Apocalyptic Sex

Beyond building a robust and reliable sourdough starter and finally being able to play Chopin’s G minor ballade to its bravura conclusion, the most positive if surprising circumstance to come out of my COVID-19 quarantine is a reinvigorated marital sex life. My husband and I have been together for some fourteen years, and, even before the pandemic, our sex was good, if somewhat predictable: Friday evenings were “date nights,” and we reserved them for one another exclusively. But COVID-19 has made possible what I have been calling apocalyptic sex or pandemic sex, sex that is profoundly driven by the sense that we are living through a dangerous time, a time of heightened risk and potential devastation. Such sex fosters what Candance Vogler termed depersonalized intimacy: sex not as the mutual sharing of two likeminded souls but as an escape from our responsible, respectable, everyday selves. For my husband and me, COVID-19 is an aphrodisiac, a catalyst for sex that pushes us beyond our comfort zones, sex that even risks being unpleasurable in the way it challenges our mental and bodily integrity and self-image. Thanks to COVID, we are not only having such sex, but having it more often—for both of us are able to work from home and so are more willing to risk a groggy weekday morning for a weeknight of passion. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, our white, male, middle-class privilege insulates us from the worst of COVID. But it is surely more than the luxury of sleeping in that has pushed my husband and me to experiment. How is it that, thanks to COVID-19, I am, at sixty, having the best sex of my life?

I am a survivor of a lost generation. Coming out in 1977, I lived through a brief period of relatively worry-free sex before HIV began to devastate my queer community. It was only thanks to a combination of timidity and a longstanding desire to be in a monogamous relationship that I managed to avoid HIV – not to mention dumb luck, for by the time we had a clearer sense of how the virus was transmitted, I had already had unprotected sex with friends who were HIV positive. But by 1984, I was participating in safer sex workshops and practicing safer sex.

Following two decades of negative HIV tests, sex with condoms, and dating the wrong guys, the year I turned forty-four, I met my husband (who happens to be sixteen years younger than I am). Our sexual relationship was exclusive from the beginning, and when legally able to do so, we married—not because we had any sentimental attachment to the institution of marriage but rather to retain our health insurance. The invention of pre-exposure prophylaxis followed, and with it, a re-signification of the meaning of queer sex, a kind of re-explosion (pardon the pun) of condom-less, fluid-exchanging, risky, boundary-pushing sex. And then came COVID-19.

Which is to say that what sex means to queer men of my generation, race, class, and HIV status is shaped by several factors, one being that our sex was, until very recently, potentially lethal. Our current experience of sex during the COVID pandemic is necessarily influenced by our earlier experiences with sex prior to HIV, then safer sex, and now post-PrEP sex. Relief; survivor’s guilt; the “political” desire to preserve the queer community’s historical memory of the trauma of HIV, a trauma exacerbated by our own country’s willingness to just let us die; the “personal” desire to ease the memories of that trauma, the agony of friends and lovers we lost, the daily searching of our bodies for visible signs of infection, the anxiety that accompanied every six-month HIV test—all of this is the context in which we now have COVID-19 sex. Moreover, we of the pre-AIDS generation who somehow managed to dodge the bullet are now in our mid 50s and older, and thus subject to an agism that sees our sex lives as an object of pity, ridicule, and disgust. Add in to the mix the way monogamy and marriage have provided a relatively safe route to sex during COVID-19, and the historical circumstances that foster apocalyptic sex possible are more obvious.

For whatever else it does, marriage bestows, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant reminds us, a legal right (and contractual obligation) to “make use” of another person for one’s own sexual gratification. According to Kant, legal marriage authorizes a reciprocal treating of one another as an object or “thing” via which to achieve sexual pleasure. The reciprocity of this right to use and be used as a thing restores our humanity; minus it, sex risks being abusive and harmful. The potential to abuse the right to treat another person as a thing are so powerful that, to Kant’s Enlightenment sensibility, a legal contract, witnessed by the state, is required. Such a contract guarantees not only exclusive reciprocal use of the other person’s body but, should the contact’s term be violated, the right to redress.

While this definition is decidedly unsentimental – as my students frequently protest, Kant says nothing whatsoever here about love — entering into sex under these conditions is itself erotic. It is a testament to the capaciousness of the libido that almost anything can become material for sexual fantasy. Marriage is sexy in the sense that it promises the legal right both to treat another person as an object of sexual pleasure and to offer oneself up as such an object. That is an example of what philosopher Michel Foucault meant when he wrote that power does not simply say “no” to sex. Marriage potentially fosters both the trust required to turn one’s body over to another to do with it what he will and a sense of obligation to use whatever means are at hand in pursuit of new, unanticipated pleasures. As Jane Russell says to Marilyn Monroe at the conclusion of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “Remember, honey, on your wedding day, it’s okay to say yes.”

Of course, given the banality of day-to-day married life, de-personalized, boundary-pushing marriage sex requires a spouse both committed to the actual work it involves and possessing the requisite confidence and imagination. The sheer boredom produced by COVID quarantine, combined with our relative privilege, means that my husband and I have availed ourselves of a variety of “marital aides,” some of them delivered, thanks to online shopping, to our doorstep, from sex toys, to fetish wear, to marijuana, to craft beer, to porn. Marriage offers a safety net, a however tenuous guarantee that, should I turn my body over to you so that you might make it a source of your pleasure, you will do the same for me, minus harming either one of us in the process. Both of us will work, endlessly, to become what the other desires– endlessly because, as Freud suggested, unlike hunger, desire can never be completely sated. We always want more, and better, sex, even when our bodies are spent. The longer I am married, the more profound I find our mutual commitment, as both givers and receivers, to explore the very limits of our capacities for pleasure.

And now that, pace Kant, homosexuality is no longer widely considered “unnatural,” gay marriage provides a legal justification for the perversion of sexual norms, themselves the product of the nineteenth century’s erroneous tendency to equate the statistical average with the healthy. For the fact that our sex is still considered, at least in some quarters, perverse – part of that vexed category “legal but immoral”—actually increases our pleasure. Injunctions against so-called perverse sexual behaviors contradictorily provoke in us the desire to experiment with those same behaviors—another instance of how power does far more than just say no to sex. Sometimes, the more forbidden certain behaviors are considered, the sexier they feel. Of course, as Freud reminds us, the potential for disgust acts as a drag on pleasure, as sex combines both conscious and unconscious impulses, though the best sex is always potentially disgusting in its violation of bodily boundaries, closeness to excretory functions, and potential disruption of our images of ourselves.

It is no secret that queer men indulge in fantasies some non-queer people find repugnant. Tropes that make even pro-porn feminists blanch – “cum dump,” for example — are enthusiastically embraced. “Retrograde” fantasies of cross-gender identifications, embodied in phrases like “man pussy,” proliferate, and sexual acts some people deem demeaning to women are gleefully imitated by queer men. Queer sex by definition finds its raison d’être in the eroticizing of the abnormal, the non-reproductive, the forbidden. And thanks to the agism of both heteronormative and gay and lesbian cultures, at sixty, my sex is now even more perverse—which also means that its potential to provide me with even more intense bodily pleasures has grown. The “unacceptable” age difference between my husband and me is yet another source of erotic pleasure.

Thanks to the isolation required by the pandemic, I literally have no idea if other married or sexually exclusive people, queer or otherwise, are finding their sex reinvigorated by quarantine. And given that marriage bestows legitimacy (and legal benefits) on one and only one form of sexual relationship—the presumptively monogamous couple— I have always felt lukewarm about gay weddings. (As Michael Warner puts it, marriage discriminates.) But in times of COVID-19, my marriage has fostered new, monstrously counterfeit (to paraphrase Foucault) and unexpected pleasures. For apocalyptic sex can constitute a kind of COVID-19 risk management. Fantasy is always the realm of both desire and fear. Sex that experiments with our boundaries allows us to confront, in a highly mediated, relatively safe manner, fears around our own mortality and the mortality of those whom we love, as well as the powerlessness we feel in the face of something as life-altering as COVID—never mind the aggression we might feel toward pandemic deniers. It is one of the ironies of history that, despite its capitulation to the normal, gay marriage might provide one “approach” to that problem posed so urgently in 1983, amidst another health crisis, by AIDS activists Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen: how to have sex in an epidemic.