All of the medical and public health advice says that, during this COVID-19 outbreak, we should keep our distance from one another. What does that mean to a sexpert?
As a gender and sexuality researcher/activist of a certain age, this is not my first rodeo. Many of us feel the strong echoes of having survived the onset of AIDS, which was infinitely more confusing and dire on many counts. Our immediate family of friends and loved ones was getting sick at a terrifying velocity. We had no idea how the virus was transmitted, and all kinds of incendiary, bad info was circulating. Many people were dying—young and quickly—and there was no treatment. The federal government didn’t give two shits; in fact, we were subjected to dismissive jokes about our dead beloveds on The Tonight Show and condemnation about our “lifestyle” in Congress.
Probably one of the greatest activist interventions at the onset of AIDS was the formation of LGBTQ care and resistance networks, many that persist today—and many others that have built on the scaffolding of that time. It’s important to note that lesbian feminists involved in HIV care brought a ton of expertise to the table as the crisis unfolded—many of us had been working in rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters for years, and since we were in another movement that the feds and the larger culture didn’t give two shits about, we brought the model of vast volunteer care networks—buddy systems, peer support, emergency room accompaniments, and pro-se peer legal advocacy—into the work.
Amelie Zurn, LCSW-C, a Washington, D.C. AIDS activist who founded one of the nation’s first lesbian health clinics, draws a line from there to here: “I am calling up my AIDS activist ancestors today, and I am pulling from an earlier era,” she writes. “In those days, I sat patiently with callers both HIV positive and not who leaned in to the volunteers at the D.C. AIDS Information as they sorted through confusing but critical data about how to stay safe in the face of HIV. These callers and staffers taught me how we all know more than we think we know about how to help foster wellness in our bodies. Today, we all can slow down, find our path of best choices, and stay open to each other in new yet still pleasurable connections.
Amelie’s question for us right now might be, how is our care network? Does it exist? Why or why not? How can we activate our friendship and family networks in ways that are supportive during this time of limited in-person connection? How can we create a foundational safety net that might carry us through this time—a time that points out the glaring holes in our city, state, and federal safety nets?
One of my favorite pieces during this pandemic is by Kenneth Bailey and Lori Lobenstine at the Design Studio for Social Intervention, who remind us that while disruption leaves us vulnerable, it can also be very creative: “One opportunity we have with COVID-19 is to build our capacity to jump out of our everyday routines when faced with crisis,” they write. “Although this temporal shift is happening to us vertically (being imposed on us by our government, jobs, schools, or larger logistical operations like airlines, trains, and the like), it is shifting us out of our daily routines. Now we have the opportunity to horizontally—collectively—decide to stop living as if everything is OK, when it isn’t.”
Stepping out of ordinary time, and out of our often-numbing routines—noticing the fundamentally problematic ways our society is structured—and perhaps by extension, how we’ve structured our friendship networks, our sexual lives, and our family formations, can be unsettling, but also liberating. A moment of such massive disruption as this is rare—and we ought not squander its creative possibilities. What needs to change in our lives? What larger changes do we want to work or vote toward, given the vast inequities and vulnerabilities that are so starkly rendered during these weeks of amplified isolation?
One creative reality we can be excited about is that sex has always been a go-to for humans in times of change and society-level crises, as evidenced by the significant uptick in pregnancies conceived during widespread power outages.
For example, I’m not the only one who remembers the explosion of the sex phonelines during the AIDS era. The industry felt like it literally sprang up overnight, and tens of thousands shifted their cruising strategies from going out to favorite public-sex haunts or hanging in the bars to lounging at home and dialing up sexy voices for connection, role play, and getting off.
Longtime AIDS activist JD Davids, whose new venture, The Cranky Queer, looks at disability justice and care among queers, asks us to consider this creative possibility: “Is this the time you get to say what you’ve been meaning to say, but just haven’t bothered to, in your sex life?”
I love this provocative idea! You’ve got time on your hands. What have you been failing to say about your sex and sexuality with your partners? JD notes that this might not be the time to take on a really big topic, but to focus on the low-hanging fruit, as it were, such as: Hey baby, I really loved it early on in our relationship when you put your tongue in my ear, but over time, I have just gotten more and more uncomfortable with it. And what about that thing you’ve been wanting to do that you just haven’t gotten up the courage to ask for yet? Liberation in the time of Corona!
And this one from JD: “Phone sex is real sex. Video sex is real sex.”
We are fortunate to be living in an era when there are just so many more ways to connect by phone or video—vast, sprawling industries available to us that affirm so many different facets of our desires. Whatever our favorite sexual taste is, there is a Velcro match out there for us. And literally dozens of ways to find our match in the world of “distance” sex commerce—whether old-school porn, live cams, dating-app chat, or phone sex. Perhaps none of these options has been in our sex repertoire before now. Here’s our opportunity to venture into untried territories.
And, beyond commercial options, my preferred areas for sexploration are always community-based, do-it-yourself options. The mix of a wide variety of social groups, our lover and friendship circles, the myriad desires embedded and adjacent to them, and our own home tech capabilities give us seemingly endless possible ways to identify, express, and engage possible sex partners and practices in the safe and solo confines of our homes, apartments, and bedrooms.
So, while everyone is Zooming their heretofore in-person classes, executive meetings, staff supervision, and professional conferences, we can be Zooming or Skyping or FaceTiming our sex. As we all stumble around, grope our way through really terrible online meetings, mess up, have the tech go wrong, teach a disjointed video class for the first time—why not do the same around our sex and sexuality in this period?
Why not laugh, try something new, say something brave, be goofier and more awkward than usual? As someone who is constantly mapping the shape, flavor, and configurations of desire in our communities, I’m interested in and excited to hear about all the ways our sex is going to change, shift, transform, and re-jigger as we navigate life with Corona.