Queer sexual practices during COVID: the politics of responsibility
Sex is presumed guilty until proven innocent. Virtually all erotic behaviour is considered bad unless a specific reason to exempt it has been established.
(Rubin, 1984: 278)
Understanding the attribution of responsibility for the spread of COVID is an inherently fraught issue. While the cause of the global COVID pandemic can be attributed to broader social and structural forces such as globalisation, neoliberalism, capitalism and population growth, it is still the case that individual subjects have been responsibilised to limit its spread. Governments around the world have mandated im/permissible conduct to suppress or eliminate transmission. Social distancing rules were implemented, many industries were shut down, international borders closed, stay-at-home orders were mandated for non-essential activities, sick people forced into self-isolation, and so on. This is exemplary of governance being achieved through the subjectifying force of responsibilisation wherein ‘the state acts remotely through ... “responsibilization” ... by individuals who adopt a new and specific mode of governing the self (Pyysiâinen, Halpin and Guilfoyle, 2017: 216). Many contradictions and paradoxes lay at the heart of these rules, and they are based on economic and normative/majoritarian arguments. For example, in Australia, hairdressing salons remain open because, according to the government, they provide an ‘essential service’.
Given the pervasiveness of heteronormativity in society, it is perhaps not surprising to recognise that queer casual sexual practices are constituted as impermissible and aberrant behaviours. Following some push-back, for example, in many states in Australia, leaders have accepted that people can leave their homes to visit their (presumed monogamous, cisgender, heterosexual) partners (Scanlan, 2020). The framing of this is key, however. With the tacit assumption of monogamy, the NSW Police Commissioner explained that ‘visits to a partner’s home are allowed’ under the four essential reasons - shopping, seeking or providing (medical) care, travelling to school or work, and exercise -stating: ‘I would put that [visiting a partner] under care, absolutely’ (in Valencich, 2020). Given that cisgender heterosexuality is presumed ‘unless otherwise stated’ (Swain and Cameron, 1999: 68), we suggest these rules are written for cisgender heterosexual and monogamous subjects. Neutrality has long been critiqued as a myth in a cis-heterononnative society, and the presumption and re-constitution of the normative heterosexual nuclear family has long been noted as a discursive strategy in Australian government discourse (Nicholas, 2019). Heteronormativity, if subtle and implicit, is further compounded by the categorising of sex under care, reinforcing the heterosexual fairy-tale of sex as ‘universally about the expression of health, love, self-esteem, and respect’ (Halperin, 2007: 62) that queer theorists have long critiqued, and that casual queer sex does not fit.
Rubin’s (1984) notion of the ‘charmed circle’ delineates a hierarchical valuation of sexual practices that identifies which practices (in dominant heteronormative Anglo Global North cultures) are acceptable and those which are not, a hierarchy that for the most part still holds true (Jones, 2020). The inner limits signify ‘good’ and ‘natural’ forms of sexual practices (such as monogamous and heterosexual practices) while the outer limits are ‘bad’ and ‘unnatural’ (such as promiscuous and homosexual practices) (Rubin, 1984). Given the reproductive, romantic, heterosexual norm inherent to normative constructions of sexuality, it holds that queer casual sex is constituted as bad and unnatural, particularly in the midst of the COVID pandemic, as it is well-established that violence and oppression is intensified and compounded during times of social upheaval (see Agamben, 2005; Bauman, 1989; Puar, 2007). Seeing a partner for ‘care’ reasons is officially sanctioned, implying that casual sex that is not connected to emotion is not as core to well-being.
While many people have made social distancing lapses — overtly and covertly, consciously and unconsciously, momentarily and continuously (Wolff et al., 2020), it strikes us that normative subjects are externalised from responsibility (e.g. hotel quarantine issues in Victoria, Australia), while non-normative subjects are remonstrated (e.g. Black Lives Matter protests). Even some queer commentary has rendered those flouting social distancing as ‘ill-informed and irresponsible’, according to one commentator, who went on to proclaim that ‘not all of us are willing to put people’s lives in danger for dick’ (Box, 2020).
Ledin (2020: n.p.) notes that many gay men have continued to engage in casual gay sex to ‘maintain a sense of “normalcy” in a time(s) of uncertainty’. It is important to acknowledge that casual sexual practices help maintain emotional and mental health for many (queer) populations, representing the continuation of ‘experiment[ing] with the limits of ... social isolation and social solidarity’ key to queer sexual cultures (Halperin, 2007: 87). Permitting visits to partners for ‘care’-based reasons demonstrates an implicit abjection and disavowal of other modes of sexual relationality, and potentially the ongoing taboo around discussing sexuality as a need or sexual pleasure in official discourses, with risk once again dominating sexuality discourse (Lamb, Lustig and Graling, 2013). To negate and implicitly demonise the other is to strip them of context and history.
Turning to Warner’s (1995: 35) claim that ‘[a]bjection continues to be our dirty secret’ might be one way to think through the politics of ‘risky sex’ and its impacts upon others — as well as to contextualise historical legacies with contemporary practices. Warner (1995), writing in the context of the HIV/AIDS crisis, wondered why he continued to engage in sex without condoms despite the (deadly) risks to himself and others. During the 1980s, HIV/AIDs was discussed with moralising terms, with claims it was caused by ‘the gay life-style’ and ‘promiscuity’ (Crimp, 1987). However, for Warner, the continued practice of sex without condoms was a seemingly ungovernable impulse he described thus: ‘I recoiled so much from what I had done that it seemed to be not my choice at all. A mystery, I thought. A monster did it’ (Warner, 1995: 33). Warner draws upon the ‘imagery of demonic possession as a way of getting around the paradox of unintentional intention’ (Halperin, 2007: 62). Warner’s phenomenological and demonological description also points to what many gay men knew at the time: existing sex education policies around safe sex and celibacy were ineffectual; sex is not universally about those things in the centre of Rubin’s ‘charmed circle’ - the expression of health, love, self-esteem and respect; and, finally, there are anti-social impulses that drive many to have sex (Crimp, 1987; Halperin, 2007; Rubin, 1984). This is what led Warner to claim that ‘[ajbjection continues to be our dirty secret’.
Halperin understands Warner’s assertion to be about
what it means to have someone’s dick up our butts or to have someone come in our mouths. We need to admit our pleasure in being the lowest of the low, in being bad, in being outlaws, in betraying both our own values and those of the people around us. And we need to do so non-judgmentally, without having to berate ourselves for a weak ego, for a lack of self-esteem, or for some other kind of distinctively psychological failure.
(Halperin, 2007: 65; emphasis in the original)
Both Warner and Halperin perfectly capture the tantalisingly transgressive appeal of risky sex, and the extent to which the ‘choices’ made by same-sex attracted men and the constitution of the erotic and desire cannot be divorced from the social and historical context of abjection in which it has to be understood. The internalisation of abjection and the pleasure of this in sexuality experienced by women in a culture of patriarchy has long been theorised (Irigaray, 1985), and can be extended to this analogous abjection. In a context in which gay men are already exposed to social humiliation, abjection is about taking bitter pleasure in that humiliation (Halperin, 2007). As Halperin (2007: 87) notes, abjection ‘is an experiment with the limits of both destruction and survival, social isolation and social solidarity, domination and transcendence’. Sex during pandemic foregrounds the distributive nature of agency: it was not me, a monster did it.
How do we connect this account with the current pandemic, where responsibilisation is so rooted in an agentic individualistic humanism? This account illustrates the un/conscious motivations for sex, both historically and contemporarily. Queer people have an embodied familiarity with viruses given the devastation of HIV/AIDS, yet it appears neither COVID nor HIV/AIDS can stop our quest for fucking. The prospect of diminished futures is not a drastic idea for many queer subjects: the memories of the past have left mnemic traces on our bodies (see Butler, 1997). While many (young) queer people do not have the direct lived experience or memories of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as Halperin (1995) has noted, recreational drug use and gym-junky lifestyle cultures within the queer community today operate as vectors of the past (also see Ahmed, 2002, 2004, for her comments on queer pasts and presents). Responsibility loses salience and meaning for subjects who are often only and always constituted as reckless and irresponsible because of their non-normativity. Abandoning longevity and futurity for the here and now creates alternative temporalities (Halberstam, 2005), and such temporalities can be explained through the lens of crip and queer times.