Safe sex and social distancing
Yesterday, the Texas Medical Association released a Covid-19 risk chart, showing the relative risk involved with various common activities. This is a brilliant move — one that I’ve been eagerly awaiting and one I desperately look forward to seeing others expand upon.
Since the start of the pandemic, we the lay-public have been taking a somewhat all-or-nothing view of risk. We’ll proudly say “Stay safe — Stay home!” and decry any sort of risky behavior as being callous, reckless, or ignorant. And to some degree, this is true.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from sex ed in America, it’s that abstinence-only does not work. Yes, abstaining is the only way to stay truly safe, but we know that educating the public on what “safer” alternatives exist is more effective at lowering overall transmission rates. Whether or not we like to admit it.
I often think about this video of Sir David John Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge. With such an impressive title, I’d expected he would be a staunch, tweedy man decrying the societal decline into risky behavior, but I was delighted to find his frank openness to risk. “I almost think of myself as a Professor of Risk Encouragement,” he says.
“Out of 100 ways in which things might turn out in the future, in about 5 of them, I’m going to have bowel cancer — and now I’ve got to 6, if I were to eat a big bacon sandwich every day. But I think that that harm is not large enough to stop me eating bacon. I’m not going to give it up.”
This isn’t a denial of the fact that Covid-19 has made the world an inherently riskier place to live — this is an acknowledgement of that fact. Studies have shown that unexpected extensions to social distancing effectively lowers the public’s willingness to self-isolate. With some experts now predicting that we may need to be physically distancing into 2022, the public needs to understand the risks outside of strict in-person social abstinence.
It’s clear there’s a big difference in the inherent risk of kissing random strangers in a club every weekend and having an exclusive romantic partner. New York City even took the step of recommending guidelines for safer sex during Covid, in a tacit acknowledgement that despite the mandate, people were still going to meet in person. Though these guidelines are unfortunately only for sexual encounters, they still embody the idea of trying reduce risk rather than taking a vain hardline approach to eliminating it outright.
Of course, even without clear guidance, it’s not as though everyone is keeping their distance. Two apartments in the building across from me are hosting big get-togethers — up to 7 people on their balcony at a time — every week. Not unlike high school, when the only guidance is to “abstain!”, a natural human response is, “Yeah, but not everybody is.” These weekly parties are part of a healthy desire to socialize, but lacking clear (and honest) guidelines around what behaviors pose the greatest risks to themselves and others, there are bound to be some “unsafe” gatherings.
Just this weekend, no fewer than three groups of friends posted photos on social media of their July 4th gatherings. As I discovered in one case, one was a group of three friends who stay in isolation apart from each other. Surely that’s safer than many alternatives, no? But with social media, the problem is two-fold: First, that it’s almost never clarified what precautions were taken, and second, that it gives rise to a sense that everyone has given up on taking the pandemic seriously, which in turn drives unsafe behavior.
And while these friends were making an effort to exercise better judgement in pursuit of a healthy social life, without clear guidelines on what the relative risks are, they’re flying blind. Many people, myself included, would prefer not to take the gamble when we don’t know what the odds are.
“I’m a Professor of Risk, so it’s my job to think about these things. And I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the biggest risks is being too cautious.”
Ultimately, the message isn’t to “go live it up” anymore than it is to lock yourself away from any and all social interaction indefinitely. It’s to encourage safer, smarter risk-taking so that we can find some sanity in human contact and healthy socialization. It’s about limiting your risk without attempting strict adherence to perfect abstinence without a clear expiration date. But taking smarter risks all starts with understanding what the risks really are — let’s see more of these charts.