It wasn’t so long ago that a gay man—having nothing particular to interest him on shore—heading out to bang a like-minded stranger wouldn’t even cross your attention threshold, but the pandemic has rather abruptly brought a lot of new social conventions into all of our lives. Everyone has strong feelings about (wearing or not wearing) masks, the delicate etiquette of taking a wide arc around a stranger on the street, and exactly how poorly a withering, apologetic smile transmits from behind a mask. The range of responses to this new reality runs from those who are inspired to take up arms against the government, to those who are excited to have new reasons to scold a stranger. However, nothing gets people quite as passionate as the idea of breaking quarantine rules in the name of passion itself.
Given the troublesome state of the world, it would be easy to dismiss the simple comfort of human touch as non-essential. It seems that we’ve all agreed that food and medicine are essential, and all efforts at reopenings across the country have focused on the expansion of the consumerist urges of the public—a lust for lawn fertilizer and haircuts—rather than the private, carnal ones. At least, it seems that most of us have agreed to this.
“Dildos are not essential items”
In early April—the tender, salad days of lockdowns across the US—an Amazon warehouse worker, Mario Crippen, became a minor internet celebrity for his memorable phrase: “dildos are not essential items.” The idea that Amazon workers—already subjected to dangerous conditions at the best of times—would be placed at further risk during a pandemic in order to ensure the speedy delivery of an unconvincing silicone schlong to some lonely Amazon Prime subscriber is clearly outrageous. The righteous anger is (correctly) directed at Amazon for continuing to sell these items, and the stand taken by these workers is laudable. And yet… plenty of people still don’t want to try to ride out the hard times without a vibrating plastic phallus in hand.
A dildo is a tool that attempts to replace that which other people can do for us with objects that we can own. However, we still need other people to help us obtain these objects. Placing a faceless Amazon worker at risk—rather than another consenting adult bearing the risks alongside (or inside) you—in search of pleasure or relief is pure moral hazard. As a substitute for actual intimacy, we are offered risk-free consumption—endless delivered dildos, OnlyFans subscriptions, and Pornhub Premium. Nobody will worry if you run down to the store to grab a couple of packets of non-essential candy in quarantine—you want it, and it’s available to you for your consumption pleasure. Buying something to make yourself feel better, even when there’s increased risk for other people, is regarded as the only act of consumption to be met with moral approval—it’s not mindless spending, it’s self-care! However, this permissive attitude evaporates quickly if what you desire—rather than trinkets—is skin-to-skin contact with a like-minded friend.
In spite of the disapproval, people are clearly doing it on the sly. I asked Ajay,1Name changed to protect the horny and guilty, obviously. a 24-year-old living in Manhattan, about his reasons for hooking up with a guy he’d had sex with occasionally before the pandemic. “We felt starved of contact, and it was fulfilling in some way,” he said. Being starved of contact seems a near-universal experience. Even for those most essential of workers who are forced to leave their homes and interact with the general public, the actual contact is robbed of its humanity. How do you regard another human with any warmth while simultaneously fixated on every breath they take, on every crease and gap around their ill-fitting mask, and on trying to discern their clipped, muffled words without seeing their mouth or from behind a hastily-erected glass partition?
It’s not like there is a shortage of willing participants who’d like some quarantine intimacy. Grindr and other dating apps are seeing a surge in traffic. Are people using them to hook up, or for idle entertainment? It’s hard to know, but STI diagnoses seem to still be rolling along unabated.2The latest SF Department of Public Health report available at the time of writing is from March, so it’s hard to infer too much here, but it seems like people are still banging
We know that physical intimacy, human touch, and sex are all vital to mental health and well-being, particularly for those who are living alone or without access to these things in quarantine. In the Netherlands, there was some acknowledgement of the importance of these human connections in their suggestion that people quarantined alone find a sex friend for the duration. If you’re reading this in lockdown, I will not need to do much to convince you of the many potential mental health harms caused by solitude, loneliness, and isolation. It seems clear that parasocial relationships with OnlyFans content producers—or even an entire internet worth of porn and a golden age of sophisticated remote teledildonics devices—are not sufficient to replace what a simple warm embrace from another person can do.
Still, there are refrigerated morgue trucks parked on New York streets and over 100,000 people dead—isn’t it irresponsible and risky to not practice perfect quarantine compliance? Ajay isn’t worried: “Both of us were aware of the risk, but we talked about how many other people we’d been in contact with. I guess neither of us felt in much danger.” In this, Ajay is probably right. With most public spaces shut down, we’ve seen a substantial decline in transmission rates outside of specific communities and geographies, most often those that involve higher-density living situations (e.g., nursing homes) and people over-represented in the venerated “essential worker” category (in San Francisco, this has meant dramatically higher rates of infection for Latinos working in service industries). Ajay’s personal risk statistics (and risk tolerance) are unlikely to change much as a result of a single hookup. Arguably, the risks are much more directly distributed to him and his fellow quarantine-shirker, rather than to some anonymous Amazon warehouse worker boxing up a dildo or to a harassed clerk at a drugstore taking the time between dealing with mask-protesters to bag your purchase of specialty lube.
I’m not going to absolve you of your guilt about hooking up in quarantine—and you certainly can’t call me for sympathy if you do it and the worst happens—but if the risks you’re taking on are more directly distributed to you than to the random assortment of anonymous workers you might call upon to provide self-care to you, then I think there’s a strong case to be made. If you live with other people, particularly those with underlying conditions that make them more susceptible to Covid-19, you’d need to think long and hard about whether the benefits outweigh the risks (and who is bearing that risk). We can, however, stop pretending that intimacy and sex aren’t essential—particularly as the lockdowns drag on into the months and the world seems increasingly hostile and dangerous.
So get yourself some candy while you’re at the supermarket (if you want some), and get it on in quarantine (if you need to).