So here, it is important to share that masturbation is not indicative of any sort of pathology. Many people masturbate every day—even more than once per day. Others masturbate less frequently or never masturbate at all. So long as masturbating doesn’t interfere with domestic, employment or social responsibilities, the behavior, in whatever frequency, is normal and healthy. 

Masturbation helps us determine what is pleasurable for our body before entering a partnered-sexual situation. By this same token, when someone doesn’t masturbate, they are less likely to be versed in their sexual wants and needs or able to articulate their boundaries. Even if a partnered sexual experience is positive for someone who doesn’t masturbate, they may be left with the belief that their sexual partner is their only means of accessing pleasure, not knowing that this pleasure exists within themselves. This precipitates all means of toxic relationships, where physical and emotional autonomy are traded for sexual pleasure.

Now that we’ve covered the importance of masturbation, let’s get into the ‘how to.’ While using your (clean) hand is an ever-available and effective option, the use of sex toys provides variety, and variety is an essential for any sexual activity, whether partnered or solo! For the purposes of this discussion, our focus will be dildos. Dildos are defined as any sex toy used for penetration, and they don’t possess any certain look, with a variety of colors and materials—smooth or textured, curved or straight, vibrating or non vibrating—available. Some important notes to keep in mind when selecting the perfect dildo for you: 

  • Especially for those who have previously experienced sexual trauma, a dildo with a non-phallic look in terms of color and shape may help to minimize triggers during masturbation.
  • A dildo, as an inanimate object, will always feel larger than a living object, such as a penis. This is good to keep in mind when selecting a comfortable size. 
  • Buzzing vibrators are optimal for teasing stimulation, while rumbling vibrators are optimal for deeper stimulation. 
  • For anal sex, a tapered design will aid penetration.
  • Dildos with a suction-cup at the base allow for hands-free use. If a suction cup is not included with the product, it can be purchased separately.
  • Smoother dildos can be easier to insert, but textured dildos are more pleasurable for some individuals. Texture can range the gamut from veins and bumps, to ridges. 

We’ll probably write another column dedicated to sex toys, especially if people have lots of questions (that they can ask here). For now, we want to emphasize that you should always wash your sex toys before and after each use with soap and warm water. Also, be mindful of what kind of lube you’re using (water-based, silicone-based, etc.) and the material of the toy. For example, you shouldn’t use silicone-based lube with silicone toys, because the lube can degrade the material of the toy. Water-based is a safe and reliable option for almost everyone. For more guidance on sex toy variety and best practices, these sources might be helpful.

Beyond having in-person sex with a partner or masturbating in a more traditional way, social isolation is a great opportunity to consider virtual forms of pleasure, sexually and romantically. Cyber-sex can take a lot of forms. For example, some people really like mutual masturbation with a partner over video chat. Maybe you’ve been thinking to try it for a while—to me, this seems like a perfect time to lean into trying new things, cyber-sex wise. It also is a great time to up your sexting game. Some of us get a lot of pleasure from apps like Bumble and Grindr, even if we’re chatting or sexting with people we never plan to meet up with post-quarantine.

I’m not saying that sending nudes or having FaceTime sex works for everyone. We’re all different, of course. I am saying, however, that we shouldn’t be ashamed to explore these options. Just like self-reflection and masturbation, being open to exploration is how we can learn more about ourselves, our likes and dislikes. 

This is a weird time for all of us. And while many of us are extremely privileged to be safe and healthy in this time, it’s not selfish to be thinking about our sexual and romantic desires and needs. So, as you navigate those desires and needs—perhaps using this column as a guide—take as much time to remind yourself that taking care of yourself is completely normal.

PASH is a student-run organization providing resources for sexual health and relationship-building. Their column, “let’s talk about ‘it,’” runs on alternate Mondays. To ask them a question about sex or relationships, submit to this form. This column was written by Carly Jones, a Trinity sophomore and Continuing Education Coordinator of PASH, and Tyler Kopp, a Trinity senior and President of PASH.

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