What Are You Willing to Risk for Sex in a Pandemic?
The coronavirus has realigned the pleasure principle as we struggle between the need for desire and safety
Last March, while under New York’s strictest lockdown, I felt overwhelmed by before-times portrayals of lust, sensuality, and unencumbered joy. I’d have fleeting fantasies about flying to parts of the country where they were still having sweat-soaked orgies and raucous dinner parties. I watched movies like Call Me By Your Name, a panorama of landscapes both corporeal and natural, or read Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, a book of speculative history that lovingly reconstructs turn-of-the-century Black women’s pursuit of pleasure and sexual authenticity. I recalled my last few weeks out in the world: A dinner at a crowded restaurant with my bestie. A trip to the Korean spa. Several drinks at a bar with a guy named John followed by a fool-around in his car then sex later with my boyfriend — who, in accordance with our ethical non-monogamy, had just come home from a date himself. “Scrolling through my credit card statements makes me feel wistful,” I wrote in my journal on March 30, 2020. “It hasn’t even been a month, but it feels so far away.”
Pretty soon, the kind of pleasure I used to regularly seek out began to repel me. My partner and I started living the “separate and secluded life” of Boccaccio’s law-abiding Florentines in The Decameron, hiding out from the Black Death and hoping that their discipline would contribute to a quicker return to normalcy. When my boyfriend and I had sex, it was usually less for the thrill than for the comfort, a vanilla balm on the open wound of death, chaos, and doomscrolling.
One day, as I watched an April snow shower gently accumulate on my front yard in upstate New York, I realized my sense of smell and taste had vanished. That loss turned out to be the most unnerving symptom of what an antibody test would later confirm to be Covid-19, so much worse than the headache or fever I developed shortly afterward. “No more delicious food,” I wrote in my journal. “Scentless, tasteless sex, which is so weird … I feel underwater. Like every pleasure is slowly being taken away.”