Illustrations: Nicole Rifkin

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.”

When lockdown spring gave way to a summer that promised beach days and takeout drinks, my need for both connection and escape grew exponentially. I pulled down my mask more often, I hugged my friends. I began swiping through dating apps again and found they were right where I’d left them. At one point, I chatted with a guy who’d been fucking his way through the warmer months. “People got real thirsty around June,” he reported. “You would think my dick was a rare lost piece of art unearthed after hundreds of years.”

Since then, I’ve vacillated again and again. Like everyone around me, I’ve rationalized my behavior in various ways, evaluating and reevaluating the coronavirus positivity rates in my city but also, let’s be real, my personal threshold for risk — at 36 and antibody-positive, I felt more emboldened to take risks that others couldn’t. As the second wave fully hit us, the coronavirus started to seem less like a crisis and more like just how life was now. I got better and better at discerning my needs, tinkering with my own individual safety-happiness balance. Multiple times a day, I think: “What am I willing to risk for pleasure?”

Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker theorized in The Denial of Death that, as a species uniquely attuned to mortality, we attempt to give our lives meaning to create a symbolic feeling of immortality. One way we do that is through sex. The intense, all-consuming act of sex can become a “screen for terror,” one that obscures the fear of death and loss. It’s a coping mechanism, a lie that’s healthy. Even if, during a pandemic, it’s literally not.

When we spoke on the phone, Eleanor Janega, a medieval historian who teaches at the London School of Economics, divided those who lived through the Black Death in two camps: The ones who lived by the guiding medieval principle memento mori — remember you will die — that says “you shouldn’t be focused on taking too much pleasure in the world, and you should focus on God,” she told me. These are the people that Boccaccio described in The Decameron as the ones whose lives were “regulated with the utmost care, avoiding every kind of luxury … lest tidings of sickness or death should reach them.”

The other group is what Janega calls “the YOLO camp,” people who think, “We might die at any minute. Fuck it.” These are the Decameron characters who “maintained that to drink freely, frequent places of public resort, and take their pleasure with song and revel, sparing to satisfy no appetite, and to laugh and mock at no event, was the sovereign remedy for so great an evil.”

As we’ve discovered in the last year, YOLO energy can manifest in destructive displays of zero-sum pleasure — individualism at the expense of the collective. One’s mind might drift to oblivious American tourists flooding Tulum and spreading coronavirus in the process. Or the bridesmaid confessing to a wedding photographer that the groom had tested positive for the coronavirus, but shhh, he’s fine, don’t freak out. Or how North Dakota’s no-restriction policies set global infection records in November. But among people who actually acknowledge that Covid-19 is a threat, transgressions don’t usually come in the form of this type of aggro selfishness. They’re a stolen kiss here, an indoor coffee there. They’re snatches of pleasure where we can still get them. Divorced from the context of politics, it’s difficult for me to wholeheartedly disavow the stubborn vivacity of people living under enormous stress and uncertainty.

As a species uniquely attuned to mortality, we attempt to give our lives meaning to create a symbolic feeling of immortality. One way we do that is through sex.

With precious few exceptions, an active threat is not sexy. Soldiers in combat, for instance, are usually too preoccupied with their own hunger, fatigue, or imminent death to think about sex. In the same way, those infected with a disease often cope with painful and alienating sensations that scarcely mirror the erotic experience. When the body is fully under siege, one’s human needs only get as far as the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy.

But even in global pandemics, there’s a large portion of the population that isn’t sick or dying or working on the front lines but just trying to press on with their lives. They need to make a decision about what signifies life to them: safety or happiness. In the process of reaching for symbolic immortality, we’ve all learned a lot about what makes us feel alive. Some of us have followed our desires for connection, eroticism, and sensual pleasures even amid a pandemic. Others burrow further into what makes us feel secure and in control, retreating into isolation either alone or with our families and long-term partners. For some people, their “screen for terror” doesn’t mean engaging their unpredictable libidos, which can threaten to sow unwanted chaos amid an already uncertain situation. Instead, they reach not for transcendent pleasure but predictability, normalcy, routine.

There’s evidence that while dating has continued apace — Tinder had its busiest swiping day in history shortly after the first lockdowns — it’s become more intentional and less casual. In October, when “cuffing season” neared, the founder of Hinge observed in the New York Times that his users were “getting specific, realistically, about what they want.” Accountability is up: A survey of 5,000 singles for Match found that video dates had spiked as a way to vet new partners during Covid-19. People’s standards have risen along with the health risks.

For single people who don’t feel comfortable dating, the pandemic has meant taking stock of one’s own body — snapping nude selfies, masturbating more, trying to get comfortable with solitude. Silver linings of lockdown culture include things like less faking, less performing, and fewer sexual expectations, even as it has obvious downsides, like intense loneliness, skin hunger, stir-craziness, or — especially for high-risk people — anxiety about catching the virus itself.

Sometimes I’ve gravitated toward caution and cocooning. I’ve been one of the many people whose libidos have inversely correlated with their stress levels, and I’ve related to some of my friends going through sexual ebbs with their live-in partners, whose faces they see every moment of every damn day. Like a third of ovary-owners, I’ve altered my timeline for having kids, which makes me part of what news outlets have recently deemed the “Covid baby bust.” In September, I craved nothing but monogamy and the oxytocin of cuddlefucking and couldn’t fathom why sexual pursuit seemed so important to me before. “It doesn’t mean anything to me anymore,” I declared in my journal, comically definitive. I felt jolts of stranger danger when I thought about having sex or making out or even flirting with a new person: “Right now I feel scared, pearl-clutchy, like nobody can strike the balance of sexy-but-not-aggressive, tender-but-not-crushingly-boring.”

But then, predictably, my desire for sexual exploration came roaring back. Sometime around November, the prospect of a lonely, frigid winter had the “fuck it” effect. I became one of the people whose horniness spiked during the lockdown. I joined the good chunk of adults who’ve sought out sexual novelty during Covid-19, from acting on longtime fantasies to sexting more creatively. I pursued new sex buddies, both IRL and digital. The much-needed space created by those encounters paved the way for a horny streak with my boyfriend, too. I did these things for the same “inward-facing” and “emotional” reason the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner pinpointed as the way people have rationalized indoor dining: I really want to.

For me, though, the dip back into horniness has not felt naughty, hedonistic, or selfish. Much more than the before-times, there are explicit conversations about other partners, tests, antibodies, travel plans, and elderly parents. Video calls and pre-meetup sexting means I’ve wasted less time on terrible, pointless first dates. I’ve always been pretty upfront about my desires, but nowadays it feels like a prerequisite. There’s also more acknowledgment of everyone’s fragile state. “Please be tender” is in my dating profile. Most people oblige, and the ones who don’t are swiftly unmatched. I still desperately miss chance encounters, sweaty nights of dancing, and the erotic charge of simply seeing hot people out in the world. But even though this new sense of conscientiousness was born of necessity, I’ve found myself actually liking it.

Back in the spring, when I first started thinking about the pandemic and pleasure, the Black Death seemed like the best metaphor for what we were going through — a spike of chaos when pleasure and safety quite obviously seemed like a threat to each other, when emotion overran information. Only in the later months of this pandemic, when it started to seem chronic and not acute, have I considered that a better guide for how we might live long term with the coronavirus is the AIDS epidemic, whose death toll was a slow creep over many years rather than sudden and all-consuming.

There are some key differences, of course, but seldom has a community so profoundly grappled with that same tension between safety and happiness than the gay men confronted with this mysterious disease in the early 1980s. Because the disease was so intertwined with sexuality, the AIDS crisis showed us how this dichotomy between pleasure and safety can be broken down. The lessons that emerged from pandemic death and trauma permanently altered our sense of responsibility to our sex partners.

The fact that AIDS spread like wildfire in urban gay communities immediately provided the religious right with ammunition to denounce the erotic freedom that had been key to gay identity. In 1987, in one of his first (and egregiously overdue) speeches on AIDS, President Ronald Reagan asked a rhetorical question that was equal parts homophobic and anti-sex: “When it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?’’ His implied lessons, of course, were to stick to abstinence or heterosexual monogamy.

This moralizing was so offensive that it’s easy to forget medical professionals within the gay community also discouraged casual sex — albeit for wildly different reasons. In 1982, before doctors knew exactly why AIDS seemed to be sexually transmitted, before they even understood that the disease was caused by a single virus, two gay men with the disease named Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen wrote a strident article for the New York Native called “We Know Who We Are: Two Gay Men Declare War on Promiscuity.” With the guidance of their doctor, Joseph Sonnabend, they warned against the medical dangers of gay bathhouses and other hotbeds of casual sex.

For single people, the pandemic has meant taking stock of one’s own body — snapping nude selfies, masturbating more, trying to get comfortable with solitude.

“The obvious and immediate solution to the present crisis is the end of urban gay male promiscuity as we know it today,” they wrote. “Sure, the baths are fun, but the risks have simply become too great.” They weren’t suggesting a legislative restriction, but they did call for a rethinking of their community’s values. “If our promiscuous lifestyles are potentially fatal, shall we suffer the Pyrrhic victory of proving its joys while killing ourselves?”

The backlash was swift. Callen and Berkowitz were called sex-negative hysterics, self-flagellators, and religious converts, accused of panic, paranoia, and treason in places like The Village Voice and Body Politic. This moment early in the AIDS crisis forced that same question: How important was pleasure if that pleasure was dangerous?

Berkowitz, who used to supplement his income with sex work, had been turning down clients because of his AIDS diagnosis. But one day, a man pleaded with him to act out a domination fantasy: “Just let me worship your boots,” he said. Berkowitz complied, and the fluid-free encounter stuck in his mind. What if there were a way to parse out specific sex acts as very safe, sort of safe, or not safe at all? After coaxing Callen to participate and seeking counsel from their doctor, the three went to work on an empathetic, sex-positive pamphlet about how to assess risk.

How to Have Sex in an Epidemic was one of the first examples of a new concept: safer sex. “Sex doesn’t make you sick — diseases do,” read the pamphlet’s preface. “Our challenge is to figure out how we can have gay, life-affirming sex, satisfy our emotional needs, and stay alive!” The pamphlet wasn’t drawing a line in the sand, it was offering a way to be released from paralyzing, traumatizing fear. “If we are to celebrate our gayness and get on with gay liberation, we must stay healthy. … What’s over isn’t sex — just sex without responsibility.”

Before they brought their pamphlet to print, the authors realized that in nearly 40 pages, with sections on rimming, fist-fucking, and water sports, they hadn’t mentioned the word “love” once. So they added a section. “If you love the person you’re fucking with — even for one night — you will not want to make them sick,” reads the pamphlet. “Maybe affection is our best protection.” I thought about my frank conversations with prospective sex partners, the sweet check-ins I received among the dick pics. Somehow the pandemic had created a layer of protection not just from Covid-19, but from emotional recklessness, too.

Allan Brandt, a historian of medicine who focuses on AIDS, sees this pamphlet as a defining moment in the history of the disease, with its explicit instructions for how to continue living your life amid an epidemic. It was “an attempt to resolve how to move forward in the face of lethal disease and how to reconstitute gay sexuality,” he told me over the phone. It was a way of “coming to grips with uncertainty.”

In this, what we can only hope is the final stretch of the pandemic, with millions getting vaccinated while several new strains pop up, we’re all well-acquainted with uncertainty. We’ve learned to juggle the mixed messages we get from authority about how to manage our personal lives. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently gave New York’s Covid fatigue a romantic spin, opening up restaurants for Valentine’s Day and weddings a month later. (“You propose on Valentine’s Day, and then you can have the wedding on March 15,” he suggested.) I rolled my eyes at this comment, fully understanding that indoor dining was a bad public health policy. But on the very first day that we were able to, my partner and I spontaneously had a date inside at a little French bistro. Halfway through the meal, there was a small fire in the basement, and the three tables of people dining were expelled outside, where we were greeted with the wail of four firetrucks. Shivering in the cold, I tried not to take it as karmic retribution.

As for my libido level and dating capacity, both are anyone’s guess on any given day, though my moods in either direction seemed to have gotten more extreme in this final stretch. I’ve heard from multiple friends, all living in the Northeast, that February has been the month that finally broke them: the isolation, the cold, the question of “How much longer?” We’re waiting and waiting—but for what? For the exact life we left behind, for the same pleasures that used to satiate us? Or will we find ourselves having wholly new desires on the other side?

When this is all truly over, some of us may celebrate like Milan and Venice celebrated their plague “liberations,” with ebullient and public displays of hedonism. Others may find a newfound appreciation for calm and dependability. Either way, Covid-19’s longest-term effect may be the knowledge that we can never be purely secure or purely joyful. For a whole year, most of us have teetered on the edges of both. We’ve found pleasure in taking care of each other, and we’ve found pleasure in solitude. And yes, some of us have found pleasure at the expense of others’ pain, or even deaths. We also may come out the other side knowing ourselves a little better — even as half-a-million of us won’t come out of this alive. We will all have a clearer picture of what we missed the most, what pleasure truly means to us. During a year defined by restriction, we have sharply and viscerally felt our own desires.

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