In order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 through sex, the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) recently recommended an ol’ favourite among truck drivers: Glory holes.
Canada’s COVID-19 cases have trended downward since early May, however, there’s been an uptick in new cases these past two weeks, with an average of roughly 500 new cases being reported in the past four days, the New York Times illustrates. Though COVID-19 is still a very real threat, that hasn’t stopped folks from having sex.
The BCCDC acknowledges this reality, which is why they aren’t discouraging healthy folks from having sex. “Sex can be very important for mental, social and physical well-being; it is a part of everyday life,” the BCCDC website reads. “People can, will and should continue to have sex during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Nevertheless, the BCCDC wants to do everything to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, which is why they recently suggested that folks “use barriers, like walls (e.g., glory holes), that allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact.”
There’s a rich history of using glory holes in gay, cis male culture. Before the days of Grindr and Scruff, it wasn’t as easy to find another man to hook up with. Not to mention there used to be even more rampant homophobia and far fewer men were openly out. Glory holes in truck stops, saunas and bathrooms allowed men to have sexual relationships with other men. It was also a way to both mentally and physically distance yourself from the sexual act, which was needed for men struggling with internalized homophobia.
But how safe are glory holes, really?
In order to find out, Xtra spoke to two researchers, Perry N. Halkitis, dean of the School of Public Health at Rutgers University, and Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., author of Tell Me What You Want and sexual health and wellness advisor to Promescent, a sexual health and wellness brand.
What’s the appeal of glory holes?
Before delving into the health risks of glory holes, let’s talk about what makes glory holes so…arousing. Different people may find various things appealing about using a glory hole, Lehmiller explains. “Some people just get a thrill out of the anonymity of the experience. It could be anyone on the other side, and that can allow the mind to run wild with erotic thoughts and fantasies.” Some folks also like the fact that they can’t be seen. They don’t have to deal with the distracting thoughts or insecurities that typically arise during sex. “This allows them to be more present and fully enjoy the moment,” Lehmiller says. Lastly, there can also be a novelty aspect to this activity “as well as a taboo element if it’s in a public or semi-public place,” he adds.
Where do you find glory holes?
Glory holes are less common than they used to be, but are still present in many spaces, Lehmiller says. “For example, they can be found in some bars and bathhouses, some people have created glory holes in public restrooms, and some people have them in or around their homes. There are even some companies that sell portable glory holes,” he adds.
Is there still a chance of COVID-19 being transmitted through glory holes?
Yes, Halkitis makes clear, which is why he believes that not having sex or having a “trusted pod of sexual partners” is a better way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Previously, health experts had been recommending abstinence, having sex with the people you’re quarantined with, and more recently, wearing a mask when you have sex. The thing is, we don’t know a lot about the virus. It’s just so new, and we’re scrambling for information. “All decision making is being based on limited knowledge,” says Halktis. “This reminds me of the early days of the AIDS epidemic—like when we [incorrectly] thought that poppers were the reason gay men were getting AIDS.”
The whole point of the glory hole is to avoid kissing, Halktis explains. “Kissing is an ideal transmission vector because it’s mouth-to-mouth, and we know COVID-19 is airborne and transfers through saliva droplets,” he says. The barrier will help prevent the spread of airborne droplets, at least in theory. “Since the virus is airborne, and there’s likely a circulation of air going on, there’s still the potential for the airborne particles to travel to you, even with a partition between you.”
Is there a high risk of COVID-19 transmission from someone touching their penis before oral sex?
Yes, there’s a risk of transmission that has to do with all the spit and saliva that’s used during oral sex. “If a man touches his mouth and then touches his penis before using the glory hole, and the other person is putting his mouth on that man’s penis, then that’s a direct means of transmission,” Halkitis says.
Think about it: A man will likely use spit on his own penis to help himself get erect initially. Then he inserts his hard penis through the hole, and the person on the other side sucks the saliva off his penis.
Is it dangerous to have more than one partner while using a glory hole?
“What if one person is sucking his penis, and then another guy comes up and sucks it?” Halkitis asks. He’d be sucking on the spit of another person. This is why Halkitis stresses the importance of not just washing your hands but also your junk and even your entire body before and after any sexual encounter, including glory holes.
What about other sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?
Odds are, you’re not using a condom for oral sex when you’re having a little glory hole action. “Syphilis, gonorrhea, HPV, and HSV (herpes) can all be transmitted orally,” Halkitis says. Additionally, you’re probably not disclosing the last time you got tested through a glory hole. “Anonymous encounters that don’t involve any communication do carry a higher risk than situations where partners discuss and disclose sexual histories and risk factors,” Lehmiller adds.
So, do glory holes reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 than having regular sex where you’re making out? Probably, but Halkitis reminds people to assess their own comfort levels. “Are you really that worried about it?” he asks. “If so, then you shouldn’t have sex,” he says.