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When Boris Johnson ordered a lockdown of the entire UK to curb the spread of coronavirus, one of the questions – if not necessarily the first question, or the second or third – that people were left asking themselves was: what will be the repercussions on our sex lives?
Social distancing already made clear that fraternising with others was a no-no, and now the terms of the lockdown are patently to the exclusion of casual lovers. It occurred to me that the social measures might hit gay men especially hard, since hookup culture is part and parcel of the scene.
In particular, for this writer, amid the strife and confusion of the moment, the idea of potentially missing out on sexual contact for a year or 18 months, until a vaccine has been obtained, seems unfathomable (though some hope arrived with the news that coronavirus antibody tests could be made widely available).
Edward*, 43, from London has been thinking the same. “If we aren’t allowed to travel around, or visit FBs [fuck buddies] or total randoms then my sex life dies,” he tells me, pointing out that a natural reaction to such difficult times is to seek out physical solace – “there is something very comforting about the intimacy of sex; that closeness can be very reassuring, a release of pressure”.
He believes this might explain why queer apps have been filled with people who could still be hooking up despite the social distancing and self-isolation rules.
“I had guys looking to meet up until at least Saturday,” says Grant, 28, from London, while another man who wished to remain anonymous said that his flatmate’s continued sexual activity with strangers during social distancing had torn their flatshare apart. Edward confirms the apps are – or at least were, until recently – still active: “I could have had sex twice a day if I’d said yes.”
It’s understandable that people are seeking connection in a time of isolation, but are they meeting IRL? This week, sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust issued clear and unprecedented advice: don’t hook up during the lockdown.
“It’s only natural that we look to sex for pleasure, to relieve stress and anxiety or simply to pass the time – whether that’s with a regular partner or using hook-up apps,” says Dr Michael Brady, the charity’s medical director. “But our ‘new normal’ is that we have to find ways to do this while sticking to the advice to stay at home. This isn’t just to protect ourselves against the coronavirus but also to protect the most vulnerable in our society.”
“I’ve actually found I’ve been craving human contact, especially when I can’t get it,” D, 22, from Philadelphia tells me. “I went on Grindr and Scruff yesterday, partially just to talk to someone, partially to exchange nudes and maybe find someone to hook up with later – at the very least just get on their radars.”
Is there something almost appealingly subversive about the current situation, which fans a certain sexual appetite? Queer sex has often flirted with danger and transgression, from cottaging scenes in the 1950s to sex at the height of HIV (though survivors of that crisis have been vocal in how we might weather this one). One old flame messaged me last week: “For a person who gets off on illness this is like Mardi Gras.” He added that he hadn’t acted on any impulses.
Jay*, 28, from Spain thinks some gay people might not be put off by the virus: “I already feel like I put myself at risk so much already with some of these encounters that Covid almost doesn’t feel that risky in that particular context.” Pressed to explain, he clarifies: “Crazy people, STIs, all the risks that come with walking into a stranger’s house and making yourself vulnerable. Most of the time in secret, so if something were to happen no one would know where you are.”
A lot of men are expressing frustration, some more cheerfully than others. Jason, 36, from London, says he will be “living like a eunuch for a year” – he is in an open relationship with a partner he no longer has sex with. Matt, 37, from Portland, Oregon, said: “It’s definitely a bummer, I’m used to at least semi-regular sex. But I’ve had dry spells in the past, so I’m not too terribly concerned. Everything’s on hold for me now, only my right hand to keep me company. The only real change is that I’ve subscribed to a few OnlyFans paid accounts.”
Others say their libido itself has taken a hit. One man, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me he has “a totally depleted sex drive, partly from thinking about contagion. How about you?” Nope, I’m climbing the walls over here – but do carry on. “I feel wildly unattractive, and don’t want to be naked around my partner”, he says, citing considerable pressure in gay culture to stay gym-fit.
He also worries about people’s mental health – and Edward agrees: “There is the painful isolation and loneliness that comes with being gay that is now being brutally reinforced with actual isolation. We’re already a tiny part of the big canvas of society, and suddenly we’re being shoved back into our flats and houses. Gay bars have been closing in London for 10 years, so our social lives have reverted to each others’ homes, and suddenly we’re under house arrest.”
Some hope remains. Several people think there has been a noticeable change in attitude on Grindr, with people content to just chat and exchange pleasantries. Grant says: “People do seem a bit nicer on the app because of this, the desire for an immediate fuck with a hot guy has gone. People seem to be either broadening their ideas of what they are attracted to, or just looking for a conversation now that sex is not possible.”
My own experience seems to substantiate this, with people now more likely to open conversation by asking how you’re doing. Some men I speak to remain philosophical: David, 27, from Glasgow, thinks this period will give him the opportunity to reflect on his relationship to casual sex: “Is it always just for fun? Or is it sometimes for gratification? A booster shot when self-esteem is low? How much of the sex I was having was meaningful? And if it was or wasn’t, does it matter?”
Others are hopeful that technology will come to the rescue, and that queer sexualities may mutate or develop to accommodate this newfound lack of opportunity. David, 26, from Dublin, says: “I, and a lot of my friends, have been sexting or having camsex since the Irish government announced a shutdown. A lot of my friends have set up NSFW Twitters or are showing nudes with close friends on Insta stories.” Another respondent, perhaps more in hope than expectation, says he would like sexual voice-notes to become a thing.
As the whole world staggers through a pandemic, people’s sex lives are not the immediate concern or priority, of course – and yet Covid-19 has shown that liberties previously taken for granted can be whisked away in an instant.
“I never thought I’d say this but the reality is that, for the time being, you are your safest sexual partner,” says Dr Michael Brady, adding that it’s time to “get creative about how we manage our sex lives”. For a community that takes a more liberated attitude to sex than the mainstream, and which is already on the margins, times will necessarily be hard. What the next 12 months will hold for queer sex and relationships, none of us can tell.
* Some names have been changed.
Useful websites and helplines:
- London Lesbian & Gay switchboard (LLGS) is a free confidential support & information helpline for LGBT communities throughout the UK | 0300 330 0630
- Manchester Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is a free support, information and referral service for the Manchester and North-West area | 0161 235 8000
- Stonewall for more information on other LGBT services and helplines | 08000 502020