Sex, Responsibility, & COVID-19

Dr. Brian J. Troth // In early 2020, the world turns its attention to the novel coronavirus that causes respiratory illness and, in the most malignant of cases, death. A maelstrom of information—of varying levels of veracity—inundates our news feeds everyday. In Ohio, where Governor DeWine has adopted an aggressive approach to containing the spread of COVID-19, Ohioans are approaching their second week of an increasingly-stringent lockdown. The governor’s hashtag #InThisTogetherOhio redistributes responsibility amongst his constituents: self-privation is not merely a question of discipline but an exercise in altruism. 

Mark S. King, writing for LGBTQ Nation, warns us that living through the COVID-19 epidemic is not homologous to the experience of the AIDS epidemic in that the novel coronavirus impacts parties that ‘society actually values,’ instead of marginalized populations like gay men, people of color, and drug users. Inasmuch as the present epidemic poses a threat to the straight white body, that body must be protected for the health of its nation (see Waldby). During the AIDS epidemic, the response of those in power in the UK and the USA was to regulate those who posed a risk to the society at large, making the oppression of gay men a state-sanctioned ‘moral imperative’ (Bersani 204). The onus of advocating for one’s health thus fell on the most-impacted groups or on those who were most sympathetic to their plight (see L’Etincelle [2019]).

Cities shut down bathhouses and doctors were afraid to work on HIV-positive patients; the general public found it more bearable to sympathize with these entities than with someone suffering from KS, discursively seen as brought upon the sufferer by his own actions (Sontag 113). While defending ‘the right to have sex’ is a long tradition for gay men, promiscuity and anonymous sex in times of epidemic reactivate feelings of shame that living in a heteronormative society instills in gay men (Bersani & Phillips 32). One effect of this, seen in self-policing within the gay community, is the presence of stigma patrols that shame gay men for participating in risky behavior, pushing these ‘dangerous sex fiends’ into the dark recesses of the Internet to avoid the judgment of the ‘condom Nazis’ (Scarce). 

In the 21st century, many gay men turn to their smartphones to find sex and love, yet opening Grindr during the COVID-19 epidemic means being implored to reconsider in-person hookups and being linked to the Center for Disease Control’s website. The New York City Health Department published its own guidelines for sexual behavior, suggesting that close contact with ‘anyone outside your household’ be avoided. To borrow from Tim Dean’s work on condomless sex in the AIDS epidemic, we are all persons living with COVID-19, inasmuch as we are all living with the possiblity of infection.

To be a person living with COVID-19 in this sense means, for many of us, experiencing our first epidemic. While the comparison between COVID-19 and AIDS denies the real stigmas attached to AIDS sufferers, we can nonetheless learn quite a bit from this past. It seems to be in human nature to seek understanding of disease through metaphor, and we often make use of the military metaphor to understand disease: the illness is seen as an outside invasion, an enemy that we must defeat through militant efforts. Leaders of the world have not shied away from borrowing this rhetoric; they claim that we are at war with COVID-19. When we fear that the survival of the world is at stake, a case is then built for repression (Sontag 173-4).

Repression quickly becomes far too attractive, as the ‘abuse of the military metaphor may be inevitable in a capitalist society’ which by extension contributes to the ‘stigmatizing of certain illnesses’ and ‘those who are ill’ (Sontag 99). President Trump fed this repression by insisting on calling COVID-19 the ‘Chinese’ virus; it manifests itself when one is compelled to give a mask-wearer some extra space in the grocery store. It may be that a capitalist society is prone to this abuse because it is characterized by free exchange. An illness like COVID-19 reminds us of our fear that nothing is local—not even disasters (Sontag 180). Still, it has been suggested that absolute prophylaxis can be deadly and overprotecting man causes him to lose all his defenses (see Baudrillard).

For Baudrillard, our modern capitalist society demands that sex, money, and information circulate unhindered (72). He calls it absurd that a virus could revoke one’s sexuality (72). However, Baudrillard says this about AIDS, a disease that stigmatizes the Other; COVID-19 unravels his argument by confronting it with an epidemic that has threatened the exchange of sexuality, money, and information between people that ‘society actually values.’ The virulence of COVID-19 across all age groups and all continents far outweighs the stigmatizing potential of its origin from within the Wuhan province of China. The overreaching effects of the military metaphor rides in on the coronavirus’s coattails: ‘it overmobilizes, it overdescribes, and it powerfully contributes to the excommunicating and stigmatizing of the ill’ (Sontag 182). Sontag reminds us that the body is not a battlefield and our ills are neither ‘enemy’ nor ‘unavoidable casualties,’ a reminder to us all to seek humanity in times of epidemic (183). 

The past warns us of the dangers in stigmatizing those who are afflicted with illness. While it is clear that we have not washed our hands of the military metaphor, we still have a chance to learn from the past, especially from communities that have lived through an epidemic. Life today means being accustomed to living with the threat of ‘disasters’ that are quite probable (Sontag 176). The probability of disaster may be frightening, but it enables us to rethink what we can or cannot do, should or should not do in order to mitigate that disaster. By adapting our behaviors and by redefining what it means to be responsible in times of epidemic, we hope to mitigate catastrophe. The unknowability of COVID-19 means that sex may be risky. Yet illness becomes better understood, treatable, and in its final stage, normalized. Then, we leave our houses and we live again.

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