Lectures

Thinking Sex in Times of Corona: A Conversation

This article is part of the series:

Over 30 years ago, Gayle Rubin argued in her seminal piece – “Thinking Sex” – that “sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress” (1984, 143). The COVID-19 pandemic raises new questions about how we engage with one another, with sex becoming a sensitive issue once again. How can one address the issue of sex and intimacy during the coronavirus pandemic, when even a public gathering of a small group has the potential to cause an upheaval? We agree with Rubin that a delicate matter such as sex should be treated with a certain degree of diligence and humbleness. Therefore, instead of speaking “the truth” about sex in a single voice, we have opted to engage in a dialogue, allowing space for different positions and opinions to challenge, stand alongside and maybe contradict each other. This “we” is composed of Ursula Probst and Max Schnepf with their manifold similarities and differences. As queer subjects we both found a home in Berlin. As PhD students at Freie Universität Berlin we share an interest in gender and sexuality within anthropology. Our commonalities made this conversation possible. Yet, what makes it interesting are our differences in terms of personal positionings, theoretical approaches and thematic interests.

After investigating sex workers’ perspectives on health care and support services in Berlin, Ursula became interested in the relations between bodies, mobilities, and the commercialization of sexuality and intimate labor. In her PhD project she is investigating the racialized and sexualized construction of “Eastern European” bodies in Berlin’s sex industry and expressions of “Europeanness” as embodied practices.

Max has conducted ethnographic fieldwork at an upmarket hairdressing salon in Berlin, asking how bodies are enacted in intimate encounters within care work settings. In his PhD research, he approaches intimacy as queer affect by investigating how bodies and sexuality are socio-materially transformed through PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), a new drug that provides an effective protection against acquiring HIV. 

Drawing on our respective personal and academic backgrounds we explore what queer and feminist thinking in anthropology has to offer for an analysis of the current circumstances. How do the heteronormative underpinnings of quarantine affect us in our everyday lives but also in our fantasies and desires? How are sex and physical intimacy moralized, but also creatively reinvented nowadays? And what kind of socialities and imaginations of the future emerge under the present situation?

The Sway of the Normal

Max: The UK-based Terrence Higgins Trust started a “No Hook Ups” campaign, stating that “unless you have sex with someone within your household, it’s important to find sexual pleasure in other ways” (Brady 2020). In contrast, others like a sexual therapist in a recent interview in the German gay magazine *männer raise the question if sex is in fact a basic need (Knuth 2020). “Sex, a bit of sex or no sex at all?” seems to become a controversial or even explosive question these days.

Ursula: This perfectly illustrates how quickly the debate about sexuality has become dichotomized and charged. On the one hand, some immediately disregard sexuality or practices that go beyond sleeping with a cohabitant partner as “frivolous” and morally “bad”. On the other hand, the notion of sex as a basic, not to say biological, need is equally problematic and potentially normalizing, as there is also the opposite tendency of judging those with little to no interest in sexuality as “frigid”. 

Additionally, the concept of sex as a basic need also serves to justify and legitimize sexual harassment and (in)famously legalized rape in marriages in Germany until the 1990s, which also highlights the gendered dimensions of this debate. While such essentialist heteronormative understandings of men’s sexual “urges” and women’s sexual passivity have long been challenged in academia and beyond, the notion of sexuality as something “natural” still proves to be pervasive (Rubin 1984, 149).

Therefore I am also critical of claims to classify sex work as a job “relevant for the system” to circumvent the prohibition of sex work – and the subsequent loss of income – due to the pandemic which is currently in effect in Germany. First of all, as we can clearly observe with nurses, farm workers and others, “relevance for the system” does not improve working conditions or change the fact that many sex workers are excluded from financial support services, health care and welfare schemes. But neither does punishing sex workers in precarious positions for continuing to work during this pandemic. So instead of asking why sex workers cannot or do not want to stop working, even during a pandemic, and opening up a discussion about the multiple intersections of sexuality, intimacy and economy, this supposed relevance reinscribes the idea of a system in which sexual urges need to be fulfilled at all costs.

Max: It would indeed be short-sighted to conceive of sex per se as natural, especially with regard to the negative consequences for already marginalized groups. Instead of telling people what (not) to do and feel, in my opinion it is more important to first try to understand why people do not or cannot adhere to the current advice by public health institutions. Tim Dean’s (2009) work on barebacking (unprotected anal sex, which can increase the risk of HIV infection) is a good example of such an approach. Taking seriously people’s fantasies, desires and fears in current debates can teach us a lot about social norms, as sex disrupts imaginations of what counts as respectable. 

Ursula: It is also interesting to note how quickly – also in queer communities – ideas about monogamy find their way into current debates, by condemning sex that does not happen within the sanctioned space of coupledom. It might not be expressed in a hetero-monogamous language, but the idea of fixed sexual partners or “corona buddies” reinforces a norm about sexuality and sexual relationships without even addressing the question of what non-monogamous relationships could look like in times of physical distancing.

Max: Like public events, non-monogamous sex is cancelled until further notice and projected towards a future where things go back to normal. For example, one can find so many memes on (gay) social media, imagining and dreaming about huge orgies as soon as we are post-crisis. In the words of Lauren Berlant (2011), this hope for a normal future can be described as a form of “cruel optimism” that restricts our thriving in the here and now for the sake of a better future. But I think we could even go further than just non-monogamous sex, when we think about the reinforcement of certain normativities in the name of a normal future. Recent measures and calls to #StayAtHome unquestioningly treat the home as a safe space. It is true that home might protect you from the coronavirus, but it is far from being a place of mental and physical integrity for each and every one. Not to mention the people who do not have a home and face persecution, because their material conditions simply don’t allow them to comply with a curfew.

Ursula: Not least, as feminists have pointed out for decades, “the home” might also be a space of otherwise hidden or invisible inequalities (Young 2005). And the current increase in domestic violence again shows that home does not automatically constitute safety.

Also, when we speak of domestic violence, people often think about an abusive husband in a heterosexual marriage, but this goes much further. Relationships between parents and children can likewise be problematic and full of conflict, which might escalate quickly in the current situation. Among others, I am thinking here about queer kids who are suddenly stuck with parents who are not supportive of their children. This not only calls into question the presumed safety of the home, but also that of “the family” and the idea that “home” and “family” are closely intertwined.

More generally, this pandemic challenges common understandings of how and with whom we meet and share space (or territory, if one thinks of those stranded at the borders of Europe), what kind of bonds we have with different sets of persons and in what ways the sharing of space does or does not produce safety and mental health. Which brings me back to this idea of “going back to normal” and the overlooked issue in this imagined future, namely that for many “normal” was not so amazing to begin with.

Doing it

Ursula: On the other hand, I am also yet again fascinated by how quickly we can adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Which also holds certain dangers, because instead of going back to a “normal”, these restrictions of movement and contact can easily become a new “normal”. Which again might not be new at all to some people, for example immunocompromised people who are told to practice physical distancing with or without coronavirus (Soncco 2020). Further, restrictions of public gatherings already were and now even more so are a reality under different political regimes. Which serves as a reminder that despite the necessity of critical engagement with current containment measures in Germany we have to equally critically reflect our understandings of limitations and restrictions. Yet, going back to the desire for future orgies: I don’t think that there are absolutely no queer orgies in places where queer sexual desires and/or their expression are legally prohibited or repressed (Kjaran and Martino 2019). This is the reason why we do not hear about it as it puts the people involved in more danger than we currently face for not following corona guidelines, but people have found a way to do it (pun intended). In that sense, this projection of the fulfilment of sexual desires into a post-corona future avoids the question of how to engage safely with each other during this crisis, limiting options to flourish now.

Max: Thriving in the here and now despite unfavorable conditions requires creative work, as Sara Ahmed reminds us: “We would not wait for things to happen. To wait is to eliminate the hap by accepting the inheritance of its elimination. You make happen. Or you create the ground on which things can happen in alternative ways.” (2011, 178). And when we look at social media, we can witness how queer people “put the hap back into happiness” (ibid.). They embrace the “hap” – the uncertain, the chance – to find new ways of living intimacy despite physical distancing. For example, a Berlin-based project for gay, bisexual, trans* and queer men organized a “Cum Together”, a virtual masturbation round on Zoom. I also read a post online where a guy fantasized about being fucked doggy-style, while his anonymous sex partner is wearing a face mask. I find the act of eroticizing current protection measures fascinating, but also the fact that this reduction to plain penetration without kissing or other exchanges of intimacy could be counted as “corona-safe”. 

Ursula: Exactly, this challenges certain (normative) understandings of connections between sexuality and intimacy. Suddenly practices like shaking hands, touching or kissing, which are associated with intimacy, became dangerous and a potential source of infection, and an anonymous quickie in certain positions or some BDSM practices that do not require physical touch hold less of a risk of infection – although I want to add that I am not a medical doctor or virologist, so this is pure speculation. But it’s definitely a good time to try out different sex toys! This shows us that intimacy, sexual or otherwise, is more than just physical contact, which begs the question if limiting yourself to certain “corona-safe” sexual practices does not also express some kind of care and intimacy in the current situation? 

Max: Maybe we will become kinkier in times of corona… I think your example also brings us to a less romanticized, less vanilla definition of intimacy, if intimacy is not presented as the opposite to kink. Instead, I would propose a definition that approaches intimacy as a way of relating care-fully, that is with care for the other actors involved. This is also a question that came up in my initial research about PrEP, where condom-less sex is often assumed to be more intimate. Yet, one could also ask if the use of a condom can also present an act of care for the other person and for oneself. Could, subsequently, a condom – even though it creates a physical barrier between two bodies – become an object of intimacy by increasing the state of affection, because it materializes safer sex in that moment as a more care-ful engagement? And I think this question of what constitutes intimacy also comes up, as we now talk about sex between partners who are separated not just by a thin layer of latex, but by a distance of kilometers or by a computer screen. 

I have to admit that I’m a bit conflicted here, because I have the hope that this pandemic gives us the opportunity to think about sex and intimacy in new and creative ways. Yet, when I open a dating app and read some moralizing statements about how important it is for all of us to stay home it also makes me angry. The same goes for well-intentioned advice on how to practice virtual or telephone sex during the pandemic. Somehow, I’m missing a certain degree of anger or grief vis-a-vis the loss of physical contact. But I think these emotions do not have an acceptable place in the discourse about social responsibility and solidarity, which is why the only manifestation of this rage can be found in the genre of comedy such as Daniel-Ryan Spaulding’s rant (2020) about the missed Easter-orgies in Berlin (“I should be covered in cum right now…”). And I know very well that there are more pressing issues than forced abstinence for a couple of weeks or months.

Ursula: Yes, this crisis draws attention to the fact that intimacy does not necessarily rely on the physical contact between two or more bodies. Yet, I am concerned about what effects this might have for a life beyond the crisis. We are currently drilled to avoid physical contact, which – as you mentioned – has already turned into moral shaming of some sexual practices that often were not fully accepted by everyone to begin with, like open relationships or anonymous hook-ups. So I am wondering what that might mean for sexual emancipation, as we have seen the rise of conservatism already before the coronavirus lockdown, and now the pandemic has provided an even better excuse to condemn or ban certain practices. And on a more practical level, what will happen to those who just started to explore their sexuality and what physical intimacy can mean for them? I can only imagine that this must be even harder than usual right now.

Dis/continuous care

Ursula: That being said, finding ways to practice intimacy in isolation is not entirely new to many who see themselves as part of the queer community. Therefore, these communities are also a space to look for ways of resistance and resilience in a world in ruins (Tsing 2015). For example, since the pandemic started to take hold in Berlin, various ad-hoc initiatives and networks by and for queers were among the first to provide organized support systems for marginalized people who could not access governmental aid.

Max: I would argue that within the queer scene specifically there is an ethos to look out for one another, especially if you are in a marginalized position and can’t always trust in the institutional support of the state. For example, if we take the HIV/AIDS-activism of the 1980s as a starting point for what we might call the “queer community” we can see that dealing with crises and creating support and solidarity networks has had an influence on the response to new threats (Laufenberg 2014, 325–35). 

Ursula: But what then makes this a moment of crisis for the “queer community”? Is this truly an extraordinary moment or a continuation of already established practices?

Max: We have to keep in mind that “the crisis” does not always mark a short period in time. Many people – here in Germany and elsewhere – live under chronically grim conditions and for them “to make a living” does depend on support from within the community every day. The question of ruptures and continuities also opens up the space for imaginations of the future: Will these initiatives disappear as soon as this pandemic comes to an end or will they leave something more lasting behind?

For José Esteban Muñoz, queerness does not pertain to a community; it is a “field of utopian possibilities” (2019, 20), “something that is not yet here” (22), or “a forward-dawning futurity” (23) – that is, an impulse to imagine and desire the future and creating a space for it to become present. This captures what is at stake in many of the support networks that we see popping up in the city: By generating proximities between people they work outside, and sometimes even against, given normative structures. In this way, they let past events and experiences of marginality and exclusion as well as hope for and imaginations of the future bear on the present situation.

Ursula: However, not everything that works outside given structures is necessarily against them. Take neoliberalism and the individualization of care, which are built on the idea that individuals can and will organize by themselves as welfare systems are cut down and privatized. The pandemic made the fatal consequences of these policies undeniably clear. Nevertheless, the community efforts to fill in for the lack of universally accessible welfare and health care systems might also be interpreted as a sign of the neoliberal system working – and situations like the hoarding of certain products or theft of hospital disinfectant and subsequent shortages remind us that we need to learn to think beyond the interests of particular individuals or groups.

The Violence of Solidarity?

Max: Your point about the mechanisms of neoliberalism ties in with two concerns I have about the many calls to solidarity nowadays: its objects and subjects. These invocations of solidarity make me feel uncomfortable, because the object of the demanded solidarity is obscure. In other words, who are we now accountable for? Is it the elderly? German society? Europe? And subsequently one also has to ask who these constructed units exclude. That is: who are the non-objects of solidarity? I’m thinking of the refugees who are stranded at the European borders and who are denied access to the Solidargemeinschaft, the “solidary community”.

In this shared understanding of solidarity, it has become even harder to voice an anti-normative position and question some of the underlying assumptions of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Here, I’m inspired by what has been labelled the “antisocial thesis” in queer studies. At the center of this debate is the question whether (queer) sexuality constitutes one (if not the) basis for social solidification and relationality or a negative force that has the potential to question and disrupt the fiction of sociality (Wiegman 2017, 220). The point I want to make is that it is not equally easy for everybody to act responsibly according to the official measures. I would like to suggest that this idea of the responsible and solidary subject can be very violent to those people who cannot easily #StayTheFAtHome (or stay at home to f, in this matter). One could polemically ask if this failure to comply with the official regulations performs a politics of negativity of sorts which questions the object of currently proclaimed solidarity, namely the wellbeing of society and the nation with all the (class and racial) inequalities it is built on (Halberstam 2011, 107–8).

Ursula: This brings me to the connections between queer practices and anarchism (Daring et al. 2013), which is another form of utopian thinking, which also envisions the destruction of society as we know it. It is important to question notions of solidarity that urge people to sacrifice themselves for a society that otherwise rejects them. However, I would not use the term “violence” in the context of people needing to stay at home, or at least not in such a broad sense. Not because I think the definition of “violence” should be reduced to physical force, but because it is a very emotionally loaded term that has often been applied so broadly that it – similar to the notion of “queer” – has lost its analytical potential. My critical remark here is informed by certain discourses on sex work that regard everything and anything related to it as violent, making it very hard to differentiate between different forms of violence. Rather than simply calling the current discourses about responsibility and solidarity violent, I would ask what does or can make them violent? Who gets to decide what is “good” or “bad” behavior, or legitimate contacts?

Conclusion

Questions about what constitutes the morally good as well as who gets to ask and answer them are situated in a given time and place, as anthropologists have pointed out for decades. It has never been more evident than now that the truth about the virus or certain measures of today might yet be dated tomorrow. This conversation as well as several revisions of it took place in Berlin via video and telephone calls over more or less four weeks in March and April of 2020. It started at around the time, when German chancellor Angela Merkel announced the first decrees to contain the pandemic, and was submitted, when discussions about loosening these measures were already widely discussed. 

Despite this conversation’s fast-paced context, it raised issues that reach beyond its particular emplacement. Stressing the continuities in queer community care, we pointed out that one should not only think of “the crisis” in ruptures, but attend to its chronicity and what it may leave behind. Similarly, some of our questions may endure: What type of harm can seemingly innocent ideas such as “solidarity” do? How can one level criticism against the normative underpinnings of the home, the family or the future itself? But also, how can one exist – and even thrive – alongside repressive structures? 

Sex becomes a controversial topic in times of crisis, as Rubin reminds us. Nevertheless, thinking sex in times of corona not only asks for the topicality of sex right now, but also to envision alternative practices and futures. While the world as we know it seems to go to ruins, intimate encounters form an inventory to capture and make sense of the pandemic.


Max Schnepf is a research associate at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin. He has obtained his master’s degree at the University of Amsterdam. As part of the program in Social Sciences, he conducted ethnographic fieldwork about bodies in styling practices at an upmarket hairdressing salon in Berlin (see www.anthrobod.net). In his PhD research, he approaches intimacy as queer affect by investigating how bodies and sexuality are socio-materially transformed through PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), a new drug that provides an effective protection against acquiring HIV. Since 2019, Max is co-chair of the working Group “Gender & Sexualities | Queer Anthropology” within the German Anthropological Association (DGSKA).  Twitter: @anthro_bod

Ursula Probst is a PhD student and research associate at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin. She has been conducting research on Berlin’s sex industry since 2012. After investigating sex workers’ perspectives on support services as part of her MA research she is currently analyzing how intersecting processes of sexualization and racialization of “Eastern European” bodies affect the realities of migrants from this region who engage in sex work in Berlin. Since 2019, she is a board member of the Association for Sex Work and Prostitution Research, an interdisciplinary network of sex work researchers predominantly based in the German speaking area (www.gspf.info). Twitter: @probursula

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