WHEN THE coronavirus made the world stop in ways far less fun than whenever Beyoncé does it, a bunch of single people had the same question: Should I have sex or nah?
For me, the answer was a swift “Hell no.” Not that I’m not horny or don’t enjoy sex. Sex is amazing, even if I admittedly used to be a bit flaky about it in a former life. But when you’re told a once-in-a-century crisis is happening and, just your luck, you happen to be stuck in New York City, the then-global epicenter of the crisis, it’s easier to tame your urges. I appreciated the initial offers of sex in the earliest moments of the pandemic, but I declined based on my understanding of the fragility of life. What can I say? Death makes me flaccid.
March and April passed, and with them the harsh realities of the pandemic became clearer. For months, all I heard were sirens, which I knew to signal death. All over the city, there were Black men dying. Men like me.
Then there was all that stupidity about the virus coming out the mouths of President Trump and his sycophants. And the pressures to perform in my work—promoting a new book as people you know are suffering, if not dying—were distracting but not comforting. It didn’t help that by early summer, we could conclude that the virus was going to be a major issue in the United States for a lot longer than it needed to be, which meant more pain and suffering—notably for Black and brown people. The folks I’ve lived around most of my life and, yeah, have had sex with.
Though I never lost sight of the dangers, I was cracking. I happen to be a goofball who can self-entertain, but who doesn’t want to be touched? Who doesn’t want to touch? I began to wonder: Where is the love, or at least the form of it that could provide a much-needed boost in these dark times?
I wanted an escape. Weed helped. So did going on a walk or a run or lifting weights. But they weren’t sex. Yes, I’m familiar with masturbation, the safest way to get down during the pandemic, according to experts. (“The lowest-risk sexual activity during COVID-19 involves yourself alone,” Canada’s chief public-health officer said in a statement.) But in spite of being a supporter of the art, you get sick of yourself no matter how dope you think you are, you know?
It was difficult for single people like me to find trustworthy advice on safe sex during the pandemic, but I did eventually find some from the Dutch government’s National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (or RIVM, as the agency is known, the initials of its name in Dutch).
First, it validated us single people, noting: “It makes sense that as a single [person] you also want to have physical contact” during the pandemic. Then the RIVM and its partner sites told us to avoid sex if one person suspects they have the coronavirus, but if we happened to want to have sex, we ought to “only be intimate with one person you already know, and trust that this person will adhere to the corona rules.” If all else failed, they encouraged masturbation and “erotic stories.”
The advice reminded me of being in the early 2000s, when I was a horny but closeted teenager who turned to AOL and Yahoo! Messenger to get off with people virtually when I couldn’t physically. That didn’t feel very fun, so I started to entertain the idea of taking another calculated risk, like getting a fade in mask.
Thankfully, the city of New York released its own sex guidance a month later, which educated me on just how big a risk I’d be taking if I hooked up with someone. Much of the subtext to me was: “Ho, don’t do it.” (If you’re confused, I’m one of the hos, and yes, I mean it in a sex-positive way.)
This was a sex document not really recommending a lot of sex. For example, the virus was said to have been found in the semen and feces of those with COVID-19, so that strikes out oral. It also asked that we inquire with potential hookups if they have had symptoms within the past 14 days and whether they’ve been tested. Do I need to explain to any American how difficult it is to get access to a reliable test, much less results, in an appropriate amount of time? Besides, it’s hard to trust a random when I can’t even trust the federal government.
It also mentioned that if you usually meet your sex partners online, perhaps you should have a “sexy Zoom party” instead. There’s nothing sexy about Zoom, y’all, but I applaud the salute to exhibitionism.
The problem with all of this solid advice is that I’ve had to apply it to a public that, collectively, has been mirroring the current administration’s treatment of the virus. I haven’t personally found anyone who has taken the virus as seriously as I have. I’ve skipped vacations and most public outings and kept away from crowds. Whenever I’ve tried to mention the risks before any potential hookup, I’ve been treated like I’m the paranoid one. I’ve heard more than once that I appear fairly healthy—as if that’s stopped other people from dropping dead.
So here we are. I have been alone this entire time.
I have my selfish needs like everyone else, but what I have tried to remind myself through every single day of this hell is that some things are more important than individual urges and desires. That our urges and desires are valid but do not take precedence over the community. Over other people’s lives.
As a queer Black man who’s watched so many other queer Black men I’ve known and loved die from HIV/AIDS, I’ve just never felt right engaging in an act that could potentially spread yet another disease disproportionately impacting us. I may be only in my 30s, but I have lived long enough to know invincibility is a figment of one’s imagination. The year has largely come and gone and my crotch continues to feel like it sits on an iceberg.
But I am alive, I am healthy, and I am here. I’m even hopeful, although it hasn’t been lost on me that once again, all I hear are sirens blaring outside.
The lack of intimacy has been a lot harder for me than I imagined it would be, but I’m still holding out hope that eventually I’ll find someone as “paranoid” as I am to comfort me in that way. Someone who understands that 300,000 Americans are expected to die by year’s end and that we must all do as best we can not to become one of them, or worse, be the cause of one or more of those deaths. And that I’m not crazy for recognizing that there is more to life than a nut.
Until then, I suppose I’ll have to keep entertaining myself all around.
This story appears in the December 2020 issue of Men’s Health.
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