October 19, 2020 - Podcast

Episode 47—Intimacy during the pandemic, and traumatic brain injuries

As we have heard many times this year, physical distancing is one important way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. But how does this impact our intimate relationships? Indiana University’s Justin Garcia and Debby Herbenick say the safest way to avoid exposure to COVID-19 is to abstain from close contact and sexual activity with others, but if you choose to be sexually active, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting infected or infecting others. First, they say no matter the act, it’s important to talk to your partner about what behaviors you want to engage in. Issues of communication and consent are always important to intimate relationships and remain especially high when many people’s comfort levels and concerns around touch and close contact have changed, says Garcia, executive director of IU’s Kinsey Institute. Second, the researchers say it’s also important to communicate about COVID-19 testing and be honest about test results. Herbenick, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, says people need to remember that COVID-19 is not the only relevant infection when it comes to partnered sex, so use condoms, talk with partners about sexually transmitted infections, and get tested. Next, they say it’s important to understand the risks. Engaging in sexual or intimate behaviors with only one person or a few select others, such as partners living together or with those practicing physical distancing, can allow for people to experience intimacy and reduce the spread of COVID-19, while also following CDC guidance. However, if one of the partners elevates their risk – such as not wearing a mask around others or being in crowded indoor spaces – the risk is elevated for all partners involved the next time they are within 6 feet of one another unmasked. According to the researchers, using technology to sext or have video dates is another way many individuals have found intimacy while staying physically distant. However, having safer sex with technology does come with some risks, they say, such as nonconsensual distribution of personal images. Finally, it’s important to find the silver lining in this slower pace and consider getting to know your partner from a distance, such as online dates or meeting outdoors.

In other news, researchers at the IU School of Medicine are working to develop a new model to help people who have experienced a traumatic brain injury recover and better manage the resulting long-term challenges. Flora Hammond, chair of the School of Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, leads a team who is developing this model, which will take about five years to complete. While models exist for other chronic diseases such as diabetes or congestive heart failure, Hammond says no model currently exists for traumatic brain injury. She says many people with traumatic brain injury can struggle with long-term effects like difficulty with weight gain, problem-solving and finding and keeping jobs. Developing a model that focuses on healthy living in a variety of areas can help these individuals overcome these challenges. According to Hammond, the researchers hope to reshape how people with traumatic brain injury can get better outcomes by looking at both changes in the health system and the community.