As we stare down a new wave of COVID-19 infections in the U.S.—and a new potential wave of lockdowns, too-there’s one thing on the minds of a lot of us: sex.
A lot of us miss it. A lot of us are finding ways to still get it, but may be feeling guilty about it. And a lot of us may be looking at the next several months and asking: How am I supposed to make it through this without getting the intimacy I need?
Alex Garner and José García-Madrid have some answers. Last month, they hosted a workshop titled “Keeping It Hot: Gay Sex During COVID-19” during the virtual U.S. Conference on HIV and AIDS (USCHA), where they offered suggestions on how to enjoy sex while navigating COVID-19 and talked about awareness campaigns they’ve helped create. After the conference, I caught up with them to learn more about their work and get into the details of their recommendations for gay men about having sex in the COVID era.
A little bit about these two: Garner is the senior health innovation strategist at Hornet, the gay social networking app with over 25 million users worldwide. He’s been living with HIV for over 20 years, and has devoted his career to writing and educating others about HIV and related issues.
García-Madrid was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and grew up as a gay undocumented immigrant in Phoenix, Arizona. His work in HIV/AIDS advocacy focuses on developing programs specifically for gay men of color.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Prepster’s “How To Have Sex These Days: Navigating COVID When Horny”
Terri Wilder: Why don’t we start off by talking about the campaigns you helped develop. Alex, can you tell me about the campaign you helped develop? It has an amazing website, and the illustrations are just beautiful.
Alex Garner: Sure. So first, before anything, I want to give credit where credit is due: Joseph Kai, who did all the illustrations, did a phenomenal job. We can’t go any further until I acknowledge that. I think that really helps makes the campaign.
We worked in collaboration with PrEPster UK, which is a global organization that works to provide PrEP information and resources. It started in the UK, but it’s expanded so now the campaign is really the leading organization around a lot of key issues. We align very strongly with them around issues of harm reduction, assuring gay men have access to PrEP and HIV prevention information.
Having worked with them in the past and understanding that this issue of COVID was dramatically impacting gay men’s sex lives—and because Hornet is predominantly a gay social network—we really wanted to zero in on how this was impacting gay men’s sex lives, and gay men’s lives in general.
This campaign was meant to be more of a guide than a “do’s and don’ts” list. We wanted to be able to provide gay men with as much information as possible so they can make informed decisions about their sexual health. That’s always been sort of the overlying principle with HIV. Now, obviously, it applies with COVID-19.
There’s so little information still around sex and COVID that we wanted to be able to spell it out in a way that was specific, yet comprehensive, sex positive, and really allowed a wide spectrum for gay men to decide what sort of things might work for them as they navigate and negotiate all sorts of risk during COVID, and not feel like any decisions that they’re making to pursue sex or intimacy are wrong or bad, but that they are making those decisions based on useful and accurate information.
Wilder: I love that when you go to the website it’s in this huge font: “How To Have Sex These Days: Navigating COVID When You’re Horny.” I just love that.
Can you talk a little bit more about the goals of this information?
Garner: Sure. The goals really are quite simple, in the sense that, in reference to the headline that you mentioned, one of the big questions that came up for gay men was, “How do I have sex? What do I do?” And we wanted to be able to answer that question in a way that gave people useful, accurate information that they could apply to their everyday lives.
I think that our goal was to make sure that the information was delivered in a way that was engaging and cheeky and sexy and sex positive, so that gay men could make these decisions—or think about making these decisions—and understand that there’s all different ways that they can pursue sex in a way that’s satisfying, depending on what their comfort level is.
And that comfort level can change day to day, right? You could feel comfortable one day going to meet up with someone, and the next day you could feel like you just want to stay home and do some online connections. There’s all sorts of intersections.
Our goal was to be able to lay that out in a way that was affirming and sex positive, and reminded gay men that we’ve been in a lot of these places before. Those of us that have lived through 40 years of [the HIV] epidemic have had to navigate risk and sex in our lives, and those sorts of skills that we’ve had to develop can be helpful during these COVID times.
The Tea Phoenix’s “Don’t Stop Talking Sex”
Wilder: José, I’d love to hear about the campaign that you helped create, and what your group is hoping it will achieve.
José Ramón García-Madrid: Thank you, Terri. And I’ll also say that the campaign with PrEPster and Hornet is so awesome. That was so exciting to see.
The campaign that we worked on is with the TEA Phoenix, a small empowerment program that’s part of the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS in Phoenix, Arizona. Traditionally, across the country, empowerment programs are made up of gay men who are working together around HIV advocacy and awareness. The TEA Phoenix is an empowerment program specifically focused on gay men of color.
[Early in the COVID-19 pandemic,] we were noticing a lot of people feeling guilty about the fact that they might still be hooking up, or were still hooking up and not sharing that.
There was something that we saw on the internet that said, “Right now is not the time to be chasing dick.” It was put out by a gay Latino organization, targeted at gay Latinos. We had a chat group; we copied and pasted this graphic and said, “What do you all think?” And we were all just like, “This does not feel right.” We shouldn’t be telling each other within our communities when to have sex, when not to have sex. And we shouldn’t be shaming each other for how we decide to, as Alex puts it, sort of navigate risk.
So, we put out this “Don’t Stop Talking Sex” toolkit and language, just to encourage people to continue sharing with each other what they’re up to.
We know that the sex that we’re having, regardless of what’s going on with the pandemic or not; it’s something that we should be sharing with, specifically, our doctors and our close friends. We should feel comfortable in talking to the people that we trust about what we’re up to. And COVID seemed to really stop that.
What’s With All the Stigma Around Gay Men Having Sex During COVID?
Wilder: Why was that message out there? Do either of you think that the media plays a role in stigmatizing people, particularly gay men, around their sexuality and hooking up during COVID-19?
Garner: I actually don’t think that it is. I think that the media, of course, plays a role in it. But ultimately, public health is really where much of this starts, right?
Much of—if not most of, or all of—the stigmatizing language and campaigns that came out of HIV really came out of public health. Some of it came out of community public health. Some of it came from other gay men who were stigmatizing gay men for still pursuing sex in the middle of HIV, or having condomless sex, or going on PrEP.
This is just a continuation of that during COVID, where you have public health often informed or influenced by community members who are very eager to wag their fingers at gay men and call them irresponsible; call them reckless. All the same language that’s essentially a copy-and-paste from HIV.
For some people, it makes them feel better to do that. But it’s in no way productive. Public health has a history of doing that. And the media picks up on it, because it makes for a good story, right? It makes for a good story to be able to hold up some group of people and say how bad and stupid and irresponsible they are.
I think that, even in our very short history of COVID-19 in the past few months, there are lessons to be learned. One is in South Korea, in terms of how contact tracing was used when there was an outbreak that was linked back to a gay club. And it put people at risk: It became this big media story; it exposed gay men [to stigma].
Public health, in that context, didn’t treat it like they understood the experiences of the lives of the people they were contact tracing. They simply depersonalized it, looked at some numbers, and traced it back. But the media got a hold of it and turned it into a big story.
So I think that there are multiple figures that are part of this larger issue. We have to be able to simultaneously address all of them and also hold them accountable.
How Are Public Health Officials Getting It Wrong on Sex in the COVID Era?
Wilder: Let’s say that you were the health commissioner of, I don’t know, let’s say New York City, during COVID. What would you do to make gay men feel better about their bodies, their sexuality, and having agency over sexual pleasure?
García-Madrid: What’s coming sort of top of mind right now, Terri, is what Alex just finished with, which is this idea of really personalizing the way that we’re doing things like contact tracing. Science is sometimes talked of as being super objective and reasonable, but the reality is it’s not objective; it’s definitely subjective. We should embrace the idea that we should personalize the ways that we’re doing science.
One of the things that we came across when we were working on this campaign with the TEA is: We had a lot of pushback for months from the [parent] organization about putting this out. They were telling us that the messaging was wrong because we were encouraging sex. There were a lot of concerns about funders and about what the general public would think if we put out this thing that says, “Don’t stop talking sex during COVID.”
[It makes a difference] if we have somebody in charge [of a local health department] who’s aware of the fact that, as gay men, sex is so intimately a part of who we are—at least for a lot of us; not for everybody, but it is for a lot of us. And prohibiting that 100 percent—it doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked, and it won’t work. Still going with that messaging is harmful.
So I think that we have to go and try to be more realistic about the people and communities we’re working with, and definitely change this policy and regulations.
Garner: I would add to that two things. One, I think, credit where credit is due: I think Demetre [Daskalkis] in New York has done a great job in terms of his work around COVID and sex. He’s a perfect example of, when you have an out gay man leading the charge, the perspective they can bring to the job that they’re doing.
But public health, as an institution, I think is broken—in the same way that our criminal justice system is broken, right? That needs to be repaired before we can get to a point where we feel like it’s going to do an effective job again. Because public health has a history—with gay men, with trans people, with women of color, or with poor people—of making decisions that are not based on health, but are based on larger political needs. And obviously, we’ve seen that happen with the Trump administration.
So I think there’s an institutional problem that exists with public health, particularly when it comes to the lives and sexuality of gay men and queer people. And then there’s representation within public health of people who fully understand the complex experiences of gay men.
I don’t think that public health just feels paternalistic; I think it is paternalistic. It’s meant to be paternalistic. The harm reduction approach—of giving people information and allowing them, as independent individuals, to make their own decisions—really has to be at the core of the work that’s being done. Often, it is not, and that’s where a lot of the problems come from.
What’s Old Is New Again: Sex, Stigma, AIDS, and COVID
Wilder: José, when you were talking about the pushback that you got on your campaign, it feels like what happened during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and early ’90s. Have you talked to gay men about—or if you’ve felt this yourself, if you were alive during that time—are you having any memories of sex-negative messages that you received back in the day that feel like they’re being circulated again during the current COVID-19 pandemic?
García-Madrid: In the conversation around gay sex during COVID, there are a lot of us who were not alive during the AIDS epidemic, so that’s not a part of our immediate experience. But it’s still a part of our genealogy as gay men, and our legacy as gay men, and us being a part of the community.
Alex and I did a lot of planning for that workshop that we put on during USCHA. A lot of the conversation was just, like, me listening in awe to Alex talk so eloquently about his experience during the [earlier years of the HIV] epidemic. I think that’s such an important part of this conversation—this is kind of an aside to your question, Terri, but—it’s just making sure that younger gay men still feel connected. When we’re living in a moment now where our sexuality is being challenged and resisted and regulated, that is a direct parallel to some of what was experienced by the people who came before us.
Garner: I think it’s super important to acknowledge young men like José in this struggle. The stigmatizing of gay sex: While it feels like it’s so ’80s, it’s been happening in the last five or 10 years. We saw it happen with PrEP. We saw it happen with COVID. So it isn’t a new experience, and it certainly isn’t something that younger gay men are immune from. They simply experience it differently.
But I think the encouraging part of that, from every generation, is that you have people who are willing to step up and speak out against it. And José, and the work that the organization’s been doing in their campaign, is a great example of people taking the initiative and working to do that for the community. We need more of that, and that needs to be affirmed and uplifted, as opposed the last year’s stories of Fire Island.
Glory Holes and Zoom Sex Parties: Making the Most of a COVID Situation
Wilder: Alex, the images from the campaign that you worked on are amazing. Can the two of you talk about creative ways that you’ve heard, or that you have recommended to other folks, about having sex during COVID?
Garner: I’m actually very enthusiastic about glory holes. I think this is, like, glory holes’ moments, during COVID. I was so excited that we were able to visually represent a glory hole. If you’re worried about sex with someone and you want to mitigate risk and you can put a physical barrier between you, then do it and have fun and find a good glory hole. That’s number one on my list of recommendations for people.
Wilder: For our readers, could you describe what a glory hole is?
Garner: It’s literally a physical barrier between two or more people, like a wall, with a hole cut out in it. That physical barrier can be wood. It can be plexiglass. Some people will even use sheets. And there’s a hole; the size can vary, as well.
People have them in their homes. Or they’re in bookstores or bus stops or university bathrooms, usually. And it’s a way that gay men have found to have sex with each other, usually discreetly. But in this context, it creates that physical barrier than can mitigate risk for COVID-19.
Wilder: José, what is an enthusiastic, fun way that you think would be a good suggestion for folks?
García-Madrid: At the beginning of COVID, [a friend of mine] was organizing a lot of Zoom sex parties. This was, like, March, and we were all [locked down at] home for two weeks.
The Zoom sex parties were super interesting and fun and a little awkward, at first. Usually, they go in phases. The first phase is kind of like Scene 1 [of a performance]. People just log on shyly. And these are supposed to be underwear parties, so it’s like you show up in your underwear. A lot of people maybe don’t show up in their underwear or, like, just have the camera off at first.
It’s kind of breaking the ice of the group. That’s the first, I don’t know, half-hour or 45 minutes. It’s just laughing, checking in.
Wilder: Is somebody facilitating it or moderating?
García-Madrid: Yeah. Typically, somebody is facilitating. But it’s not like, “What’s your name? What’s your –?” It’s more just like somebody’s keeping the conversation going, who’s connecting all of us.
That’s Phase 1. Phase 2 is where everybody’s showing their underwear. It’s more celebratory. We’re very body positive and celebrating underwear.
A third part of it is my favorite: That’s later at night, when people are gone and there’s a handful of people left. That’s when it gets sexier. People start jacking off and you start just playing with the webcam and different things. You start changing underwear. It’s like the afterparty. But you’ve got to get through the first two phases.
Wilder: Some of the campaign illustrations also show people playing with masks and costumes.
Garner: Sure. It’s sort of like dress-up, right? Wearing sexy and fun or campy costumes during sex. This seems to simply present a new opportunity to do that.
I think that anything that we can do to make people feel more comfortable—if they want to wear a mask—we wanted to be able to represent that. We also wanted to visually represent the different looks that it could provide and the cheekiness that comes with it.
How to Sexually Navigate a New Wave of COVID Infections (and Lockdowns)
Wilder: Around the country, people are bracing themselves for a new wave of COVID-19 infections and shutdowns. Can both of you talk about how can gay men prepare themselves, so that they can continue to enjoy sex or not get stressed out about it?
García-Madrid: One thing that we at the TEA Phoenix have learned from some of our members is that a lot of people do seem to need health services. If they were getting PrEP or maybe getting HIV treatment medication, contact with their doctors or providers just stopped.
So I would say, if we are bracing for a second wave that is going to carry us into 2021, re-establish that contact with your health care provider, so that you are in a better position should you decide to change how or if you’re having sex.
Garner: Yeah, I can’t stress that enough. I think that fundamentally, because there are so many unknowns and it’s so difficult to plan—not only our lives, but sex in the middle of COVID and everything else that’s happening in the world—that it’s hard to give people really concrete things to do [to prepare].
But I think José’s suggestion is spot on. We want gay men to be able to go into the sexual arena as informed and prepared as possible. So that means maintaining PrEP and, if you are on it, maintaining your treatment, maintaining your HIV care. That’s a fundamental part of sexual activity to begin with.
Then I think it really comes down to what people are going to be comfortable with. If, during the first shutdown, you wanted to stay in, and didn’t have any interactions with people, a way to prepare for that is get yourself some good porn links; get yourself into some networks where people are doing cam sex and those sorts of things, so that you can still feel sexually satisfied.
If you’re more willing to be outside and interact with people, then you need to figure out what your boundaries are, and when you may adjust those boundaries, and—if they are adjusted—what you’re comfortable with.
I think the other really concrete thing that we can do is talk about it. Talk about the sex that you want to have during COVID, and even vent your frustrations if you’re not able to have that. Or talk openly with your friends or fuck buddies so that you can negotiate a way to have it and feel satisfied. I think those are two very concrete things that you can do, in terms of your health.
Just speak openly and often about sex during COVID. Because you’ll not only find support from your friends, but you’ll find hopefully some creative solutions to get those needs met through people that you know.
García-Madrid: I would also say, for anybody who’s geek-inclined, now’s a really cool time to learn some history. Look at some poetry from the [height of the] AIDS epidemic and after. A book that I’ve been reading is a collection of short stories by Joel B. Tan. It’s called Queer Papi Porn. It’s short stories of gay sex that’s just, like—these things give me so much empowerment and so much knowledge, and also let me know that I come from gay men ancestors who were dealing with this before I was. And people will be dealing with it after I’m dealing with it. We’re part of a larger community. And we have the answers for ourselves.
Garner: I think it's also an opportunity to be able to connect with gay men more globally. This is happening all over the place, and we have people from networks like ours at Hornet—and obviously, all the other ones that exist.
I think it can really be helpful to be able to talk to someone who is not in the same city or even country as you are, to understand what their experiencing, how they’re having sex, or what they’re doing when they’re horny. It helps give us a better perspective, and it also helps foster a feeling of solidarity with other gay and queer men around the world.
It can be fun and entertaining. And you could have a friend that you might be able to visit in the future.
Wilder: Any closing things that you feel like we should talk about?
García-Madrid: What are you thinking, Alex?
Garner: I think that I would encourage everyone to figure out what sort of sex works for them. We’ve been talking a lot about the mechanics of sex, and we haven’t talked [as much about] the pleasure and enjoyment of sex; I think it’s probably more important to be able to have sex that you find to be fulfilling and pleasurable.
It can be trial and error; people are going to have to figure out what works for them. But I think that’s the driving force for so many people, is the pleasure of intimacy they get with another person, or multiple people. Those are those connections that we were talking about, in terms of community, in terms of friendship, in terms of the political power around it. But it’s rooted in pleasure and intimacy.
It’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of it all when it really is rooted in those feelings of connection and then pleasure.
García-Madrid: Yeah. Something that I’m thinking a lot about is, you know, we talked a lot about public health and public health’s responsibility in this conversation. I would also add that public health isn’t just about the literal public health institutions in our government. It also includes the nonprofit organizations and the foundations who are funding works related to, right now, COVID, but also to HIV prevention and advocacy. We should also be readily willing to hold them accountable for their policies, and the bases for their policies. Because they can definitely hurt us.