One sunny day in May, a man named Ashrita Furman took a samurai sword and sliced 31 watermelons open on his own stomach in under one minute, making it one of 600 times he has set a Guinness World Record.
I have set zero Guinness World Records, but I’ve been thinking about how much I have in common with Furman lately, whom I first learned about in a New Yorker profile in 2011, which stated, “He has never driven a car, and he is celibate.”
But that’s me, I thought, taking a swig of skim milk and checking my powder-blue Baby-G watch to make sure I wasn’t missing Gossip Girl. “I don’t know how to drive a car. I’ve never had sex with anyone.”
Almost 10 years later, I’m exactly where I was when I first read about Furman: living in my parents’ house, still totally unable to operate a motor vehicle, and involuntarily celibate.
It’s an odd situation to have an intrauterine contraceptive device and the sexual habits of the pope. But for single people like me, or for those who are separated from their partners during the pandemic, the coronavirus has inflicted a kind of compulsory celibacy. Exhaling hot breath onto the nape of a person’s neck, sliding your tongue along the length of their—these things are now more or less discouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Sticking someone’s finger in your mouth might be riskier than golden showers ever were.
For me, and perhaps billions of other people, social distancing recommendations during coronavirus has meant that sex is cancelled. Now that a kind of normalcy is returning in many states and cities, is sex back?
“What I will be doing as soon as it’s safe is having lots and lots of sex,” said Sonalee Rashatwar, who goes by The Fat Sex Therapist on Instagram, in a conversation on the app with fellow sex educator Ericka Hart in late May. But what does it mean for sex to be “safe” in a world where cases of COVID-19 are still being reported daily?
Experts aren’t thrilled about the idea of us all running into confined spaces and swapping spit just yet, but here’s the key thing: Many of them expect us to do it anyway. “Abstinence is the safest way to avoid contracting COVID-19,” says Jack Turban, M.D., resident physician in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital. “However, for many people, that isn’t a realistic goal.”
We have reached the point at which it is understood by public health officials, dating app engineers, and your ex that the notion of abstinence, which has been proven again and again to be unsuccessful as a sexual-health tool for teens, doesn’t work for adults either. After months in isolation, the reality is many people simply will not wait any longer for sex. “I’m just staring at my condoms like they’re about to expire,” one woman told me.
With sex, as with many things since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the rules have shifted significantly. Look at the New York City Department of Health, which in late March released a “Safe Sex and COVID-19” guide urging people to “limit close contact—including sex—with anyone outside your household,” adding that “you are your safest sex partner.” The guidance also encouraged “sexy Zoom parties” and discouraged orgies.
In mid-June, the health department updated its guidelines. “During this extended public health emergency, people will and should have sex,” the document reads, before affirming that you are still “your safest sex partner” and that the next best option is someone you live with, followed by someone who hasn’t had symptoms in 14 days. But this time it recommended wearing a mask during sex and suggested having sex through “physical barriers, like walls.”
You know those parents who tell their high schoolers, “If you kids are going to drink, just keep it in the house”? The new version might as well be the New York City Health Department saying, “If you’re going to have sex, just do it through a glory hole.”
Some information about the coronavirus has changed since the department’s first sex guidelines were released, and much has not. Researchers don’t know exactly how deadly it is—the rate of people who die from coronavirus has varied significantly throughout the world, Vox reports. As of mid-May, 11% of people who were known to have COVID-19 in New York City had died, but the rate of deaths has been as low as 1% in Iceland. Researchers know older people and people with preexisting conditions are significantly more vulnerable but not why some healthy people die. They know that asymptomatic spread occurs but not how often. No new findings about the virus reported by the WHO or the CDC dispute the current belief that the virus is spread mainly person to person, through respiratory droplets. America still has the highest number of COVID-19 cases. There is still no vaccine, and no cure.
That’s all bad news for getting frisky. “On the basis of existing data, it appears all forms of in-person sexual contact carry risk for viral transmission,” says an article published in Annals of Internal Medicine in May, by Turban, with Dr. Alex S. Keuroghlian, M.D., and Kenneth H. Mayer, M.D.
What do you do when even “safe” sex becomes, to some degree, a public health risk? Maybe you’re perfectly content with making a bonanza of banana bread and flirtily sending petitions to your crush. For everyone else, it’s been an opportunity to experience what has been uncannily named skin hunger.
For Sherri, a single mom with serious underlying conditions, putting in-person dating on hold feels like the safest option. When the pandemic started, she had been in a long-term relationship, but when she put off meeting up in person, her partner got frustrated with her. “He wasn’t taking the pandemic seriously and wasn’t being cautious and was arguing about it, while uncles and aunts of friends of mine in the U.S. were dying,” she says. “At first I was thinking I’d wait until a vaccine comes out, but now some people are saying that may take years, or there may never be a vaccine.”
Nothing about the situation is easy to predict. “I guess I’ll see what happens,” she says.
For Nina*, who has seen no one but her roommate since she started sheltering in place in mid-March, getting off without getting other people sick has been easy. She met Drew* on Tinder, after having a series of conversations with other men that had gone nowhere. “I was high on an edible one night, and I started asking one of my matches these all-caps random questions,” she says. “We started bantering and ended up talking the entire night.” They clicked easily and started having marathon phone calls, which quickly turned dirty. “This has lifted my mood dramatically,” she says. “We’re gonna have sex when this is over.”
For the rest of us, this truly should be the golden age of masturbation. Polly Rodriguez, CEO and cofounder of Unbound, a woman-owned and -operated online sex shop, told Glamour that between March 15 and June 1 of this year, total sales are up 60%, sales of vibrators are up 80%, and stimulating lubricant purchases are up 400%.
But even with round-the-clock masturbation, won’t yet another sexless season have some effect on our bodies and minds? Will we become focused enough to clap for 50 hours or somersault for 12 miles, like Guinness World Records legend Ashrita Furman? Or will I just continue to have my “sex” dream about gently kissing a shirtless man on the collar bone?
The tradition of celibacy promoted by some religions is in part fueled by the desire to focus one’s whole self, with no distractions. But for the coronavirus-inspired, celibacy is a land we hope to be in temporarily, a sexless truck stop rather than an abstinent-by-choice paradise. “Could taking up celibacy temporarily bring a kind enlightenment?” I wondered, imagining Carrie Bradshaw chain-smoking cigarettes out the window of a convent. Could quarantine have a similar effect to a silent retreat, or a one-woman backpacking trip? Basically what I would like to know is: Will giving up sex for a while make me, on some level, hotter and wiser, like a meditation retreat for my clitoris?
Probably not, says Helen Fisher, a human sexuality anthropologist and visiting research associate at Rutgers University. “I don’t think celibacy is going to lead to massive introspection,” she says. But could celibacy cause some kind of long-term harm, I asked breathlessly, thinking of my health. “People never died from a few weeks off from sex,” Fisher replied.
“But I do think the lockdown itself is going to lead to introspection,” she says. “Any catastrophe—and there’s a lot of data on this—moves you to take your next step in life.”
What she doesn’t expect is for anything much to change in our long-term sex habits once social distancing guidelines do fully dissipate and we’re finally able to bump our own sweaty bodies against other people’s sweaty bodies. “If people are restless and sleep around, they’ll go back to being restless and sleeping around,” she says. “The human brain has not changed in 300,000 years. And it’s not going to change just because we’ve had some quarantine.”
If it is not going to make me more enlightened or evolved, could months of coronavirus-induced celibacy at least make me better at dating? I downloaded a dating app and quizzed guys about what they were doing shopping for humans in a time when humans are, for all intents and purposes, allergic to each other, and whether they thought they would ever have sex again. (I disclosed that this was for the purpose of an article.)
Almost every person I spoke to said they would break their quarantine for sex. “I have been seriously quarantining,” one guy told me, before adding, “Would break it for a date.” Another guy explained, “I probably wouldn’t be afraid to break shelter in place,” he said. “But haven’t gotten any invites.” It’s not just a male problem, insisted Chris, a third guy, who has actually broken shelter in place for dates: “A lot of younger ladies don’t give a shit at all. They actually get annoyed if you point out the risks.” The upside, he said, is that more women have been bored enough to play PS4 games with him online.
If you do decide to have in-person sex, Turban tells Glamour, experts recommend “avoiding kissing and sexual behaviors with fecal-oral transmission risk, showering before and after intercourse, and cleaning the physical space where one has sex with soap or alcohol wipes.” Mmm, sexy.
With no vaccine in sight, we have no reason to believe the experts will tell us to have at it sans face masks and alcohol wipes anytime soon. The days of no-strings-attached hookups, or even kissing-without-risk-of-endangering-a-loved-one feel long gone, and solutions may be years away.
While we wait, we’ll fall in love from afar, pour money into the wallets of Big Silicone and battery manufacturers, take pictures of our butts, watch butter sizzle on a pan and wonder, “Am I attracted to butter?” We’ll calculate risks and choose to take some, have sex through walls, steam up masks, and, probably, see an increase in arrests for public indecency as socially distanced picnics turn X-rated.
We’ll watch and wait until the sexual tension builds, growing so high that it cracks in half like a watermelon on a hot summer day, sliced by a samurai sword.
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour