Distance, Droplets, Dental Dams – ‘Safe Sex’ during the Covid-19 Pandemic

by Lukas Herde

May 25, 2020

When physical distancing to stop the spread of Covid-19 is the dictum of the hour, how can one have sex? Anticipating such insecurities, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) published Sex and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), a ‘safe sex’ guide in times of Corona. A media sensation upon release, the two-paged digital leaflet is a hybrid of classic sexual health advice and Covid-19 prevention measures. It comprises information on Covid-19’s transmission paths; partnered, solitary and digital sex; STIs and sex toy hygiene. Via knowledge transfer, it attempts to navigate two affective states through the pandemic: anxiety and (sexual) pleasure.

Sexual health, first defined in 1975, has always had close links to knowledge and emotions. With origins in the 1920s, it was the transformation of emotional cultures during the 1960s and 1970s sexual revolutions that ostensibly promised to everyone the right to sexual expression free from anxiety, guilt and shame, unwanted pregnancy and disease. Against earlier scare campaigns, knowledge and empathy emerged as prime forces to counter those feelings obstructive to developing a ‘positively enriching’ sexuality.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic, beginning in the early 1980s, strongly re-associated sex with disease and anxiety. And indeed, the guide evokes memories of this epidemic for other reasons also. Then as now, the metropole was an epicentre of the epidemic in the US and worldwide, with one of the first-ever ‘safe sex’ guides circulating in the city. The major difference then was, however, that upon publication in 1983, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic was a community response to the reckless inactivity of the local and federal governments. Gay activists Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, the latter himself a sex worker, merged scientific studies with their own ‘vernacular knowledge’. In it they informed men who have sex with men how to do so without contracting the hitherto unknown agent causing AIDS. Decidedly sex-positive, it educated on the transmission risks of particular individual behaviours and suggested risk-reduction practices like condom use. How to Have Sex in an Epidemic’s pathbreaking approach remains constitutive for today’s safe-sex campaigns.

In this very tradition, the 2020 NYC sex guide gives tips on ‘how to enjoy sex and not spread Covid-19’. Covid-19, transmitted via droplet infection, is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI). And yet, maybe in some ways it is. If nothing else, the fear of contagion, transmission, or disease, upon bodies meeting binds the two together. Therefore, ‘safe sex’ directives manoeuvre dynamics between emotions and sexual acts. Still, they themselves must be inevitably modified to the new circumstances at a moment when the mere presence of two bodies in one room can already cause profound disquiet.

The Coronavirus guide interlocks common sense ‘safe sex’ advice with knowledge regarding the transmission paths of Sars-CoV-2. For one thing, the guide might spark shifts in current emotional cultures, thereby opening spaces to negotiate intimate acts more fearlessly. When historically HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns of 1980s and 1990s rendered condom use or anal sex more ‘speakable’ in wider Western society, today, it might be rimming. Unless dental dams are used, the guide classifies oral stimulation of the anus as a particular risky practice given that the virus has been found in infected people’s faeces. Out of shamefaced irony or pure joy, international and social media commentators seemed particularly responsive to a city government warning of unprotected anilingus in a global pandemic.

For another, the guide draws on historical shifts in feeling anxieties and pleasure. Advising not to have in-person-sex with people outside one’s own household, it frames masturbation as best-conforming to social distancing: ‘You are your safest sex partner,’ reads the guide. This shows the development of the views on masturbation since the 18th century, when physicians and moralists conceptualised it as devastating to not only the individual’s health but literally a nation’s stability. From the 1960s, sexologists and sex therapists were determined to free solitary sex from feelings of guilt, fear and shame. A staple of safe-sex techniques, ‘solo-sex’ has by now been revaluated as a pleasure-practice as fulfilling as partnered sex. Once a risky, guilt-ridden behaviour itself, masturbation during the current global pandemic promises hands-on the least anxiety-ridden pleasures.
Those seeking casual sex and/or those who make a living by having sex should, the guide suggests, switch to telecommunication like “video dates, sexting or chat rooms” for the time being. Sexting, the exchange of sexually suggestive or explicit text messages and/or images, developed throughout the 2000s. First primarily linked to adolescent (cyber-)bullying, sexual harassment and violence, lifestyle media of recent years have published one ‘how-to-sext’ guide after the other. Yet, consent remains a crucial issue and sexting itself is focus of recent sex education campaigns. Consensual sexting or webcam sex are no longer supplementary but primary sexual technologies. For a while now, digital technologies have been transforming the perceptual and sensual dimensions of intimate cultures and relationships to our bodies. At a time when partnered pleasure is – once again – so intimately linked to infection, they seem to render pandemic sexual fears manageable.
As fears of virus-spread fuse with calls for solidarity, emotions in sex advice are regulatory forces. Some practices are safer than others. New technologies and shifting emotional cultures make distance-based sex and intimacy seem possible today. And yet, it might not be the same.

The sex guide and media coverage about sex in times of Covid-19 work as prisms into contemporary socio-cultural conceptions of sexuality. Indeed, tales about peaking sextoy sales or booming porn-watching hours fit well with narratives of liberalisation, individualisation, or technologization that dominate much of Western society’s self-understandings. Yet, there are also other stories: Rates (or dark figures) of domestic, intimate-partner and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence have been reported to rise, while support infrastructures have been inaccessible under shelter-in-place directives. Sexual assault, harassment, and violence continue to powerfully disrupt people’s wellbeing. Access to (sexual) health often remains privilege rather than a right. While the Coronavirus sex guide mentions consent only once, inclusive, trauma-informed and community-based sexual health initiatives that centre on consent and empowerment are gladly gaining momentum.

This blog entry has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 694817).

Copyright teaser photo: Gabrielle Rocha Rios, Unsplash.com

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