Coronavirus dictates from public health officials and government bureaucrats have been confusing, contradictory, and arbitrary for months now. The World Health Organization, for instance, has repeatedly misled people about the efficacy of wearing masks, post-recovery immunity, and asymptomatic contagiousness. National, state, and local officials in the U.S.—including in pandemic-wracked New York City—have also spread misinformation.
An underlying issue has been the experts’ failure to grapple with the realities of human nature. People can’t just stay inside indefinitely, cut off from most social contact. As compliance with aggressive social distancing begins to slip, officials must pivot toward offering scientifically sound advice about what kinds of activities carry risk, rather than doubling down on impractical and wide-ranging lockdowns.
Thankfully, New York City’s recently published guidance on “safer sex and COVID-19” is a remarkably sober—and, yes, awkwardly descriptive—piece of realistic guidance. It acknowledges that while the absolutely safest course of action would be to refrain from sex, it also accepts that abstinence-only education does not work. People are going to get together and they’re going to get it on.
The best thing that the experts can do is educate people about how to make these activities less risky. To that end, the three-page document correctly notes that kissing might be a riskier amorous activity than actual sex, given that respiratory droplets are the most effective vehicles of disease transmission. (This is an inversion of standard safe sex practices: Kissing generally carries little risk of spreading STDs.) While the document’s suggestion that people consider using “physical barriers, like walls” when they have sex was mocked on social media as an endorsement of the glory hole, the logic here is correct.
Just compare this guidance with a new U.K. law that criminalizes all sex between people who don’t already live together. Britain’s strategy is authoritarian and ignorant of human behavior; New York City, on the other hand, accepts that people have needs and suggests how they can meet them in the least risky way.
This is a strategy that health officials and government planners should embrace: education, rather than prohibition.