Sex-shaming and sexual physical distancing in the COVID-19 era

We need to talk about sex.

Yes, sex. And we need to do it now in the context of all this physical distancing.

Recently, hook-up/dating apps all over (e.g., Grindr, Hinge, Tinder) have been using PSA banners and announcements that encourage people to stay home (and alternatively use sexting or camming). I do not mind this. What I do mind, though, are users who are engaging in the latest obnoxious digital trend: sanctimonious sex-shaming on hook-up/dating apps for anyone who importunes them, and intimating that those who seek sexual relief in a cooperative way in person are necessarily being cavalier and “socially irresponsible.”

OK, here we go.

Sex is putatively seen as a biological need among animals and humans (with rare exceptions). But more importantly, it is crucial that we recognize a point of simple truth: Not everyone is able to relieve themselves sexually in a solitary fashion. Whether it is that their biological “equipment” impedes them from doing so, their sexuality/sexual orientation prescribes cooperative, consensual sexual activity with others in person as paramount to their mental health, or to avoid a false dichotomy, something else entirely that we do not fully understand and cannot fully appreciate because we do not see or experience the world through others’ bodies. Not being able to have sexual intercourse or sexual, physical contact with others for a protracted duration can be incredibly debilitating for people to the point of being crippling to their psychological health. And we need to acknowledge and be mindful of this incontrovertible reality others experience.

Perhaps you are able to be sufficiently mentally well without engaging with others sexually in person for a long time. But what is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. So please refrain from officiously obtruding your ideas of what is considered “essential” or how to appropriately attain proper sexual health onto others so that they comport to your subjective value-based calculus for quantifying risk to then judge what is considered “socially (ir)responsible” behavior.

Similarly, if someone who has particular eating habits that put them at an elevated risk for COVID exposure (e.g., wants to eat fresh fruits/salads or freshly-prepared soups every day, wants to get specific take-out every day but save money on delivery fees, or has a small fridge that cannot accommodate much, etc.), can we shame or guilt them into stocking up on and eating non-perishable canned food, preparing home-cooked meals instead of going out, or buying a larger refrigerator all so that they can minimize their exposure risk? Are they being socially irresponsible and cavalier if they refuse these recommendations?

Notably, I have encountered pushback on the idea of framing sex as a “need” with some of its proponents fearing that such a characterization can be repurposed and even weaponized as a way for individuals (e.g., those of the “incel” [involuntarily celibate] community, abusive partners, etc.) to both coerce others into sex when it is not desired or to feel entitled to have sex, thus de facto perpetuating misogyny (e.g. “women won’t have sex with me, but I need sex; therefore women are evil for withholding my needs from me”). While I can certainly understand and sympathize with this sentiment, whether we label it as a “need” or not may or may not have influence on eradicating a problematic culture surrounding sexual coercion. Also, it may be interpreted as just a matter of semantics, and under some jurisdictions, pedantic even, given the possibility that even if we were to characterize sex differently, there is still a chance that those who hold deeply-rooted misogynistic and self-entitled attitudes will still pull all the stops to repurpose and weaponize their existing lexical repertoire to make the concept of sex coincide with their pre-existing sexual attitudes.

Furthermore, some have taken it a step further by drawing bold distinctions between a physiological need for sex versus a physiological need for food or water, the latter of which leads to fatality much more quickly during a state of absolute privation. In spite of this, I still regard sex as a primitive biological function and, therefore, its execution a necessary but potentially insufficient (e.g., if not done in a cooperative, in-person way, for example) component of human life (again, with rare exception). However, it makes sense that it occupies different meanings and plays different roles in peoples’ lives, from being a largely unnecessarily repulsive burden, to something that could confer desired excitement into one’s life, to something that is just as invaluable and indispensable as sustenance and hydration.

Additionally, some have stated that people may unintentionally conflate a need for physical touch as a need for sex. While it is certainly understandable that one may confuse these two during a time of such prolonged physical and social isolation, I have heard experiences from my chosen family where living with people who provide them with tactile stimulation and comforting embraces still spawns an impossibly un-scratchable itch that, for them, necessitates sex for resolution.

Moreover, I have also encountered the suggestion that those who see sex as a need may have some underlying maladaptive psychiatric pathology (e.g., sex addiction) or dysfunctional psychological obstacle (e.g., depression) and that the perception of sex as a need is simply a bandage, a self-medicating tactic, or even a diversion that precludes them from addressing salient underlying mental health conditions that if resolved, may cause them to see sex as less critical to their well-being. I can totally empathize with this perspective. Conversely, I cannot help but feel concern though about how a broad conceptualization of this idea could lead to an unintended perception of overwhelming desires for sexual intercourse as being ineluctably linked to some mental pathology, or even the perpetuation of a harmful sexual culture that does not promote sex positivity or may even stigmatize sex itself.

Certainly, we should minimize physical contact with others as much as possible and take maximum precaution during this inimitable time. But let us not dictate to or define for others how to carry out their critical sexual biological needs. It is a calculated risk that is at the discretion of the individual.

Let’s start a new trend instead on these apps that I call “sexual empathy”: compassion and consideration for those who manifest their sexual health differently.

Jay Wong is a medical student. He received his undergraduate degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from Yale University. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Jay Wong, and on Twitter @JayWongMedicine.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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