Queer and crip temporalities during COVID-19: Sexual practices, risk and responsibility

Ryan Thorneycroft and Lucy Nicholas


Today I have a message for young people: you are not invincible. This virus could put you in hospital for weeks - or even kill you. Even if you don’t get sick, the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else.

(World Health Organization, 2020)

I (Ryan) am 29 years old, and I first read these words from Tedros Adhanom, director-general of the World Health Organization, on a mild autumnal Saturday morning. The night before I engaged in casual bareback (condom-free) sex with two other young men — a classically cliched Friday night for a young gay man in Sydney’s inner-city gay ghetto of Surry Hills. At the time, COVID-19 had reared its head in Australia, but we didn’t know then how serious the problem was going to be. Instagram messages were exchanged and questions asked — ‘have you been isolating?’ and ‘are you healthy?’ — indicating some degree of trepidation. We all reported good health, didn’t think we had too much to worry about, but perhaps most importantly, we were horny. Much has been said in the annals of academic literature about the transgressive appeal of risky sex (see Halperin, 2007; Race, 2003, 2010, 2018; Warner, 1995, 1999). So, with a degree of calculated risk, we all met at my place and fucked.

The next day, however, the world changed. Australia, suddenly, was in the midst of a pandemic. What was ‘acceptable’1 one day suddenly became unacceptable the next. The world we knew the night before was not the same world we had woken up to. Time didn’t make sense anymore; it didn’t flow the way it normally does. Time became odd, strange, queer, crip.

In this chapter, we use Ryan’s story and experiences to ask a series of questions about the politics of sexual practices during the COVID pandemic. In a time of social distancing — which should otherwise be called physical or spatial distancing -people continue to engage in casual sex, and particularly within the gay community through sex-on-premises venues, beats and apps such as Grindr and Scruff (Banerjee and Nair, 2020; Thomas, 2020). We are interested in these practices given the material (and potentially deadly) consequences that this may have on certain populations, and we seek to reflect on the questions of risk, responsibility, deviance and desire. We invoke the concept of ‘responsibilisation’ (a symptom and outcome of neoliberalism) to signify the ways in which individual subjects are rendered responsible for practices that would otherwise be the duty of collective others (or historically no individual at all) (see Rose, 1996, 2007).

This approach aligns with a crip and queer theory and politics that imagines realities and futurities in new and different ways (Ramlow, 2016), and seeks to rebut the normalising effects of gay and lesbian and disability studies through modes of (radical) subversion and deconstruction (Jagose, 1996; McRuer, 2006). While responsibilisation discourses are traditionally heteronormative and ableist (Race, 2018), as well as assuming individualistic agency while invoking a responsible sociality, we suggest that COVID has clipped and queered responsibility and time. This has made crip and queer perspectives and experiences more central, and more universally experienced, providing the opportunity to imagine alternatives of a ‘new future’ for everyone, and to reimagine sexual practices and ethics. Thus, we use the crisis of COVID as an opportunity to rewrite crip/queer times, futures, cultures, responsibilities and sexual practices.

This essay starts by asking the question: can we criticise queer subjects for engaging in physical casual sex during the pandemic, and how can we understand its continuation without demonising it? In tackling this question, we note the ways in which some forms of sexual practices (casual queer sex) are usually demonised more than others (heteronormative/ heterosexual/monogamous sex) (Rubin, 1984). As evidenced by continued community transmission in many parts of the world, many people have made social distancing lapses (Boseley, 2020), yet there is something about (non-nonnative) sexuality and sexual practices that intensify notions of responsibility and apportioning blame. Queer casual sex during the COVID pandemic can be constituted as a maddening act (Thorneycroft, 2020a), yet rather than understand this phenomenon in a negative (and pathological) sense, we suggest that there are historical legacies that inform and explain such practices. We then suggest that queer sex sits at the intersections of crip/queer practice, and we move to contextualise our current moment through the lens of crip/queer times, allowing us to open up new sexual cultures and to diversify the range of practices and pleasures to all people. In the place of queer casual sex, we introduce forms of (crip/queer) isolation sex as an efficacious alternative, and in so doing, work to identify news forms of cultures and possibilities available during and after the COVID pandemic. In particular, we hope that this moment allows for a reconceptualising of responsibility and ethical sex away from their pervasive normative foundations, towards instead a (queer) sexual ethics focused on pleasure, and a (crip) responsibility not bound up in individualism, but focused on considering the other.

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