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The practical guide to mid-pandemic sex, because abstinence isn’t cutting it

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I have a confession: I’ve had sex since social distancing began. With someone I met on Tinder, someone I don’t live with. And I know friends doing the same. 

With the pandemic still a major concern across the United States, people having sex or even just wanting to have sex may feel shame — even more shame than usual in this Puritanical wasteland. We’ve been told to abstain from pleasure and release at a time where we need it most. 

We’ve also been given almost no guidance about how to safely have sex in the time of social distancing. As of publication, the CDC hasn’t released safe sex practices specifically about having sex during the pandemic, apparently assuming those without a live-in partner will be celibate in the meantime. 

Well, telling people to be abstinent doesn’t work. The failures of abstinence-only sex education have been proven time and time again, and experts reiterate this point. “Abstinence-only education has never worked in any setting,” Holly Bullion said in a phone call to Mashable. Bullion is a nurse practitioner and director of clinical quality at Texas Health Action, a non-profit that operates a sexual wellness clinic called Kind Clinic. 

“Now that we’re half a year into a pandemic, it’s definitely not going to work.” So why do authorities like the New York City health department think that telling its residents that “they are their safest sex partner” is going to keep them satisfied? 

It is, of course, true that solo play or virtual sex are the safest routes right now, but for many that simply is not a realistic or sustainable solution. Telling sexual adults to not have sex at a time when we’re not only socially isolated but also increasingly anxious and depressed is only going to result in shame — and perhaps even drive people to engage in riskier behavior if they feel the need to be dishonest for fear of “being found out.” 

In addition to offering masturbation as a tactic, NYC Health also offered glory holes as an option. Glory holes themselves aren’t a problem; they are actually a safe route and can get people off. The problem is that the concept of mid-pandemic safe sex practices has been largely turned into a joke, with suggestions being doled out that aren’t helpful for the average horny person who can’t drill a hole in their rented bedroom wall. 

The lack of actual best practices for safer sex is partially why Kenneth Play, who was called “the world’s greatest sex hacker” by GQ, partnered up with Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, Chelsey Fasano, and Karen Ambert MD, MPH to create a vital guide: Smarter Hookups in the Time of COVID-19

“We wanted to write this guide because pleasure is a right, and a deep need”

“We wanted to write this guide because pleasure is a right, and a deep need,” the introduction states, “and because we believe that the best way to ensure safety is to offer realistic guidelines. Telling people not to have sex just doesn’t work.”  

Smarter Hookups, which launched on Thursday, emphasizes the irony in the lack of guidance. We’re more lonely and in need of pleasure and intimacy, yet no one has told us how to process it in a practical matter. We — those without live-in partners, those who may have multiple partners, those who just want to get off with someone else — deserve sex and intimacy, even in a pandemic. (Dare I say, especially in the pandemic.) 

Play said the difficulty they had handling the coronavirus lockdown within his sex-positive community Hacienda (14 people living in a three-family home) is what inspired the guide. “Even though we are all highly practiced negotiators of measures related to sexual health, we still struggled navigating our group living situation during the Coronavirus pandemic,” he said in a press release. “This inspired me to create a framework for navigating this challenging time for everyone else debating similar considerations.”

Here are some sensible tips to help ensure that you can also have a responsible mid-pandemic sex life. 

Questions to ask yourself first

The pandemic has ushered in an era of radical honesty — not just with potential partners, but also with ourselves. In some ways, navigating sex during the pandemic is similar to what we did before. Only now the focus is on contracting coronavirus as opposed to an STI. (Though, of course, it’s still possible to transmit STIs and proper precautions should be taken on those fronts. Don’t forget to continue using your normal method of birth control, as well.) But the risk of exposure is even more amorphous now. So if you’re considering having a sexual partner (or multiple partners) that you don’t live with right now, here are questions Vrangalova recommends you ask yourself:

  • What are the actual risks? This includes rates of infection in your community; your possible exposure, which depends on your behavior; and the likelihood of you developing serious symptoms.

  • How comfortable are you with these specific risks?

  • How much are you willing to uphold specific protocols and risk reduction strategies? 

Then when you factor other people into the mix, you need to consider how comfortable they are with both your behavior and attitude on the matter. Basically, what is your tolerance for risk? If you’re going to be lax about COVID guidelines while a potential partner is more stringent, you may not be a good match.

Levels of radical honesty

Smarter Hookups broke down everyone you interact with into three different levels. Level 1 is your most intimate group: Roommates and lovers, those who have highest likelihood of transmission. Level 2 is friends you see and co-workers if you have to go into the office; this is a moderate level of transmission risk. Level 3 is the wider public, those you have the lowest amount of contact with (and, hopefully, are maintaining a distance of six-or-more feet from and wearing masks around). 

As you’re sharing the most infectious behaviors (everything from sharing the same air for a prolonged period to kissing and exchanging bodily fluids) Level 1, you need to have the most open and honest communication with those people. Not only that, but you should negotiate and reach a level of consent with each member to this group. 

“Regardless of what you all collectively decide to do, one thing that is clear is that there should be a form of contact tracing and transparency that occurs within this group, exactly like what would happen in regard to STIs,” the guide reads. “Essentially, if one of you gets sick with or tests positive for an active Covid-19 infection, everyone within this level should be informed, and should take subsequent precautions.”

The practical guide to mid-pandemic sex, because abstinence isn't cutting it

Image: vicky leta / mashable

This isn’t unlike a polyamorous scenario. Bullion said that besides oneself, virtual play, and a live-in partner, a polyamorous-type pod is your next best bet: A mutually exclusive group where everyone knows each other and everyone is on the same page about sexual contact and following guidelines.

Smarter Hookups also recommends a pod-like structure with six to 12 people — enough where everyone can communicate openly. Of course, you don’t have to be sexually involved with everyone in the pod either. 

If you and a partner want to swing, the guide recommends choosing one other couple rather than changing it up each weekend. 

Everyone in Level 1 — roommates, your pod, swinging buddies, etc. — should know about each other in detail. How many people are in Level 1? How often are you seeing them? What behaviors are you, and they, engaging in? If members of Level 1 have different risk tolerances, the full guide has suggestions on how to proceed. 

For those in Level 2, you don’t have to share everything that you do with Level 1 folks, but you should still be honest. If you are, for example, making out with a bunch of strangers, it’s best to inform Level 2 that you’re engaging in high-risk behavior. While you don’t have to go into detail about said behavior, you have an ethical responsibility if you’re potentially putting someone at risk.

If possible, make guest lists for parties and other functions in order to establish a level of contact tracing. Again, take note of how many people you’re coming into contact with and examine your behavior. How many people are in your Level 2? How often do you see them? Do you wear masks? 

For Level 3, the onus is on you to be responsible. Follow protocols and definitely stay home if you’re experiencing coronavirus symptoms. 

A note on COVID-19 testing and sex

While one might consider getting tested for COVID-19 regularly the best route to take in order to keep their partner(s) safe, Bullion said otherwise. Rather, screening questions (and being honest about the answers!) similar to the Mayo Clinic’s self-assessment tool can better gage safety. These questions include: Have you or any of your partners been recently diagnosed? Do you have any symptoms?

“COVID testing…isn’t as helpful as doing a screen that says, ‘Have you had contact with anyone with confirmed COVID in the past 14 days? Have you had any of these 20 symptoms in the past 14 days?'” she said. 

Further, Bullion doesn’t recommend getting tested unless you believe you’ve been exposed. The test should be for those who are high-risk — like essential workers and their families, those who’ve been exposed, and those who have symptoms. 

“Getting COVID testing done every month doesn’t matter for any day after the time you were tested,” she commented. “The test doesn’t change any of those questions that we should be asking ourselves and trying to ask people that we might be potentially engaging in any kind of sexual activity with.” 

“Getting COVID testing done every month doesn’t matter for any day after the time you were tested”

As COVID-19 has been traced in semen and feces, there are still unanswered questions about how the virus is spread. Since it may not just be in the respiratory droplets, a negative test isn’t the end-all. 

Sex parties and casual sex

Just as the rich are paying $500 a pop for rapid COVID-19 tests to party in the Hamptons, some sex parties are cropping up doing the same thing. According to Bullion, the least safe sexual encounters right now are with one or more partners you don’t know — and rapid tests aren’t to be trusted. 

“You can test negative for COVID on a rapid test and still have COVID,” she warned. “It might just be that you don’t have enough of the virus in your nares [nostrils] yet for it to pick it up.” Screening is better than no screening, but it can give a false sense of security. 

In terms of casual sex with someone you don’t know, the ideal would be that they’re as open and honest as you. As this may not be the case, Smarter Hookups says to assume you’re at high risk for developing COVID-19 if you engage in this behavior. Thus, let Levels 1 and 2 know about this. Using physical barriers, like wearing a mask during sex (as Dutch sex workers are doing), could also help prevent the spread.

What about if you’re immunocompromised?

“Just because we’re immunocompromised does not mean that we don’t deserve to have sex,” said Bullion. “It’s about setting tighter ground rules for yourself and your partners.” 

In addition to being more stringent about their partner guidelines, Bullion also said the ideal scenario is a small group of known partners. She recommends “mask sex” or positions that limit face-to-face contact if you go maskless, like doggy style and reverse cowgirl. 

Immunocompromised or not, sex is an important outlet for many people. We’ve been isolated for months and at this point, perhaps quarantine fatigued. “For people who are out there thinking about having sex again, or who are already having sex, it’s just about knowing where your resources are and making informed decisions,” said Bullion. 

You don’t have to feel shame for wanting or having sex amid the pandemic, but you should be armed with good information and do your best to follow best practices. As Bullion commented, “The joy of sex — and everything, we do right — is about making informed decisions.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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