The pandemic has affected our sex lives in many unusual ways, but perhaps none more unusual than this development: The coronavirus has highlighted the possible public-health benefits of glory holes. Sexual positions that make use of walls as physical barriers have long been considered niche. But when the New York City Department of Health recommended them last month as part of a push for safer sex, it tapped into a question that many of us have been asking: How do you seek sexual satisfaction during a global health crisis?
I haven’t had sex in more than a year, mostly because I took COVID-19 very seriously. I disconnected from the public sphere. No one visited my apartment. I disinfected my groceries and covered my apartment’s air vents with trash bags. As a queer person, I could barely register the idea of sex while living alongside a deadly virus that nobody really understood. One study published early in the pandemic showed that 43.5 percent of people reported a decrease in the quality of their sex life. Among study participants, they had fewer sexual encounters with other people, and even masturbated less often.
But queer and trans people have a rich history of pursuing pleasure, especially during dark times when that very pursuit is dangerous, even illegal. This drive stems from the fact that many queer and trans people—especially those of color—live under a kind of sociocultural duress in which our livelihoods and human rights are constantly subject to negotiation and popular debate, to say nothing of our physical safety. In spite of this reality, queer and trans people have innovated not by waiting for the future to “get better,” but by prioritizing the urgency of feeling pleasure right here, right now. So I knew that some of us would create novel pathways around the pandemic’s roadblocks to sex. I also knew that as the world reopened and Grindr profiles got fired up again, queer innovators would bring the kinks learned during quarantine into their post-vaccine encounters with other people.
In a time when touch has been so limited, some people have been moving toward a future full of bold new pleasures. Alex Jenny, a therapist based in Chicago, told me she joined a nude-sharing group chat, started an OnlyFans page, and began having sex online. In Virginia, where I live, one friend sauntered over to a lover’s doorstep one night wearing a mask and nitrile gloves, picked up a Speedo sealed in a ziplock bag, went home to do a photoshoot in the swimwear, and sent his beau the photos and videos. Many people are reimagining their own boundaries, thinking of this period of virtual intimacies, of distance and little physical contact, not as a lack but instead as a sort of edge play through sexual self-discovery.
For Julian Kevon Glover, an assistant professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who’s writing a book about the nuances of nonmonogamy, that meant attending an online sex party with her primary partner. “[My partner and I] played on camera with a group of like-minded folk and it was much hotter than I ever expected,” she told me. “I’ve learned that queer people are and will always remain quite as horny, and we are inventive.”
Though the pandemic necessitated screen-based intimacy for some, queer people have always used the internet as a place to navigate their sexuality. During the late 1990s and into the early aughts, I spent more time than I care to admit navigating chat rooms on gay.com and Manhunt, where I pointed and clicked my way to some of my first sexual experiences. But I wasn’t looking only for sex. Growing up as a Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, during the era of frosted blond tips, white-seashell necklaces, and Abercrombie & Fitch, I was hoping to connect with anyone who could help me not feel so alone. The researcher David F. Shaw talked about this form of online intimacy, or “computer-mediated communication,” as the “uncharted territories of cyberspace where men sit alone at their keyboards producing and inscribing themselves within interactive texts of homosexual desire and need.” Historically, gay online forums have been so widespread that a 1994 Wired top-10 list noted that of the most popular chat rooms created on AOL, three were for gay men, one was for lesbians, and one was for swingers.
Part of the reason queer sex thrives online is because of the internet’s covert nature. Prior to the web’s easy anonymity, queer people had to seek sly ways to court sex in front of other people without being detected. The hanky code of the ’70s and ’80s, an elaborate system of discreet communication wherein people put different colored hankerchiefs in their right or left pockets to indicate sexual interests, allowed queer people to speak about kink in plain sight without words. Craigslist, which most people know as a place to find an apartment or a piece of furniture, was for many queer people a vibrant place to find sex before the Fight Online Sex Trafficking and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Acts of 2018. The list of ways to hook up goes on: sultry personal ads in the back pages of gay publications such as XY and Têtu, dating sites such as Grindr, and now, the Zoom sex parties of the coronavirus era.
These arenas have facilitated cultural practices that the anthropologist Shaka McGlotten calls “virtual intimacies,” or feelings of connection mediated by communication technology. I was amazed by how swiftly queer nightlife and sex worlds moved to Zoom, but Aurora Higgs, a queer Ph.D. student, artist, and performer from Richmond, Virginia, says that the required shift to online events ended up feeling more liberating than in-person shows. In Virginia, liquor laws limit activity in mixed-beverage establishments, including how much skin dancers can show, which clothing items can be removed, and how dancers can remove them. But the brilliant thing about online burlesque, Higgs told me, was that there was no bar. “We were able to do stuff we weren’t able to do before, things like nudity,” she said. “It was interesting to see how people were utilizing their own spaces at home to dip us further into the fantasy.”
Higgs told me that she plans to start a website where she can do cam work and online kink photography. “As a Black trans woman, I sometimes feel like everyone has access to my sexuality but me. I’m expected to be passively content at the end of a violent gaze, with little opportunity to turn my gaze on to others or on myself,” she said. With camming and virtual shows, “the gaze that normally violates me is temporarily being used at my discretion.”
Even though sex can now take place in real life again for some, many queer and trans people—who have long dealt with the reality of HIV/AIDS—must navigate transparency about sexual health with the added complication of COVID-19. Trust is the currency that will shape how queer and trans people approach hooking up in a post-vaccine summer, Ayo Dawkins, an artist from Virginia, told me. “Not that I trusted everyone I was with pre-pandemic,” they said. “But I knew sex wouldn’t kill you. You have condoms to protect you from STDs and STIs, and you have Truvada (PrEP) to protect you from HIV, but nothing could protect you from COVID aerosols.” Today, with new questions to ask about sexual-health statuses, some queer people may favor a more curated approach to sex that relies heavily on closed sexual networks.
In many ways, the past year and a half of sexual distancing, online intimacy, and exploration of pleasures has been a rehearsal for a yet-to-be-imagined queer sexual ecosystem. One of my favorite passages from the book Cruising Utopia, by the theorist José Muñoz, reads: “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer … Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present,” which is to say that queerness might be the longing for a better world to come. I always say that creativity and innovation stem from the margins, from those who are resisting the kind of flattened human experience that comes from being denied access. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s how to foreground the importance of feeling as a means of survival.