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Sex Experts Give Advice On Safe Social Interaction During The COVID-19 Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Safe socializing during the pandemic may feel a little like negotiating safe sex. Participants must build trust, communicate values and needs and always seek consent. So to get advice on how best to negotiate safe social interactions, like a visit, a meetup or a cookout, April Dembosky of member station KQED talked to experts in sex education and communication. And a heads up - some of this report may not be appropriate for young listeners.

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: Ina Park has been in a monogamous marriage for more than 15 years. But these days, she feels like she's been having one safe-sex conversation after another, like after she and some friends spent time together without masks on, forcing her to ask...

INA PARK: Are you seeing other people?

DEMBOSKY: Then the mother of her son's friend suggested letting the boys play basketball together.

PARK: She was willing to take on a little bit more risk than I was, and so we had to negotiate.

DEMBOSKY: Park is a doctor who treats sexually transmitted infections at the San Francisco City Clinic, so she's no stranger to talking about sex. But it is kind of weird talking to your platonic friends about consent, boundaries and protection.

PARK: And now, suddenly, we're having to have these awkward safe-sex-type conversations with all types of people that you wouldn't ordinarily have to have these conversations with.

DEMBOSKY: Some teenagers are learning these kinds of communication skills in sex ed. Julia Feldman says adults need to catch up. She helped Oakland Public Schools write their new sex education curriculum.

JULIA FELDMAN: If you really want to make sure that your partner uses a condom, you have to express why it's important to you and why it's aligned with your values and why that's something that you need from them. And if you want your mom to wear a mask when you see her (laughter), you need to explain why it's important to you and why it's aligned with your values. And you really have to communicate about it.

DEMBOSKY: When Feldman invited a friend over for a socially distanced cocktail in her backyard, they had a long conversation in advance about how far they would sit, what they would drink. And they agreed they were not ready to share food.

FELDMAN: Because if you show up at someone's house and they have a beautiful spread and they're expecting that you're just going to dig into a platter of food with them and that's not what you're comfortable with, there might be disappointment on their part if they've prepared it or - you know, there's a lot of emotions involved.

DEMBOSKY: This kind of very detailed thinking and advanced negotiating has its roots in the world of BDSM, sexual role play involving bondage, dominance and submission.

CAROL QUEEN: You start tying people up without consent, and it just goes south right away. You just can't do that.

DEMBOSKY: Carol Queen is the staff sexologist at the sex toy and sexual health company Good Vibrations. She's also known for her starring role in the 1998 instructional video/feminist porn film "Bend Over Boyfriend."

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "BEND OVER BOYFRIEND")

QUEEN: It's deeply important that you are verbal with each other and say yes, no, faster, I'm ready, I'm not ready.

The idea that it's OK to be that talkative in the service of safety and comfort really is what we learn from that in sex and, these days, under most other circumstances.

DEMBOSKY: Queen says we should also consider a common tool from the BDSM world - a detailed list of every possible kinky activity, like blindfolds and leather restraints, to help decide if we're a yes, no or maybe. Queen says we need an equivalent coronavirus checklist.

QUEEN: That helps people do that very first step of understanding what their own situation and needs and desires are.

DEMBOSKY: Some California health officials have been encouraging people to form social pods, select households who only interact with each other. As Ina Park puts it, we are essentially asking our friends or family to go steady.

PARK: I wish I had more polyamorous friends to help me navigate that situation.

DEMBOSKY: Like how to broker different levels of intimacy with multiple partners. As an STD physician, Park often has to talk with patients about infections that reveal an infidelity. Now she wonders how quarantine pods will deal with social infidelities.

PARK: You know, oh, I cheated on our pod with somebody else, and then having to disclose that to the pod and then - does the relationship recover?

DEMBOSKY: Whether we're kicked out of a pod or not invited into one, all the experts agree that we need to get better at handling rejection.

QUEEN: Don't take it personally.

FELDMAN: Don't take it personally.

PARK: Not taking it personally.

DEMBOSKY: As Carol Queen says, we're all new to this party. We're making up the rules and norms together as we go.

For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in Oakland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOW MAGIC'S "SOMEWHERE (FEAT. WOVEN IN HIATUS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.