What’s the impact on gay men of no sex during lock-down?
As we all try our best to navigate the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s lots of aspects of our lives that we can adapt relatively easily.
But what about sex?
Sure, there’s lots of ways we can explore virtual encounters, and we’re all getting pretty good at being camera-ready just in case there’s an option of some online fun. But the need for physical intimacy is fairly fundamental – often overriding logic and our better judgement.
The short answer is that sex is off the table.
In this context, we’re talking about sex that is a physical, face-to-face encounter. The kind of action where you’re getting together with someone, getting naked, getting sweaty, and bodily fluids are being exchanged left, right, and centre.
The exception to this is if you’re lucky enough to already be living with someone that you can have sex with. Social distancing really only applies to people outside of your immediate household.
A no-sex rule sounds logical in theory, but what does it mean in practice? What impact does a ban on sex have on gay men?
Unless you’re lucky enough to live with a sexual partner, this is the first time that most gay men around the world have been confronted with a public health message of Don’t Have Sex. It sounds easy in theory, but why is it so difficult in reality?
Nicholas Rose: If you’re finding the message of Don’t Have sex difficult, that is completely understandable – don’t make yourself feel any worse than you already do by worrying about your feelings. Everyone’s relationship with sex is different. If sex was important to you before the pandemic and lock-down – having it, finding it, being in the presence of it – then having to suddenly go without it is going to be difficult.
Sex can be about pleasure, connection, self-affirmation, and relaxation. Going out to find sex can be about excitement, fun, and socialising. Not being able to be out finding sex can be a huge loss. If you’re finding it difficult to cope, reach out – talk to your friends, use helplines, find a therapist – it’s really important not to suffer in silence.
Martin Weaver: In the AIDS crisis, what made the messages so difficult in the early days was that the physical expression of our sexuality was what defined most people. There were numerous barriers to forming emotional gay relationships – for many gay men, physical sexual activity became the defining activity that expressed gay identity. To then receive a message – even from your peer group – that the very activity that you were fighting so hard to protect and hold on to was under attack, made this very personal and an identity issue. When the most obvious expression of your sexuality – and perhaps the only one that you could express – was then shut to you in the cruellest way, one response was to push back and be more sexual.
Now, move to 2020 and lock-down. Today’s culture is about instant gratification, an abundant array of hook-up apps, the presentation of gay relationships as both ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’, the arrival of Civil Partnerships and then marriage, and the easy availability of porn. Today’s culture is about fast-delivery sex with few complications as a ‘right’ – or at least as normal. Guys – particularly younger guys – may be feeling ‘cheated’ out of the sex that they feel that they are entitled to have.
What makes us prioritise sex over pretty much everything else?
Martin Weaver: Sex is one our most basic and powerful drives – it’s partly the reason we’re the most successful animals on the planet. Even when the penalty for sexual activity is death, some people will take that risk – some because it’s a statement against a repressive regime and others because the act of rebelling along with the very real risk generates excitement in itself.
Nicholas Rose: This brings to mind the debates about PrEP. Maybe it doesn’t matter what makes us prioritise sex – what does matter is that we do everything we can to keep ourselves and others safe. If you think you are at risk then speak to someone who you feel safe sharing with and think together about what you can do.
What happens to us when we don’t have sex?
Martin Weaver: “his depends very much on whether we make this decision or it is forced on us. The Incel movement in the US is a warning to us all. Incels have morphed from the early 90s as anxious young men nervous of talking to women and forming sexual relationships, to today – men who pollute their online forums with posts blaming women for their sexless lives. Such is the anger of these men that a few turn to guns and their cars to vent their rage on women. However, that’s the extreme. For most people, a lack of sexual expression can be cause for depression and low self-esteem.
It is possible to masturbate too much. When masturbation gets in the way of everything else, it becomes an addiction. When masturbation takes the place of family, friends, or relationships, then that’s a warning sign that things need to change. You need to talk to someone about it.
Nicholas Rose: Only you can know if you are sexually satisfied. If you’re relying on masturbation and it’s not satisfying, then look for new ways to improve your experience. For a start put ‘new ways to masturbate’ into Google and see if there’s anything you can learn there. Talk to your friends. Buy sex toys – think of all those things that have occurred to you in the past but you didn’t follow up – now’s a great time to expand your repertoire. Ask yourself, just how good are you at appreciating your own body? It’s all too common for us to spend so much time worrying about how others perceive our bodies we can forget that the only person’s opinion that really matters is our own.
What advice would you give to guys who are struggling with the lack of sex?
Martin Weaver: The most important belief to hold on to is that lock-down will end – it’s a time-limited instruction until it’s safe to socialise again. This is not the new-normal, it’s a temporary situation. Lock-down may not be the only thing stopping you from having sex. You need accessibility, availability, and desire. Take this time to think about what you want from sex.
- Desire: This is perhaps the most important issue and it influences all that follows. What is it that you are seeking? Sexual release in the form of orgasm? Intimacy? Physical excitement? Pleasure? An emotional connection? This determines whether you use porn, an app to hook-up, or look for ways to connect with people who share your values and beliefs with whom a relationship can be built.
- Accessibility: Are you going to places where people meet? In lock-down, you can explore online parties, or chat with guys on hook-up and dating apps.
- Availability: Do the people that you want to talk to want to talk to you? Frustration can increase markedly if you are chasing people who don’t want to talk to you. This will be the same after lock-down. If people are ignoring you, disrespecting you, or being abusive then move on.
Once the lock-down restrictions start to be relaxed, are we going to see a sexual frenzy?
Martin Weaver: Not everyone will have the same need for sexual release. It’s very important that people don’t feel ‘obliged’ to take part in any ‘frenzy’. What is very clear is that whatever sexual activity you take part in, look after yourself and your partners – make sure that you test regularly for STIs and that you only take part in sexual activity that you feel comfortable with.
Nicholas Rose: Look after yourself. Start with how you are feeling and not what you think you should be doing.
What advice or strategies would you suggest to guys in a post lock-down world?
Nicholas Rose: We’ve not been here before, so I don’t think anyone can predict what is going to happen. Some people might emerge wanting to make up for lost time and opportunities, while others might now have an anxiety or nervousness they didn’t have before. If you’ve struggled with your psychological well-being during the pandemic and lock-down, then it will be really important to get help with that. If you haven’t, then the world outside lock-down might suddenly feel a struggle – again, get help with that. Whatever your experience, your feelings are valid and vital in helping you to process what has happened and enable you to find your way in the world where it seems everything might have changed and yet nothing has changed.
Martin Weaver: One of the main ways to deal with all of this is to talk to people about your ideas or concerns. It’s likely that your own friends are having similar problems or doubts and they would welcome the chance just to air them in a relaxed manner. You may find yourself in situations that frighten or even scare you, in which case talk with a therapist with whom you can explore where the fears come from and develop some skills to protect you. Remember that after lock-down the world will be new to everyone, no-one will have been here before – which is both exciting and perhaps a bit daunting – and yet there are many ways from our own skills and experiences to explore this new world and be safe.
How is Covid-19 transmitted during sex?
The primary way that Covid-19 is transmitted from one person to another is through respiratory droplets. That includes air-borne droplets (when someone coughs or sneezes) as well as surfaces that the droplets have come into contact with.
Covid-19 isn’t a sexually transmitted infection, but having sex with someone generally includes kissing, spitting, and licking – all of which would enable the virus to spread through respiratory droplets.
There has also been some evidence of oral-fecal transmission of the virus. That means that you could probably get it from rimming someone who is carrying the virus.
How long will I have to wait until I can have sex again?
No one really knows, and the experience might be different depending on where you live. The more successful we are at containing and controlling the spread of the virus and the impact of the virus, the sooner we’re going to be able to move beyond the current restrictions.
If you’re stuck at home without a sexual partner, you can masturbate, you can have virtual hook-ups with guys that you meet through dating apps, and you can plan ahead to line up future dates for a total sex-fest once that becomes an option.
If you do break the social distancing restrictions for a hook-up so you can scratch that itch, you’re most likely contributing to the spread of the virus, you’re putting your health at risk, you’re putting the health of your hook-up at risk, and you’re increasing the likelihood of harm to the wider community – particularly the more vulnerable members of our community.
Man-up. Physical intimacy can wait. In the meantime, #TakeItOnline.
Experience intimacy vicariously through the movies
If you’re feeling a bit frustrated at the lack of physical intimacy in your life, you can always turn to film and television for a bit of a vicarious fix of man-on-man action.
Sex on screen doesn’t necessarily reflect the kind of sex that we have in real life. It can range from the laughably ridiculous, to logistically impossible, to downright offensive, to chaste and boring, to the rare scene that is authentically arousing.
You can understand why filmmakers will often opt for a relatively sanitised version of what happens when two guys have sex – the real thing is often sweaty, physical, intense, and often with a few breaks for lubrication, re-hydration, and a few giggles.
Queer movies don’t have to include sex scenes, but if the story requires a sex scene, then let’s see the sweat, let’s see the hunger, let’s see the uncertainty, let’s see the lube, the laughter, the tears, and aftermath - your bedroom unrecognisable, bedclothes crumpled, furniture re-arranged.
Here’s some on-screen sex scenes worth checking out if you’ve got man-on-man action on your mind.
We liked the way that Andrew Haigh handled the sex scenes in the television series Looking - there was always bit of a discussion and a bit of negotiation before it was agreed as to who was doing what and the guys got down to business. That felt real.
There was a Brazilian/German movie a few years ago that also nailed the sex scenes. It was called Futuro Beach - it was a solid movie, without being great, but the sex scenes really stood out as showing what happens when the bodies of two men crunch together, their desires unleashed. It wasn’t pretty, it often looked painful, but it reflected the reality not the fantasy.
Stranger by the Lake
It’s kind of annoying when a film or TV program purports to show queer guys having sex and it’s a quick kiss and then a lot of satisfied moaning. It diminishes our ability to buy into the story.
Obviously, different countries have different censorship requirements, and different attitudes as to what can be shown on screen when you’re portraying a man-on-man encounter.
For example, the French seem to have a flair for it. In Alain Guiraudie’s film Stranger by the Lake, he used body-doubles and inter-cut actual sex scenes to bring a sense of reality to the narrative.
Theo and Hugo
We loved Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s film Theo and Hugo. A French film, it didn’t just portray sex between guys, it delivered it for real – the opening scene is an extended immersion into a gay sex club. Body-doubles weren’t used for the close-ups, it was the actors fully committing to their characters and the experiences being portrayed.