Sexual Care Cultures

SRE, Theory

A significant base of theoretical and practical responses to health disparities and, what has been called “care cultures” (see: Fine, “Cultures of Care,” 2015), has emerged alongside the COVID-19 crisis. These responses have included, for example, critical reflections by postcolonial, trans, and queer writers (see: Hobart & Kneese, “Radical Care,” 2020), social geographers writing about the individual and social body in the United States (see: Neely & Lopez, “Care in the Time of COVID-19,” 2020), and a call-to-action by The Care Collective in advance of their forthcoming publication, The Care Manifesto (see: “A Crisis of Care,” 2020). This research is particularly useful for reflecting on the paradigms of public health knowledge and, particularly, approaches to sexual health during social distancing and isolation.

Drawing from social theory, the Care Collective, a UK coalition reflecting on the crisis of neoliberalism and healthcare systems, writes:

“[T]his global calamity is a moment of profound rupture where many of the old rules no longer apply—and where governments can change our reality in a blink of an eye […] In the midst of this global crisis we have all been reminded of how vital robust care services are. Care is not only the ‘hands-on’ care people do when directly looking after the physical and emotional needs of others. ‘Care’ is also an enduring social capacity and practice involving the nurturing of all that is necessary for the welfare and flourishing of human and non-human life. What, then, would happen if we were indeed to begin to place care at the very centre of life, not just for short term crisis, but the longer term?” (see: The Care Collective, “A Crisis of Care,” 2020).

The Care Collective usefully distinguishes between “body work” (Nettleton, The Sociology of Health and Illness, 2013, pp. 205-206) and “care work,” the difference of labour capacity across physical and emotional needs, which extends beyond the clinic and professional services and into the practice of everyday life, including, as they note “the welfare and flourishing of human and non-human life”. Such thinking pushes the cultures of care beyond an institutional analysis and integration of “care” in the “hands-of” professionals, and serves as a necessary reminder that we all participate in forms of care work during time of crisis and non-crisis. This formative framework pieces together conditions of interdependence of kinships, communities, states, economics and the world to stage a radical intervention in our understanding and relationship to care as radical change and as a way of life.

Indeed, radical care practices are needed to conceptualise social change and to allow new sexual cultures to emerge. The Care Quality Commission (CQC) in England, UK, for instance, has questioned how adult social care services can better support people to express their sexuality. The report, published in February 2020, collected experiences from people using services, families, providers, staff and other stakeholders, seeking to understand how a culture of openness can help people live fulfilling lives, with the freedom to develop relationships if they want to, and explore how it plays an important part in keeping people safe, making it easier for them to talk about concerns (see: CQC, “Support People’s Sexual Needs,” 2020). Their findings focus on developing critical infrastructures for supporting “open” conversations between service users and sexual health professionals; they also describe three areas in need of improvement from a community-infrastructural and societal level: (1) a lack of awareness of good practice in sexual safety and sexuality can place people at risk of harm; (2) a culture must be developed where people and staff feel empowered to talk about sexuality and raise concerns about safety; and (3) as [an institutional] regulator, we must have a strong role in making sure people using services are protected and supported. In short, this institutional response to supporting open dialogue and service initiatives contributes to a larger understanding of the radical changes needed to support sexual care cultures.

This post brings together individual, communal and institutional responses to social change and public healthcare systems to reflect on sexual care cultures in two ways. First, it amasses some scholarly resources related to sexual cultures and intervention strategies, in order to begin building a sexual care culture archive that can effectively respond to and enliven sexual practices and embodiments during social distancing and isolation (see: “Care[ful] Interventions). Second, it provides a list of potential individual responses to and practices of sexual health and wellbeing, including specific practices individuals can explore (see: Care[ful] Individuals). By bringing these critical reflections on interventions and individuals together, I seek to encourage other sexual health practitioners, theorists, and populations generally to reflect upon and respond to the intersections of material, social, cultural, economic, ethnic, racial, gendered, colonial, postcolonial, and other conditions associated with sexual health and wellbeing during this period.

Care(ful) Interventions

Sexual care cultures, or cultures of sexual engagement and behavioural exploration, fall under many headings across intellectual studies. Depending on the disciplinary approach, they may appear within cultures of risk (e.g. Race, Pleasure Consuming Medicine, 2009; and Flowers & Frankis, “Imagining Interventions,” 2019), cultures of pleasure (e.g. Dean, Unlimited Intimacy, 2009; and Paasonen, Many Splendored Things, 2018), or affect cultures (e.g. Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, 2010; and Rodríguez, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings, 2014), to name only a few. As this section will detail, this research has important elements within the practical development of sexual health resources and intervention strategies. The social, cultural, material and economic considerations of these studies help us to understand the political, medical, technological, gendered, racialised and other issues associated with sexual praxis and exploration. In turn, they necessarily open up a critical conversation about distribution of and participation in particular practices, especially based on geographic location, social and historical context and material feasibility.

I have provided a list of eight historical, cultural and practical texts, which take from the above-mentioned conceptual frameworks about sexual health, and reflect upon and enact their own sexual care cultures. Sometimes this appeals to the loss of particular lifeworlds, including the closure of public sexual spaces, which are in turn replaced by memory practices that serve as a reminder of what society has been like and what conditions might be like for the future. At other times, this list provides direct sexual possibilities in the form of therapeutic advice about open relationships, polyamory and diverse sexual engagement in public sex. This list is necessarily incomplete and selective. Other scholars may feel that some texts are more suited than others to discuss the socio-material conditions of sex during social distancing and isolation. Nonetheless, I stand by these partial selections as merely suggestions for exploration, proliferating possible pleasures in this time of need.

(Note: Items in this list are alphabetised according to the author’s surname and are formatted in Harvard style.)

Califia, P. (1995). Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. Jersey City, NJ: Cleis Press.

Califia’s book is a radical intervention into the sexual lives of mainstream USA. Far from a simple text about the sexual politics of recent feminist activism and theory, Califia’s questioning of sexual norms – including gendered practices of sex and sexuality, monogamy and non-monogamy, dyadic and non-dyadic values – culminates in the powerful question, “Why isn’t everybody doing everything they can to experience sensual pleasure?” A manifesto in its own right, this collection of essays and reflections pieces together a radical sexual politics that opens highly-contentious but important conversations about sex and the law, pornography, the de-sexualisation of children, the withholding of sexual health education, power imbalances across generations, exploitations, and other issues related to sexual practice and wellbeing. As one reviewer writes, “With safety and responsibility a given, Califia wants to convince readers that they are entitled to sexual freedoms which lead to their physical and emotional enjoyment. He believes that instead of feeling guilt and shame, regardless if sexual preferences involve pornography, S/M, role playing, gay or lesbian sex, eroticizing Latex and safer sex, looking at pictures of penguins, or whatever, pleasure is the key factor in a sexual experience” (see: Bendery, “Public Sex,” 2002).

Campbell, A. (2020). Bound Together: Leather, Sex, Archives, and Contemporary Art. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

What are the archives of gay and lesbian leather histories, and how have contemporary artists mined these archives to create a queer politics of the present? This book sheds light on an area long ignored by traditional art history and LGBTQ studies, examining the legacies of the visual and material cultures of US leather communities. It discusses the work of contemporary artists such as Patrick Staff, Dean Sameshima, Monica Majoli, AK Burns and AL Steiner, and the artist collective Die Kränken, showing how archival histories and contemporary artistic projects might be applied in a broader analysis of LGBTQ culture and norms. Hanky codes, blurry photographs of Tom of Finland drawings, a pin sash weighted down with divergent histories – these become touchstones for writing leather histories.

Chauncey, G. (1994). Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books.

Chauncey’s book is an early and groundbreaking historical text from the queer studies movement. It uncovers the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closed, where gay men were isolated, invisible and self-hating. Based on many years of close textual analysis and archival research, including examination of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, this book argues for a rich gay life prior to the gay liberation movement in mid-20th century United States. It ultimately serves as an illumination of the diversity and complexity of sexual lives across history, both during times of political, scientific and medical surveillance, as well as moments of delight and fleeting encounters, which as Mark Turner’s related book, Backward Glances (2004), reiterates, help us to imagine and recover past encounters in order to build sexual care cultures in the present.

Dean, T., Ruszczycky, S., and Squires, D. (2014). Porn Archives. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

While sexually explicit writing and art have been around for millennia, pornography—as an aesthetic, moral, and juridical category—is a modern invention. The contributors to Porn Archives explore how the production and proliferation of pornography has been intertwined with the emergence of the archive as a conceptual and physical site for preserving, cataloguing, and transmitting documents and artifacts. By segregating and regulating access to sexually explicit material, archives have helped constitute pornography as a distinct genre. As a result, porn has become a site for the production of knowledge, as well as the production of pleasure. The essays in this collection address the historically and culturally varied interactions between porn and the archive. Topics range from library policies governing access to sexually explicit material to the growing digital archive of “war porn,” or eroticized combat imagery; and from same-sex amputee porn to gay black comic book superhero porn. Together the pieces trace pornography as it crosses borders, transforms technologies, consolidates sexual identities, and challenges notions of what counts as legitimate forms of knowledge. The collection concludes with a valuable resource for scholars: a list of pornography archives held by institutions around the world.

Delany, S. (1999). Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York University Press.

Delany’s semi-autobiographical, semi-theoretical book explores the changing landscape of New York City, USA, during the 1980s and 1990s. Through the use of personal narratives, memories, and theoretical interventions, Delany weaves historical, social and cultural materials to explore how the sexual districts were transformed into sanitised and middle-class havens for consumerist culture(s). He explores the changing social dynamics of sexual geographies, localities and embodiments, and how urban spaces and policies directly impact access to sexual cultures, especially in the wake of AIDS crisis. Crucially, the book explores American “family values” and the stratification of sex within changing class structures.

Gopinath, G. (2005). Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

By bringing queer theory to bear on ideas of diaspora, Gayatri Gopinath produces both a more compelling queer theory and a more nuanced understanding of diaspora. Focusing on queer female diasporic subjectivity, Gopinath develops a theory of diaspora apart from the logic of blood, authenticity, and patrilineal descent that she argues invariably forms the core of conventional formulations. She examines South Asian diasporic literature, film, and music in order to suggest alternative ways of conceptualizing community and collectivity across disparate geographic locations. Her agile readings challenge nationalist ideologies by bringing to light that which has been rendered illegible or impossible within diaspora: the impure, inauthentic, and non-reproductive.

Hardy, J., and Easton, D. (2017). The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love. 3rd ed. New York: Ten Speed Press.

The Ethical Slut provides a practical handbook for exploring consent, communication and jealousy in open relationships and polyamorous configurations. The manual provides chapters on navigating sexual and romantic honesty, overcoming sexual shame, boundaries within and across relationships, flirting and cruising, developing safer-sex strategies, children and open/poly relationships, conflict-agreement strategies, opening and closing dyadic partnerships, public sex, group sex, orgies and other collective sex environments. It’s particularly useful for beginners but ultimately accessible for those already navigating open relationships, polyamory or other non-dyadic partnerships, and might, in the least, provide a platform for starting honest and open communications about multiple types of relationships, sexual desires and intimacies in society largely.

Nguyen, T. (2014). A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

A View from the Bottom offers a major critical reassessment of male effeminacy and its racialization in visual culture. Examining portrayals of Asian and Asian American men in Hollywood cinema, European art film, gay pornography, and experimental documentary, Nguyen explores the cultural meanings that accrue to sexual positions. He shows how cultural fantasies around the position of the sexual “bottom” overdetermine and refract the meanings of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality in American culture in ways that both enable and constrain Asian masculinity. Challenging the association of bottoming with passivity and abjection, Nguyen suggests ways of thinking about the bottom position that afford agency and pleasure. A more capacious conception of bottomhood—as a sexual position, a social alliance, an affective bond, and an aesthetic form—has the potential to destabilize sexual, gender, and racial norms, suggesting an ethical mode of relation organized not around dominance and mastery but around the risk of vulnerability and shame. Thus reconceived, bottomhood as a critical category creates new possibilities for arousal, receptiveness, and recognition, and offers a new framework for analyzing sexual representations in cinema as well as understanding their relation to oppositional political projects.

Care(ful) Individuals

Adapted from an ongoing study by researchers at the Kinsey Institute (Indiana University, USA), the following list of individual sexual tactics serves as a resource for communities interested in sustaining and exploring sexual behaviours during social isolation. This list is not comprehensive, but it provides significant opportunities and ideas for navigating the sexual body.

  • Using a vibrator or sex toy(s) alone or with partner(s)*
  • Watching pornography alone or with partner(s)*
  • Making sex videos for and/or with someone*
  • Sexting a partner(s) or casual sexual pal(s), including photographic, artistic or other video materials*
  • Fantasising about sexual encounters alone
  • Sharing fantasies with a partner(s) or casual sexual pal(s)*
  • Acting on sexual fantasies with a partner(s) or casual sexual pal(s)*
  • Give a partner(s) a massage or back rub
  • Wear sexy underwear or lingerie
  • Ask a partner(s) or casual sex pal to wear sexy underwear or lingerie*
  • Take a bath or shower together with a partner(s)
  • Try a new sexual position with a partner(s)
  • Try anal stimulation, alone or with a partner(s) or online with casual sexual pal(s)
  • Have anal sex with a partner(s)
  • Use food during sex (e.g. whipped cream)
  • Engage in agreed-upon and consensual BDSM activities (e.g. restraints or spanking)
  • Engage in threesome, if multiple housebound and “recovered” sexual partner(s) present
  • Role-play with a partner(s) or casual sexual pal(s)
  • Have phone sex with a partner(s) or casual sexual pal(s), i.e. live, sexually explicit voice exchange with someone via your phone
  • Have cybersex with a partner(s) or casual sex pal(s), i.e. live, sexually explicit chat or message with someone online
  • Film yourself masturbating**
  • Film you and your partner having sex**
  • Watch videos of you masturbating, alone or with a partner(s)*
  • Watch videos of you having sex with a partner(s), alone or with a partner*
  • Pay a sex worker to engage in cybersex, alone or with a partner*
  • Subscribe to a sex worker’s stream or channel
  • Use a teledildonic accessory with a partner(s), i.e. a sex toy you or your partner can control from afar using the internet or phone app
  • Access virtual-reality (VR) pornography, alone or with a partner(s) or casual sex pal(s)*
  • Exchange sexually-explicit messages with a chatbot or other artificially intelligent entities**
  • Search online for sex or sexual health information
  • Engage in online forums about how to maintain sexual health practices and/or participate in sexual health cultures

*including housebound partners and/or partners on an online platform

**consent is mandatory in all encounters, including during digital exchanges. Make sure you explicitly agree upon terms with each sexual partner(s) with whom you share digital content. Remember that you reserve the right not to share any content regardless of others’ requests. In the UK, there are new criminal laws about the non-consensual taking, making and sharing of sexual images and online materials. Thus it is necessary to have open and honest communications with your partner(s) about the use and potential (non)sharing of this content to avoid non-consensual issues with partners and the law.

Other Resources

Brady, M. (2020). “Don’t Hookup During the COVID-19 Lockdown,” Terrence Higgins Trust. 25 Mar.

Cazdyn, E. (2012). The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture, and Illness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Davids, J. (2020). “How to Have Sex in the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic,” The Cranky Queer. 11 Mar.

Duke University Press. (2020). Care in Uncertain Times Syllabus. Open access until 30 June 2020.

Elden, S. (2020). “Geographers, Sociologists and Philosophers on COVID-19,” Progressive Geographies. 24 Mar.

Filipová, L., Dalaqua, R., Revill, J. (2020). “Pandemics Are Not Gender-Neutral, Gender Analysis Can Improve Response To Disease Outbreaks,” UNIDIR. 24 Mar.

Nettleton, S. (2013). “Late Modernism and the Changing Social Relations of Formal Health Care Work,” in: The Sociology of Health and Illness. 3rd ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, pp. 182-207.

PrEPster. (2020). COVID-19, HIV and LGBT Health: What Do We Need to Know? [Video]. 20 Mar.

PrEPster. (2020). COVID-19 Tips and Tricks. UK sexual health resources.

Siena, S. (2020). “Epidemics and ‘Essential Work’ in Early Modern Europe,” History and Policy. 25 Mar.