Vaxed? Get ready for your hottest summer ever.
Ask anyone what they’re most excited to do in a post-pandemic world, and you’ll likely hear some version of the following: “I can’t wait to have my friends over for dinner,” or “I’m waiting patiently until I can plan a trip again.” But if you’re among the single crowd, it’s: “I just want to make out with someone new.” It’s been a rough year for single people, and you’re not alone if you’re eager to get out there again. But is it safe to have casual sex after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine? Can you DM your old hookup buddy and set a date for two weeks after your final dose? The good news is you should feel free to hit them up, but not until you’ve checked in on their vax status.
“We all want to get back to a sense of normalcy, and we’re slowly starting to get there,” says Jennifer Peña, M.D., chief medical officer at Nurx and former White House physician. But we’re nowhere near out of the woods yet with this pandemic — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of May 17, 37% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, and 47.3% have received at least one vaccine dose. Those are encouraging numbers, but it’s worth noting that the percent of people vaccinated has no bearing on an individual sexual encounter. This is between you and your potential partner and whether or not you’ve both been vaccinated.
So, before you send a text to your FWB, have a game plan in mind for how you want to approach your sex life this summer. Setting boundaries before you find yourself in the heat of the moment will help keep you and your partner safe and ensure you’re still doing your part to contribute toward the betterment of public health.
How is COVID transmitted during sex?
COVID is transmitted through respiratory droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth, and it’s most likely to spread in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation (aka close contact with someone indoors, which probably describes most of your hookups — unless you and your FWB like to get it on while exploring the great outdoors).
The scientific breakthroughs of this past year have taught us a lot about what’s safe and what’s not. “We now know that this [virus] is respiratory,” says Lauren Streicher, M.D., clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s not about exchange of bodily fluids from having intercourse. It comes down to breathing.” So, while COVID is not a sexually transmitted illness, it can easily be passed between people who are having sex simply because of their close proximity.
Put it this way: Unless you’re comfortable sharing an enclosed indoor space with someone, you probably shouldn’t have sex with them. “When you’re thinking about, ‘Who is it safe to have sex with?’ it’s the same person you’re willing to eat an indoor meal with,” Dr. Streicher says. Sure, you can technically wear a mask during sex, but you’re still taking on risk by being that close to someone. Masks don’t reduce transmission by 100%, and the CDC says they are not a substitute for social distancing around people who live outside your household.
For now, the best bet is also the most obvious: “The safest thing is for both people to be fully vaccinated,” Dr. Peña says. “That’s going to give you the most protection.”
Am I protected after one dose of the COVID vaccine? What about two?
Depending on which COVID vaccine you get, the time until you reach “fully vaccinated” status varies a bit. The CDC defines a fully vaccinated person as someone at least two weeks out from their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two weeks out from the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. At that point, your socializing guidelines loosen up: you can safely spend time indoors with other fully vaccinated people without masks or social distancing.
If you got your first Pfizer or Moderna shot, you might be feeling pretty good. (And you should be — it’s exciting!) But remember that doctors and scientists do not consider one dose adequate to fully protect you from serious COVID infection. “Getting that second dose is very important because that second dose is what’s giving you the lasting protection,” Dr. Peña explains. These vaccines were studied in two-dose regimens during clinical trials, so there is no definitive evidence to support getting just one is enough. In fact, that second shot is considered to be the more protective of the two. “That second dose gives you a much more robust immune response than a single dose,” Dr. Peña says. “That’s the dose that signals your immune system [to produce antibodies] and helps you mount a response against coronavirus in a long-term way.”
That said, there is no official science to support the safety of having casual sex with someone after just one dose of a two-dose COVID vaccine. “You are not completely protected” at that point, Dr. Streicher says. It’s best to wait at least two more weeks until you and your potential partner have had both doses.
Can a vaccinated person safely have sex with an unvaccinated person?
Yes, but there’s some risk involved. CDC guidance states that fully vaccinated people can gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household at a time, provided the unvaccinated household does not have anyone at high risk for serious illness from COVID (such as a compromised immune system or chronic lung disease).
Here’s why: The COVID vaccine protects the vaccinated person against severe illness or death from the virus, but experts think it may still be possible to transmit it to someone else. “There is always a chance of getting COVID and transmitting it, even when you’ve had the vaccine,” Dr. Peña says. “It’s low, but it’s still a chance.” So, while the fully vaccinated person is safe, “it would be placing the unvaccinated person at risk,” she explains. In this scenario, it’s best to defer to the unvaccinated person to decide if they are comfortable with having sex.
What other precautions should you take?
Asking for someone’s vaccination status is a must if you’re interested in sleeping with them. You can also ask about COVID exposure and whether the person is following social distancing guidelines, but Dr. Peña cautions that this is a less reliable metric. “Nowadays, the virus is so ubiquitous that you might not know you had an exposure, especially since there are a lot of asymptomatic carriers,” she says. “People need to remember that even if you don’t have symptoms, you can still be carrying it.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that STIs are still around, and it’s still just as important as ever to ask questions about STI status before having sex with someone. “Right now, we’re seeing several outbreaks of HIV” across the U.S., Dr. Peña says. “That’s partially because people have refocused their attention on COVID, and they forget about the things that are always there. So, I can’t stress this enough: please practice safe sex.” Use a condom or dental dam every time you have sex, especially in non-monogamous situations. And since condoms are only 85% effective at preventing pregnancy, you might also want to use a secondary form of birth control, like the pill or an IUD.
When should you talk about COVID safety?
Conversations about sex can be daunting, especially with someone you haven’t slept with yet. Add on the intense political climate surrounding masks and vaccinations, and you have a recipe for potential conflict with someone you might barely know. It’s scary, but it’s also a necessary dialogue, says Julia Feldman-DeCoudreaux, sex educator and creator of Giving the Talk. “This topic may feel more vulnerable than others because our vaccination status may appear [to be] an indication of our politics or values,” she notes.
But Feldman-DeCoudreaux urges people to remember the end game: “We are only having these conversations because we are profoundly invested in keeping each other safe.” And hey, if you can get through this conversation, it might lead to an openness about other sex-related subjects like consent or what you like in bed. Plus, you’ll probably enjoy your hookup more if you don’t have nagging worries about COVID looming in your head.
There are several different ways to start this dialogue with someone. “For some, putting their vaccinated status front and center in their dating profile might feel comfortable and direct,” Feldman-DeCoudreaux suggests. A casual “BTW, I’m vaccinated” in your bio makes it clear that COVID safety is important to you. The dating app Coffee Meets Bagel has added a feature for users to share their vaccination status on their profile.
If you don’t want to bring it up right away, consider planning a socially-distanced outdoor date to get a feel for the person’s vibe first. Then, you can work your vaccination status into the conversation. “Be direct,” Feldman-DeCoudreaux advises. “You can share by saying something like, ‘It’s such a relief to be vaccinated and feel safe dating in person again!’ If they don’t respond, you can always follow up with, ‘Have you had an opportunity to get yours?’”
There is no shame in cutting things off with someone if you aren’t interested in hooking up with them for COVID reasons (or any other reason at all). “What’s most important is that you’re advocating for your needs, especially your needs around safety,” Feldman-DeCoudreaux says. “If you only feel comfortable dating fully vaccinated people, make sure that you communicate those needs to potential partners before you find yourself in a situation involving potential exposure.” In other words, don’t wait until you’ve sent the booty call text to ask someone if they’re vaccinated.
After this extremely long year, resuming a healthy sex life can be pretty thrilling. “The sooner we get vaccinated, the sooner we’ll be able to enjoy each other, have safe sex, and be happy together without having to wear masks and worry about COVID,” Dr. Peña says. Then, you can get back to focusing on the little stuff, like obsessing over the perfect outfit to wear on your next first date.
Jennifer Peña, M.D., chief medical officer at Nurx and former White House physician
Lauren Streicher, M.D., clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine
Julia Feldman-DeCoudreaux, sex educator and creator of Giving the Talk