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The COVID pandemic raises new questions about how we engage with one another, with sex becoming a sensitive issue once again. How can one address the issue of sex and intimacy during the coronavirus pandemic, when even a public gathering of a small group has the potential to cause an upheaval?
We agree with Rubin that a delicate matter such as sex should be treated with a certain degree of diligence and humbleness. As queer subjects we both found a home in Berlin. Our commonalities made this conversation possible.
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Yet, what makes it interesting are our differences in terms of personal positionings, theoretical approaches and thematic interests. Max has conducted ethnographic fieldwork at an upmarket hairdressing salon in Berlin, asking how bodies are enacted in intimate encounters within care work settings.
In his PhD research, he approaches intimacy as queer affect by investigating how bodies and sexuality are socio-materially transformed through PrEP Pre-Exposure Prophylaxisa new drug that provides an effective protection against acquiring HIV. Drawing on our respective personal and academic backgrounds we explore what queer and feminist thinking in anthropology has to offer for an analysis of the current circumstances.
How do the heteronormative underpinnings of quarantine affect us in our everyday lives but also in our fantasies and desires?
How are sex and physical intimacy moralized, but also creatively reinvented nowadays? And what kind of socialities and imaginations of the future emerge under the present situation? Ursula : This perfectly illustrates how quickly the debate about sexuality has become dichotomized and charged.
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Additionally, the concept of sex as a basic need also serves to justify and legitimize sexual harassment and in famously legalized rape in marriages in Germany until the s, which also highlights the gendered dimensions of this debate. But neither does punishing sex workers in precarious positions for continuing to work during this pandemic.
So instead of asking why sex workers cannot or do not want to stop working, even during a pandemic, and opening up a discussion about the multiple intersections of sexuality, intimacy and economy, this supposed relevance reinscribes the idea of a system in which sexual urges need to be fulfilled at all costs.
Max : It would indeed be short-sighted to conceive of sex per se as natural, especially with regard to the negative consequences for already marginalized groups. Instead of telling people what not to do and feel, in my opinion it is more important to first try to understand why people do not or cannot adhere to the current advice by public health institutions. Ursula : It is also interesting to note how quickly — also in queer communities — ideas about monogamy find their way into current debates, by condemning sex that does not happen within the sanctioned space of coupledom.
Max : Like public events, non-monogamous sex is cancelled until further notice and projected towards a future where things go back to normal. For example, one can find so many memes on gay social media, imagining and dreaming about huge orgies as soon as we are post-crisis. But I think we could even go further than just non-monogamous sex, when we think about the reinforcement of certain normativities in the name of a normal future.
Recent measures and calls to StayAtHome unquestioningly treat the home as a safe space. It is true that home might protect you from the coronavirus, but it is far from being a place of mental and physical integrity for each and every one. And the current increase in domestic violence again shows that home does not automatically constitute safety.
Also, when we speak of domestic violence, people often think about an abusive husband in a heterosexual marriage, but this goes much further. Relationships between parents and children can likewise be problematic and full of conflict, which might escalate quickly in the current situation.
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Among others, I am thinking here about queer kids who are suddenly stuck with parents who are not supportive of their children. More generally, this pandemic challenges common understandings of how and with whom we meet and share space or territory, if one thinks of those stranded at the borders of Europewhat kind of bonds we have with different sets of persons and in what ways the sharing of space does or does not produce safety and mental health.
Ursula : On the other hand, I am also yet again fascinated by how quickly we can adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Which again might not be new at all to some people, for example immunocompromised people who are told to practice physical distancing with or without coronavirus Soncco Further, restrictions of public gatherings already were and now even more so are a reality under different political regimes. Which serves as a reminder that despite the necessity of critical engagement with current containment measures in Germany we have to equally critically reflect our understandings of limitations and restrictions.
This is the reason why we do not hear about it as it puts the people involved in more danger than we currently face for not following corona guidelines, but people have found a way to do it pun intended. In that sense, this projection of the fulfilment of sexual desires into a post-corona future avoids the question of how to engage safely with each other during this crisis, limiting options to flourish now. To wait is to eliminate the hap by accepting the inheritance of its elimination.
You make happen. Or you create the ground on which things can happen in alternative ways. I also read a post online where a guy fantasized about being fucked doggy-style, while his anonymous sex partner is wearing a face mask. Ursula : Exactly, this challenges certain normative understandings of connections between sexuality and intimacy.
Suddenly practices like shaking hands, touching or kissing, which are associated with intimacy, became dangerous and a potential source of infection, and an anonymous quickie in certain positions or some BDSM practices that do not require physical touch hold less of a risk of infection — although I want to add that I am not a medical doctor or virologist, so this is pure speculation.
Max : Maybe we will become kinkier in times of corona… I think your example also brings us to a less romanticized, less vanilla definition of intimacy, if intimacy is not presented as the opposite to kink. Instead, I would propose a definition that approaches intimacy as a way of relating care-fully, that is with care for the other actors involved.
This is also a question that came up in my initial research about PrEP, where condom-less sex is often assumed to be more intimate. Yet, one could also ask if the use of a condom can also present an act of care for the other person and for oneself. Could, subsequently, a condom — even though it creates a physical barrier between two bodies — become an object of intimacy by increasing the state of affection, because it materializes safer sex in that moment as a more care-ful engagement?
And I think this question of what constitutes intimacy also comes up, as we now talk about sex between partners who are separated not just by a thin layer of latex, but by a distance of kilometers or by a computer screen. Yet, when I open a dating app and read some moralizing statements about how important it is for all of us to stay home it also makes me angry.
The same goes for well-intentioned advice on how to practice virtual or telephone sex during the pandemic. And I know very well that there are more pressing issues than forced abstinence for a couple of weeks or months. Ursula : Yes, this crisis draws attention to the fact that intimacy does not necessarily rely on the physical contact between two or more bodies. Yet, I am concerned about what effects this might have for a life beyond the crisis.
We are currently drilled to avoid physical contact, which — as you mentioned — has already turned into moral shaming of some sexual practices that often were not fully accepted by everyone to begin with, like open relationships or anonymous hook-ups. So I am wondering what that might mean for sexual emancipation, as we have seen the rise of conservatism already before the coronavirus lockdown, and now the pandemic has provided an even better excuse to condemn or ban certain practices.
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And on a more practical level, what will happen to those who just started to explore their sexuality and what physical intimacy can mean for them? I can only imagine that this must be even harder than usual right now.
Ursula : That being said, finding ways to practice intimacy in isolation is not entirely new to many who see themselves as part of the queer community. Therefore, these communities are also a space to look for ways of resistance and resilience in a world in ruins Tsing For example, since the pandemic started to take hold in Berlin, various ad-hoc initiatives and networks by and for queers were among the first to provide organized support systems for marginalized people who could not access governmental aid.
Is this truly an extraordinary moment or a continuation of already established practices? The question of ruptures and continuities also opens up the space for imaginations of the future: Will these initiatives disappear as soon as this pandemic comes to an end or will they leave something more lasting behind? This captures what is at stake in many of the support networks that we see popping up in the city: By generating proximities between people they work outside, and sometimes even against, given normative structures.
In this way, they let past events and experiences of marginality and exclusion as well as hope for and imaginations of the future bear on the present situation. Ursula : However, not everything that works outside given structures is necessarily against them. Take neoliberalism and the individualization of care, which are built on the idea that individuals can and will organize by themselves as welfare systems are cut down and privatized.
The pandemic made the fatal consequences of these policies undeniably clear. Nevertheless, the community efforts to fill in for the lack of universally accessible welfare and health care systems might also be interpreted as a of the neoliberal system working — and situations like the hoarding of certain products or theft of hospital disinfectant and subsequent shortages remind us that we need to learn to think beyond the interests of particular individuals or groups.
Max : Your point about the mechanisms of neoliberalism ties in with two concerns I have about the many calls to solidarity nowadays: its objects and subjects. These invocations of solidarity make me feel uncomfortable, because the object of the demanded solidarity is obscure. In other words, who are we now able for? Is it the elderly? German society? And subsequently one also has to ask who these constructed units exclude.
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That is: who are the non-objects of solidarity? In this shared understanding of solidarity, it has become even harder to voice an anti-normative position and question some of the underlying assumptions of self-sacrifice for the greater good. At the center of this debate is the question whether queer sexuality constitutes one if not the basis for social solidification and relationality or a negative force that has the potential to question and disrupt the fiction of sociality Wiegman The point I want to make is that it is not equally easy for everybody to act responsibly according to the official measures.
I would like to suggest that this idea of the responsible and solidary subject can be very violent to those people who cannot easily StayTheFAtHome or stay at home to f, in this matter. One could polemically ask if this failure to comply with the official regulations performs a politics of negativity of sorts which questions the object of currently proclaimed solidarity, namely the wellbeing of society and the nation with all the class and racial inequalities it is built on Halberstam—8.
Ursula : This brings me to the connections between queer practices and anarchism Daring et al. It is important to question notions of solidarity that urge people to sacrifice themselves for a society that otherwise rejects them. My critical remark here is informed by certain discourses on sex work that regard everything and anything related to it as violent, making it very hard to differentiate between different forms of violence. Rather than simply calling the current discourses about responsibility and solidarity violent, I would ask what does or can make them violent?
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Questions about what constitutes the morally good as well as who gets to ask and answer them are situated in a given time and place, as anthropologists have pointed out for decades. It has never been more evident than now that the truth about the virus or certain measures of today might yet be dated tomorrow. This conversation as well as several revisions of it took place in Berlin via video and telephone calls over more or less four weeks in March and April of It started at around the time, when German chancellor Angela Merkel announced the first decrees to contain the pandemic, and was submitted, when discussions about loosening these measures were already widely discussed.
How can one level criticism against the normative underpinnings of the home, the family or the future itself?
But also, how can one exist — and even thrive — alongside repressive structures? Sex becomes a controversial topic in times of crisis, as Rubin reminds us. Nevertheless, thinking sex in times of corona not only asks for the topicality of sex right now, but also to envision alternative practices and futures.
While the world as we know it seems to go to ruins, intimate encounters form an inventory to capture and make sense of the pandemic. As part of the program in Social Sciences, he conducted ethnographic fieldwork about bodies in styling practices at an upmarket hairdressing salon in Berlin see www. Sinceshe is a board member of the Association for Sex Work and Prostitution Research, an interdisciplinary network of sex work researchers predominantly based in the German speaking area www.
Twitter: probursula. Ahmed, S. McCallum and M.