How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.
Dear How to Do It,
I am polyamorous, and have spent most of the pandemic living on my own and socially distancing. Now on the brink of getting my second COVID vaccine, I found that I have developed a pretty crippling infection anxiety. Basically, while before I was content in an arrangement with the usual—condoms on dicks and dildos, personal STI testing every three months, conversations with everyone involved with what their most recent test result was, and so on—now my body is constantly anxious about potential infections. A new girlfriend went down on me recently, and I broke down crying about syphilis. I am less looking for advice for risk mitigation (I am reasonably familiar, see above), and more looking for perspective. Are you also dealing with a new anxiety about infections? How are you navigating from one and a half years of social distancing while thinking about a plague, to a return to being near other bodies again?
Stoya: I have some psychiatric diagnoses, including OCD. And, man, I don’t know if I’ll ever have sex again outside of a bonded pair after COVID.
Rich: Wow! It changed you, then.
Stoya: In the past, it took a lot of effort for me to be comfortable with the germ risk involved in interacting with other humans in a sexual manner, and this past year and a half undid all of that. I go into sexual interactions with my partner thinking, “I’m pretty sure this is worth dying for.” So to our writer, please, from one anxious germaphobe to another, see a mental health professional. There is hope—I was able to work as a performer in pornography for over a decade.
Rich: I haven’t had this intense fear. I don’t think anything could outdo the fears that growing up watching how AIDS ravaged gay men, and I actually did get over those, so I’ve had practice. After I got COVID early on during lockdown 2020, it became less terrifying to me, and then vaccinations really inoculated my remaining fears. Much like antiretrovirals did with HIV. I guess I lean into pharmacology to cope.
Stoya: I feel physically ill and have an impulse to shout about breakthrough infections. Exceptions. Mistakes. Ugh.
Rich: All possibilities for sure.
Stoya: It’s hard, because these possibilities are real, but I feel like I’m on a path to Julianne Moore in Safe, which I believe Todd Haynes has discussed as an AIDS analogy.
Rich: This reaction, by the way, is completely understandable. This is the past year and a half of trauma manifesting. I thought the world was ending? Hard to bounce back from that!
Stoya: But, like, so many people are having a ball with condom-free hot vaxx summer …
Rich: People are down to clown and actively engaging in clownery for sure.
Stoya: Controlled confrontation is the main way forward with these sorts of anxieties. Facts can be helpful, but it’s really the exposure that helps your body learn it doesn’t have to freak out. This process involves a lot of freaking out, and is really best done with the supervision of a trained doctor. So I’m reluctant to give details of how I’ve done it here. Because there’s a real risk of flooding and making the situation worse.
Rich: I think for our writer’s purposes, my broad advice would be to take things slow and be extra selective. You don’t need to poly your ass off to start with.
Stoya: Sound advice. If this person were my friend I’d be suggesting we make a deal to both do the scary thing and speak with a therapist. In lieu of that, I’ll do what I need to to take care of myself, and hope they do as well.
Rich: To follow through with my AIDS parallel, I looked up how people have worked through the anxiety that comes with HIV diagnosis. Via a study: “Healthy sexual adjustment over time is facilitated by partner acceptance; peer, community and professional support; and up-to-date knowledge of HIV transmission.” It’s not a perfect reflection of what it’s like to live through and grapple with COVID, but it does speak to the overall process of wrapping one’s head around something and unpacking it from there.
More How to Do It
My husband and I have an amazing relationship, and I love him deeply. Recently, at my suggestion, we started trying threesomes (with another woman) and have really enjoyed it so far. It’s brought us even closer—it’s given me a chance to explore that side of my sexuality—and it’s been a really fun and positive experience. That is, until the most recent time, when he broke our biggest rule right in front of me.