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.

Socialising the Isolation Period

HIV/AIDS, LGBT, SRE, Theory

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,” [2012]).


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 [1990]). 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.

The Mundane Virus (2019)

HIV/AIDS, Theory

Ledin, C. (2019). The Mundane Virus. The Polyphony. 11 Oct. [Online].

The online medical humanities journal, The Polyphony, has kindly published some of my research on viral bodies and sexual health education. The short blog post examines the embodiment of a sexually-transmitted virus, called “the bug,” in Charles Burns’s (2005) comic series Black Hole. I argue that Burns’s construction of the viral body is a seminal graphic representation of chronic HIV and thus a quintessential post-AIDS narrative. Hence, I begin to think about what lessons post-viral representations might provide for sexual health education today. I end with a reflection on the relationship between the viral body and, drawing upon Sara Ahmed, the affective body. In short, I suggest that Burns’s “mundane virus” provides scholars with an opportunity to examine the centrality of the affective body to the viral body. This work derives from the critical work which is central to my doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. Further research on this topic will be explored in a forthcoming creative workshop as part of the Being Human Festival 2019.

The Melancholic

Theory

What does it mean to remain attentive to negative (“bad”) feelings? Exploring mindfulness, I have learned to pose this question when faced with a quagmire of hurt or a pang of anger. The question manifests through the phenomenon of “badness” or what hurts in the moment and is perceived as out of place. I felt this, recently, on a walk to the outskirts of Edinburgh. As one often does, I crossed paths with a pretty young man in jogging pants and trainers. He never looked at me; likely he never knew I was in proximity. He couldn’t know I was there (with him) unless, of course, I had called out to him. I didn’t, as most people do minding their way.

There was silence. What he couldn’t hear, what I was telling myself, was “you don’t get that.” It was a feeling of (dis)comfort, upon meeting someone to whom I was drawn. It was a drawing in of the unknown to myself, which poses the possibility of (dis)comfort. “You don’t get that” emerged with this sense of (dis)comfort. The event became an encounter with the (dis)comfort of “not getting that“. It implied things in and between the desired audience (a fourth wall already and always impenetrable). As the young man sped off, I was left to wonder: “Why don’t you get that”? The “why” opened up the object; there was an object orientation at play (to use Sara Ahmed’s terms). The object being oriented was not the person I desired. Unaware of the man who compelled him, the young man was doubly unaware of his subject-desire and objectification.

Who was this person to compel a sense of (dis)comfort? Who, in other words, compels the (dis)ease of not knowing and not knowing “why” one does not know (him)? In proximity, I sought to know “the why” and how “the why” came to be. “Why is he there” in that orientation (that proximity of/to desire) and “why does this (dis)comfort suggest an (in)ability to orient myself toward him”? If there was something unique about the young man, it was not obvious. What he compelled was a loose shaking or creation of a subject who might be understood as knowable, however fleetingly. His being, his sense of proximity, became a place of objects: a body in which I invested my desire(s) through the possibility of un/knowing.

This orienting of objects in and of his body was a love-connect (the creation of a “happy object”). Amid the formations of lust, confusion, longing, curiosity, and hurt, a negativity of the unknown rose, too, in the positivity of this unknown lover. Far from occupying the space of that subjective orientation (the process of becoming “the loved one,” of meeting and becoming known), the (unknown) other–the potential loved one–remained in a space of negativity. He was not known, but also, not knowable and, knowing nothing, could not possibly provide meaning or significance where or when I desired.

The negativity took root. It deepened when the new loved one (the potential “happy object”) was countered (that is, projected upon) with a “lost object”. I perceived that which was lost to be a (dead) relic of a past happy object: the love and compassion felt in the image of a past partnership (conceived, now, as a spectre of the dead). When the new loved one could not provide–indeed, exceeded the ability “to do” by virtue of “not knowing”–the lost object returned in the form of melancholia. It mapped itself upon the new loved one and in spectral force. It placed upon the new loved one an unbearable burden (one that is not already known)–that is, the will “to know”. But the will “to know” was known only through the spectral projection. Because the new loved one did not know, and because he could not possibly know, the happy object was merely the spectre. It was thus open to the despair and melancholia of that which is lost, replaced by the signifiers of the lost object.

It seemed to me that filling the happy object with the signifiers of that which was lost left only the affect of what “is not” or the negativity of a past that no longer “is” and a present which “is not”. This melancholia rooted around the happy object so as to gentrify any further possibilities of happy-object orientation. This object could not (or can no longer) be happy because he was (in the process of becoming oriented as happy) lost in what is lost.

In The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed understands melancholia to be “the risk of getting stuck in bad feeling or bad feeling as a way of getting stuck” (p. 138). She writes this in order to stay with “bad feelings,” to listen to what they might tell us beyond a desire to return to “good” or “happy” feelings. The person who embodies this “stuckness” in bad feelings might be called a melancholic. For Ahmed, “the melancholic may appear as a figure insofar as we recognise [him] as the one who ‘holds onto’ an object that has been lost, who does not let go, or get over loss by getting over it” (p. 139). That is, the melancholic is he who grasps a lost object and does not get over “it” through the processes of “getting over”. In my projecting, or perhaps in the mapping of a spectral “loss,” I wondered: have I occupied the body of a melancholic figure? Have I illuminated my attachment to a lost object which I refuse to relinquish or “get over”?

The process of projecting the lost object onto the new loved one was enabled by an (in)ability (or refusal) to let go of the lost object. The lost object was the memory of a previous (lost) lover through glossary citational practices. What was recalled in (and corrupts) the new loved one was a frankenstein image of a past-love blown to pieces by the reality that preceded the image. The reality (the emotional minefield that characterised the pastness of that very past) existed around the frame, at the margins, haunting, as it were, the image of what might become “new”. The image transposed its incompleteness and emerged as negative. It was an inversion of what once was and crusted over with the negative affect accrued through the process(es) of (not) “getting over”.

What emerged in the new loved one–what was supplanted in the image of what might be conceived as “new”–was a melancholic desire for the spectre. The lost object could not be reclaimed and could only make lost objects of future happy objects when captured (as with the fleeting shot of a camera) by the melancholic. Unlike Ahmed, I want to suggest that it is not useful to remain as melancholic for the purpose of re-orienting a personal politics of affection. To do so traps the subject in a cycle of signification that, while attentive to its negativity and to its ability to illuminate the underlying “goods” located in negativity itself, does not push negativity toward an occupiable position in the terminal of all meaning(s). Like a virus, it infects everything with which the melancholic comes in contact.

I want to believe that I can remain attentive to negative feelings like these–to make peace with my haunting, even while I haunt the pieces of my past–in order to grow and learn. Yet it’s clear that I cannot bear to linger as a haunting forever. Otherwise, I will have wasted my life as the embodiment of melancholia. I will only have learned through the flows (and changing signifiers) of affect as a spectral performance of what “is not”. But this is spectral and envisions only that which has no “future” as such. Moving through and away from these negative feelings, and the lost object, demands new attentiveness to affects and objects that emerge through the process of “beyond pastness”. By locating a past-time that is beyond, I want to move toward a production of the future by becoming attentive to new configurations of happy objects and new loved ones in the now.