What Are You Willing to Risk for Sex in a Pandemic?

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.

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