Condoms and lube and STI tests, oh my! Credit: courtesy Howard Brown

On April 13, LGBTQ health center Howard Brown launched its free safe-sex kit delivery program to support the stay-at-home order and to facilitate safe sex in your home. The program encourages people to social distance, and that includes not traveling to their clinic spaces. By providing the kits across the city (and the country) folks won’t have to purchase items for intercourse. Have no fear—Howard Brown is here to make sure all of your stay-at-home sex needs are met.

Regular-sized, gold foil, latex-free, and receptive-partner condoms, plus water-, oil-, and silicone-based lube and at-home HIV screenings are all available in the kits. People can choose what they want to be included when they place their free order. For folks checking the box for HIV tests, a health educator from Howard Brown will call and walk them through the test. The kit for HIV testing includes sterile water, cotton balls, Band-Aids, and alcohol swabs. The clinic also started offering pregnancy tests in their kit this week.

Chad Hendry, the clinic’s director of sexual and reproductive health, says right now the clinic is looking into how they will be able to include other risk-reduction materials in their kits. “For instance, safer injection supplies, minus syringes, and things like that. We already offered those things in our walk-in clinics, but we just haven’t quite got there to mailing them out yet, but we’re working on it.”

When I talked to Hendry on Friday morning, he told me that the night before, Howard Brown had 150 requests for condoms and lube and 97 requests for HIV screening kits. “It’s not just folks in Chicago who are requesting,” says Hendry. “We actually have eight different states and then also the territory of Puerto Rico that we’ve sent kits to so far. And our goal is to disseminate them to anyone that we can within the U.S. while supplies last.”

The clinic is still open for treating patients but has changed their hours slightly to 10 AM–5 PM. “We’ve had some service modifications in terms of what clinic spaces are open,” Hendry says. “We’ve closed a few of the satellite clinics, but the majority of our spaces are open. We did reduce our sexual health walk-in clinics to one on the north side, and then one on the south side. We normally have three.”

Chicago has been ordered to wear masks in public starting May 1. Howard Brown employees have been wearing masks, along with all of the normal personal protective equipment, in the office for a month. Temperature checks and social distancing have also been implemented in the clinic for employees. “We’re also thinking about, how do we keep ourselves mentally safe, right? Because this is a pretty stressful time,” Hendry says. “And so Howard Brown’s implemented a bunch of self-care days and all of them are Zoom-based.” Through generous donors, the clinic has been able to supply its frontline staff with lunch every day.

Tips on sex during a quarantine? Hendry says they have been “encouraging everyone to socially distance themselves and minimize contact outside of their home.” He says that sex is important to people, so sex is still going to happen. But “have sex with people close to you” and remember that “you are your safest sex partner.” For folks dating online, Hendry recommends having a video or virtual meetup as an IRL alternative.

Tino Dietrich, CEO of sex toy company Ella Paradis, tells me in an e-mail that “unless you are quarantining with your significant other, it is advised to practice self-love with masturbation in lieu of engaging with new partners or exposing yourself to individuals outside your bubble” during the pandemic. The company recently conducted a study that looked at pleasure during a pandemic. They found that the states with the highest sex drives are in California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois, and folks buying the most sex toys live in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Dallas.

Dietrich also says that this is a time to explore with cybersex as we see a shift in societal norms. “Why not embrace it?!” he says. Ella Paradis carries toys like We-Vibe Chorus, which is a Bluetooth- and app-connected toy for long-distance lovers. “It’s a much safer option in these uncertain times,” he says.

“Think about ways that COVID is transmitted, which is through liquid particles,” says Hendry. “Try to avoid kissing because it can easily transmit, and then avoid certain types of oral sex including rimming because we know that COVID-19 has been found in fecal matter.”

Dietrich says that the pandemic has taught his company that it’s possible to break the stigma on the connection between masturbation, sexual pleasure, and overall mental health, happiness, and confidence. “It’s truly a new era for all of us in the sexual health and wellness industry,” he says.

Overall, pay attention to your health and your partner’s health. “So if you aren’t feeling well, do not have sex,” says Hendry. “Take the usual steps that you would use to prevent HIV, STIs, as well as unplanned pregnancy. That can look like a lot of things.”   v

Howard Brown offers a COVID-19 hotline (773-388-1600) for folks who have questions about screenings.