In the midst of a pandemic, many people feel isolated. When you are not even supposed to shake hands, much less hug or kiss, how can those who live alone meet their needs for sexual intimacy? Is it possible to date without running a high risk for COVID-19–or a sexually transmitted infection? How can people have safer sex, even in these risky times?
Our guest, Dr. Ina Park, talks frankly about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and how to reduce the risk. She describes ways people can have safer sex. In fact, the first health professionals to use public health tools such as contact tracing were striving to control conditions like syphilis and gonorrhea. Now contact tracers are on the front lines against the spread of COVID-19. It is a critical tactic in trying to figure out who may have been exposed to an infection.
Many people are very reluctant to talk about STIs due to the stigma we associate with them. However, nearly every sexually active person will catch one strain or another of human papillomavirus (HPV) at some point in their lifetimes. As a result, we should drop the stigma and deal with these infections based on knowledge and compassion.
Although people have cut back dramatically on their visits to doctors and clinics, they can still check on their sexual health. Those who continue to be sexually active with more than one partner may need access to testing for safer sex. We discuss how to use home tests for sexual infections. Dr. Park offers this link from the Kaiser Family Foundation to learn more about online access to testing and contraception: https://www.kff.org/womens-health-policy/issue-brief/a-look-at-online-platforms-for-contraceptive-and-sti-services-during-the-covid-19-pandemic
When you want to socialize safely during the pandemic, you need to negotiate. That is a lot like negotiating safer sexual practices. Embarrassing as it may be, you need to ask if your partner has been tested and what the results were, as well as whether they are interacting with others or just you. Masks and condoms are certainly vastly different. However, the practice of negotiating may be more similar than you realized.
Dr. Park suggests that when parents try to fit everything they want to impart into a single big talk about birds and bees, they are putting themselves under a lot of excess pressure. Instead, she recommends having dozens of little talks instead of one big one. Then, perhaps your children will grow up comfortable discussing the risks and rewards of sexual activities in a matter-of-fact way.
Ina Park, MD, MS, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, and the Medical Director of the California Prevention Training Center. Her website is at: https://www.inapark.net
Dr. Park is the author of Strange Bedfellows: Adventures in the Science, History, and Surprising Secrets of STDs, (available on 2-2-2021). The photograph of Dr. Park is by Stefan Cohen.