During a time of semi-enforced social isolation and distancing, a variety of academic and popular culture platforms have disseminated critical reading lists about the COVID-19 pandemic (see below for a list of COVID-19 syllabi). These lists have amassed scholarship from over the past 50 years in order to understand the biomedical, psychological, historical, cultural and social implications of global health and viral epidemics. In this post, I have honed some of these lists and gathered other materials from a medical sociology, HIV/AIDS history, and queer cultural theory perspective, in order to think about the relationship between sexual health and COVID-19 (following my own areas of expertise; see my curriculum vitae for more info). All the materials herein are from open-access journal sources or can easily be acquired from your local book distributor. Each entry includes an annotation adapted from the source abstract and/or my own reflections and responses. I acknowledge that this reading list is partial and necessarily incomplete; I welcome any suggestions that may improve this brief (aka limited) digital resource, which may appear in subsequent blog posts.
Prior to the reading list, I want to provide a brief reflection on sexual health conditions, parallel epidemics, and the socialisation of isolation. Sexual health professionals remain divided on the best approaches to having (or refraining from) sex during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the provocative pamphlet from the early AIDS crisis, “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” (1983) by Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, some public health officials have recommended avoiding sexual encounters where possible. COVID-19 has not been detected in semen or vaginal fluids; however, some studies have suggested that the virus is detectable in cough droplets, excrement, and blood (see: Van Beusekom, “Study: COVID-19,” 2020). Thus some professionals have argued that abstinence might be an effective intervention technique given that transmission, while not detected in semen or vaginal fluids, cannot easily or simply be contained by the use of prophylactic measures like condoms or non-anal/vaginal play; other routes of transmission are difficult to avoid during sexual encounters (see: NYC Health’s “COVID Sex Guidance,” 2020). Social worker David Stuart (56 Dean Street, London, UK) has cautioned sexual health professionals against discouraging sex and intimacy during COVID-19 crisis, favouring messages about education and agency over negative messages about avoiding in-person sexual encounters (see: Stuart, “Coronavirus, Chemsex & Hooking Up,” 2020). Clinical services, which provide critical support for sexual health communities, are severely restricting hours and access to physical clinical interactions as well as (for clinics here in Edinburgh, UK) stopping the distribution of at-home tests, foregrounding urgent consultations over non-urgent STI screening or other regular check-ups (see: Lothian Sexual Health, “Service Update,” 2020). I have talked to a number of gay men in my communities, both on hook-up apps and other social media platforms, who have sustained sexual play, particularly with dyadic or polyamorous partners, for the purposes of emotional and mental support. They have also sought to maintain a sense of “normalcy” in a time(s) of uncertainty. In sum, as these above sources describe, the relationship between COVID-19 and sexual health remains particularly dynamic and, indeed, nonuniform. This uneven social and political dynamic has proliferated many ethical considerations about ambiguous policy decisions, which have suspended local communities between the poles of social isolation and near-normal sexual practices.
Where the UK government has alluded to the need for social and physical sequestration, a great deal of confusion about what kinds of social and sexual behaviours are permissible has proliferated (see: Cole, “Please Masturbate,” 2020; Davids, “How to Have Sex in COVID-19 Pandemic,” 2020). Some social scientists have reflected on the histories of epidemiology to consider how public health authorities responded to past epidemics (see: Nicolson, “Exceptional Public Health Emergency,” 2020). Others, including US activists, have attempted to make sense of the COVID-19 outbreak by comparing responses to practices of “responsibility” and “negotiated safety,” paralleling COVID-19 with the HIV/AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s (see: Prager, “HIV Crisis Survivors,” 2020). To this end, they have illuminated what Kane Race (2001, p. 168) has called the “politics of responsibility”: simply, reflections (especially related to class) on who has access to particular medical resources, clinical spaces, pharmaceutical technologies, and how citizens can respond to and participate in public health interventions. Aligning COVID-19 with HIV/AIDS is appealing, first, because it reminds us of the bioethics of social struggle, the authority and expertise of science, especially related to healthcare policy and public health campaigns, and the timeliness of technological interventions (see: Epstein, Impure Science, 1998; Nuffield Council on Bioethics, “Public Health: Ethical Issues,” 2007). Such thinking also validates a long history of struggle, signalling, especially for queer folx deeply impacted by AIDS crisis, the resilience and possibility of change through lay intervention(s) into and exchanges with public health initiatives and biomedical advancements (see: France, How to Survive a Plague, 2016). Yet paralleling these epidemics reveals some significant differences, namely the scale of infectiousness and transmission vectors of the virus and adequate prophylactic interventions (see: Cohen, “The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment,” 2011). Hence, a critical departure from this kind of historical reflection brings us to the public health issue of social distancing and sex in isolation.
Sex in isolation, or isolation sex, sounds like a fetish in its own right. Masturbation, self-massages, toys, rubbing surfaces, fantasising: these sexual acts fall within the remit of sex-in-isolation, or what we’ll call self-play. They don’t require others, but when enforced by a period of government-sanctioned quarantine, they take precedence over direct contact with others. Different than the stigmatised histories of homosexual encounter(s), isolation sex is systemic across all sexual practices and temporary. Thus, isolation sex has a time frame and, I suggest, potentialises the socio-sexual body. We know that formal contact with other bodies serve as “risk vectors,” and thus any interaction opens our bodies to anxious critique, or worse, a fearful self-imposition of the politics of responsibility. Yet, we need not moralise isolation sex because it is bound up with confused political rhetoric and uneven government sanctioning. Rather, in thinking about isolation sex as self-play, we create a discursive and body-centred space in which to re-think and re-pleasure the body. This assertion emerges from the general fact that a lot of adults turn to others for sexual gratification without coming to know (i.e. self-recognising) their body’s own sexual, emotional and psychological desires. We illuminate the pleasures our bodies are capable of in an isolated space, trying and practicing – and sometimes failing! – to make sense of our own pleasures and desires, which are specific to each body. It’s a trial run, of sorts, where we might remain with ourselves, seek out those pleasures we seek from others, and, if we are lucky, find those sweet spots some of us lust after but never quite find. We can find greater meaning in how we value the sexual nature of the body by using this period to self-recognise, to put forward a self-sex politics that makes sex both during and after COVID-19 possible. Put differently, we can socialise the isolation period by observing highly active and interactive forms of self-play. This may, at base, resemble measures we have already taken: masturbation, fingering, or the use of toys. But it may also open us up to intellectual, psychological and pleasureful questions about our relationship to our corporeal and psychic bodies, our use of technology to facilitate healthy sexual practices, and the centrality or peripherality of pornography to our socio-sexual wellbeing. Equally, the use of digital encounters in isolation sex might help us to create more formative and less-stigmatised views about encounters with our long-term partners and our casual pals, especially those we fool around with in the bedroom and shy away from using innuendo in the pub. In short, isolation sex as self-sex can be a positive, public health intervention. Conceptualised as such, it might deepen our understanding of “community,” especially sexual community, through honest and sexy encounters on digital platforms, in turn potentialising rich social cultures against the moral strictures of respectability politics. (For more on LGBT health in the UK, see: HIV Scotland, “PrEP & Coronavirus, 2020; and PrEPster, “COVID-19, HIV & LGBT Health,” 2020).
These thoughts are necessarily incomplete, yet they open up a critical discussion about the relationship among the COVID-19 public health crisis, community health initiatives, and sexual politics. I turn now to a critical reading list, which ultimately has informed my own understanding of sex in epidemic times. It also has, crucially, helped me to reflect on, what Eric Rofes once called, methods for reviving “cultures of post-AIDS”: namely, how do we negotiate social and sexual conditions after viral pandemic? As Rofes suggests, even before the technical “end” of viral spread, we can take from our critical reflections on crisis the ability to work together to build new social structures as an aftermath. We are, at the present time, temporally distant from such an aftermath; yet it is useful to conceive of the potential for change – social, economic, cultural, biological, technological – as a means of achieving the future we inevitably long for and thus desire. This is what I hope to convey in providing these reflections and these resources.
A Critical Reader List
Items in this list are alphabetised according to the author’s surname and are formatted in Harvard style.
Anonymous Queers. (1990). Queers Read This! New York: Queer Nation.
This pamphlet was distributed at the New York City Pride March in June 1990 in response to police brutality, homophobia, oppressive social and economic structures, and other political sanctions on local gay and lesbian communities. Written by anonymous queers, the pamphlet has ties to the U.S. AIDS activist organisation Queer Nation, a direct-action and non-hierarchal political intervention group which broke away from ACT UP New York and sought to disrupt anti-gay violence in U.S. arts and media. This source is sometimes used in university courses to teach the histories of political intervention and the struggles of the gay liberation movement since the mid-20th century. It is also regularly called upon as an emblematic resource for illuminating the classed, gendered and raced dimensions of homophobia, discrimination and violence toward minority sexual populations. It’s an excellent resource for the activist, sociologist or historian interested in historical tactics for social change.
Cohen, E. (2011). The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment; or, How Scale Undoes Us One and All. Social Text 29(1), pp. 15-35.
This article is guided by the question: “How do we contain emerging viral epidemics?” It reflects, specifically, on biomedical interventions, scientific authority, and who/what “contains” these epidemics. Hence it is a social theory of containment, thinking through and against the boundaries of epidemiological and public health knowledge of what can and cannot be contained through the medical gaze. Cohen critically examines the use of “scale” to think about “transformations at the levels of molecules, cells, organisms, individuals, populations, species, ecosystems, technological infrastructures, political economies, and networks of global finance”. In a traditional STS critique, Cohen looks at the relationship between individuals and social structures, examining how science and biomedicine “naturally” articulates its understanding of boundaries “within the political ontology of modern capitalism”. The author suggests that we are inherently paradoxical beings that cannot easily be contained by such thinking, and we must remain attentive to how biopolitics “parse[s] the life world[s]” of the human and viral containment.
France, D. (2017). How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. New York: Penguin.
A definitive history of the successful battle to halt the AIDS epidemic, How to Survive a Plague expands upon David France’s (2012) documentary to deepen the story of grassroots activists whose work helped to bring about effective intervention strategies and technological developments in the United States. The contents of this book are regularly taught in college seminars on the histories of HIV/AIDS and sexuality studies. Though the book is a massive 656 pages, you’ll find the prose at times witty, at others harrowing, to the effect of emotive and inspiring writing that feels more like a 200-page novel. Highly recommended for the average history buff.
French, M., and Mykhalovskiy, E. (2013). Public Health Intelligence and the Detection of Potential Pandemics. Sociology of Health & Illness 35(2), pp. 174-187.
This article considers contemporary developments in public health intelligence and health events of pandemic potential. As a sociological study, it discusses how public health official conceive of and “actualise” pandemic events. This article may be of interest for those interested in the theory and methodology behind “creating a pandemic,” especially thinking about the threshold between epidemic and pandemic, which has been a subject of interest in WHO’s initial hesitation to classify COVID-19 as a global pandemic (see: CDC’s “Epidemic Disease Occurrence,” ).
McKay, R. (2017). Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Richard McKay’s rigorous study of Gaétan Dugas, a gay man whose skin cancer diagnosis in 1980 rapidly developed into posthumous assertions that he was AIDS “patient zero” in North America, provides a unique approach to understanding the political, media and scientific significance of assigning the role of “patient zero” to particular individuals in history. Clearly of great epistemological value during COVID-19 crisis, this book illuminates the long histories of contagion and (enforced) social isolation in the United States and, more broadly, within the history of western medicine. As the university press description suggests, this book “untangles the complex process by which individuals and groups create meaning and allocate blame when faced with new disease threats”. As such, it serves as a critical text for understanding parallel epidemics as well as how to avoid uncritical public media campaigns and how to maintain a dynamic understanding of the social, cultural, biomedical and political consequences of epidemiological and public health intervention.
Schulman, S. (2019 ). People in Trouble. New York: Vintage.
Drawing on Sarah Schulman’s own experiences of AIDS crisis in New York City, this seminal novel provides an intimate look into the life-worlds of several urban dwellers responding to corrupt landlords and politicians, providing emotional and physical support for friends and community members in need; it also helpfully lays out a social critique of U.S. social structures and demands a sobering look at the oppressive structures of class-based economics and welfare. Readers may be familiar with the mid-1990s stage production RENT!, which takes from Schulman’s novel and stages the oppressive social conditions for large audiences. Schulman addressed this blatant lifting and infringement of her novel in her later book Stagestruck (1998), which, as a source of reflection in 2020, might help us to recognise the relationship between viral crisis and creative/artistic production. Simply put, this extraordinary and semi-fictional history proliferates critical discussions about U.S. social change, public health intervention, creative practice and intellectual property, and the possibility/problem of community during times of crisis.
Rofes, E. (1996). Reviving the Tribe: Regenerating Gay Men’s Sexuality and Culture in the Ongoing Epidemic. New York: Harrington Park Press. AND. Rofes, E. (1998). Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures. New York: Harrington Park Press.
The late Eric Rofes, a public health specialist in San Francisco, USA, published a number of helpful texts about sexual community health after AIDS crisis. Specifically, his two books Reviving the Tribe (1996) and Dry Bones Breathe (1998) use accessible and image-driven language to discuss social and sexual behavioural management in the “aftermath” of AIDS crisis. Kane Race has suggested that Rofes was the first thinker to envision “post-AIDS” as a method for re-developing gay-male sexual life in the United States. These books, while notably dated, provide a fascinating blend of public health praxis, history of western medicine, the sociology of health and illness, queer ecology, and the psychology of gay sex in a period deeply impacted by viral epidemic. These early post-AIDS texts enact a threshold between the devastation of viral death and the post-crisis politics of safer-sex intervention practices and remain fundamental portals into the social histories of homosexuality in the 20th century.
Singer, L. (1993). Erotic Welfare: Sexual Theory and Politics in the Age of Epidemic. New York: Routledge.
A highly contentious book about the politics of sexuality, and the mechanisms that control sexuality during times of crisis, Linda Singer’s Erotic Welfare explores the “ways in which epidemic logic and heightened [political] regulation affect women’s efforts to secure reproductive freedom, the construction of femininity within the media, and various efforts to displace the hegemony of the nuclear family in the cultural imaginary”. In other words, it is a text which recognises the implications of Michel Foucault’s work on the cisgender female body. The book was compiled posthumously by Judith Butler and Maureen MacGrogan, and has served as a source on the history of sexual politics for many scholars in sexuality studies, gender studies, and feminist studies. For readers interested in the relationship among epidemic, containment and sexuality, this book will be especially illuminating.
Watney, S. (1987). Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media. London: Methuen.
This groundbreaking text holds accountable the media representations of HIV/AIDS and gay men during the early AIDS crisis in the UK. Simon Watney is a leader in the field of HIV/AIDS cultural studies and historical analysis, far-reaching in his criticism of the politics of outing and a resounding activist against the essentialisation of homosexual behaviour. As he states early in the book, “AIDS is effectively being used as a pretext throughout the West to ‘justify’ calls for increasing legislation and regulation of those who are considered to be socially unacceptable [i.e. homosexuals]”. Such political critique is especially cogent in a time when conservative political leaders continue to align viral spread using racial, classed and gendered metaphors. Watney’s book reminds us of the power and consequences of sexual identity politics in mainstream media and can serve as a source of reflection for resisting uncritical claims about the “source(s)” of viral spread, and the popularisation and misuse(s) of epidemiological knowledge and intervention strategies.
Other Reading Lists
Anonymous. (2020). #CoronaVirusSyllabus. Crowdsourced syllabus.
Anonymous. (2020). Queering the Pandemic. Crowdsourced syllabus.
Colom, S. (2020). Teaching Coronavirus—Sociological Syllabus Project. Crowdsourced syllabus.
Jenks, A., and Nelson, K. (2020). Teaching COVID-19: A Collaborative Anthropology Syllabus Project. Crowdsourced syllabus.
Lynteris, C. (2020). COVID-19 Forum: Introduction. Somatosphere. Special Issue. 6 Mar.
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