In 1981, a rare and lethal disease started hitting the US. It spread like wildfire among certain communities, without known origin, treatment, or cure.
Two years and nearly 1,300 US deaths later, the route of transmission for the disease became clearer, ruling out casual contact, environmental surfaces, and air. Cases were discovered in other countries across the globe, revealing the disease had reached epidemic proportions. Many first called it the “gay disease” as many msm (men who have sex with men) were the majority of cases, and the already marginalized queer population were demonized even more. Another year passed before a blood test was created to screen for the virus, with the hope for a vaccine within another two years. The vaccine still has yet to materialize.
By the end of the 80s, the US alone saw 58,282 deaths and 400,000 cases worldwide by what became known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), the result of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). It was learned that HIV is transmitted via infected blood, and any activity that risked contact with HIV+ blood — primarily, unprotected penetrative sex, intravenous drug use, blood transfusion — became risky.
During that time, people experienced an extremely heightened awareness of sexual behaviours and their accompanying peril. Intimacy became an elusive and valuable commodity as people attempted to navigate a new and unreliable normal, one that could be fatal. But for many, the need for intimacy was worth the gamble: when death has devastated much of your social circles, you may want to grab on to those remaining as tightly as possible.
Campaigns for learning about safer sex — from grass roots initiatives to large scale governmental programs — became common messaging within homes, community groups, social venues, schools, healthcare facilities, and workplaces. The largest strategy pushed for a prophylactic that hadn’t been touted so profusely since the second World War: the latex condom.
The increased promotion, production, and use of condoms paved a healthier way for populations being ravaged by AIDS, while also becoming a universal symbol for safer sex. Condoms not only include protection against pregnancy, but against a wide range of sexually transmitted infections. A simple, inexpensive sheath of latex helped people return to intimacy, something that had been absent in a time when it was needed the most.
Though condoms help those who desire safer penetrative sex, there are many who desire or require something else to experience pleasure. Intimacy is more than just rolling around naked with someone(s) for some form of sex with a goal toward orgasm. Intimacy’s broader definition encompasses a closeness and trust shared among a select few. Sex can be without intimacy, intimacy without sex, and a hard dick doesn’t have to be anywhere in sight. A soft kiss, a prolonged embrace, or a hand gliding across just the right part can be intensely intimate.
The AIDS Crisis forced many people to navigate intimacy in new ways. For some, there were no changes to personal sexual behaviours. But for others, it meant total abstinence or playing within a harm reduction model. Whether it was a transition to dry humping, fingering, fisting, jerking, toying, fluid bonding, or plain old phone sex, people were doing what they could to experience closeness with their lovers. The lessons learned and behaviours practiced during this time have carried on into this century, with many of these methods taught in comprehensive sex education programs, when and where available. The moral of this story: you can’t stop people from getting off. Nor should you.
Intimacy in 2020
Flash forward 40 years and we’re witnessing an instant replay, though at an even faster speed. A deadly illness is spreading like wildfire across the globe, and in a mere three months, the US death rate has already surpassed that of the entire first decade of the American AIDS Crisis, reaching almost 104,000 people at the time of this writing. A novel coronavirus, now named COVID-19, is ravaging the planet. And while the mortality rate is lower than when the AIDS Crisis first appeared, the infection rate is astronomical.
“…think of masks like lingerie for your face”
So what’s different? This piece could elaborate on a few things, including the political powers that have affected screening and treatment of certain populations (yup, that’s déjà vu you’re feeling). But that would be a grand, infuriating digression in racism, ableism, homophobia, and classism, and there are people much better suited than I am to pay attention to, including Roberta K. Timothy, Nick Duffy, Michelle Lokot and Yeva Avakyan, Ibram X. Kendi, and Andrew Pulrang.
What I will discuss are some very basic comparisons between HIV and COVID-19. While the former is a primarily a sexually transmitted infection, the latter is much more prolific and practicing abstinence isn’t so easy — droplet transmission through mucous membranes means wearing protection a lot more often, not just in bed.
Once more, we’re faced with how to protect ourselves from a fatal disease, and what has arisen are many of the same methods from decades past: do nothing and go about your everyday business as usual, abstain from socializing and never leave the house, or practice harm reduction and cover up the right body parts. The face mask has become the symbol for protection now, much like the condom did back then. (Only now, the symbol is much gender-neutral, and even stylish. I’m a personal fan and think of masks like lingerie for your face. My sewing machine has gotten more action in the last 3 months than I have).
While abstinence during the AIDS Crisis meant you still could hang out with your friends at a bar for hours on end and even hug or kiss them, COVID-19 makes that virtually impossible. Cities have shuttered and we have entered the dystopic phase of so many sci-fi novels: we only communicate through digital means. People’s mental health have taken a massive hit as we wait for lockdowns to lift, governments to offer aid, and employment to resume. Couple that with isolation from loved ones, and the need for intimacy increases as we crave even the most basic of human-to-human contact.
So what do we do? What many have already been doing for decades: we adapt and evolve intimacy to fit our needs. No kissing? No problem — guide your hand up my shirt and along the small of my back, and I’ll be done (many people suck at kissing anyway). Kinksters and those without dicks have long been able to avoid types of fluid exchange since ejaculation isn’t the end goal in many experiences. Wrap yourself or your partner completely in latex, top with a gas mask, and you may hit erotic heights you could never have imagined (just make sure the outfit is cleaned properly before and after each use; latex is great for easy cleanup). Or use teledildonics and coax your partner toward ecstasy from a completely different location. Jerk each other off. Use the art of tease. Practice your sext skills (a long-time favourite of mine, as it gives you time to craft the perfect missive). Or put Zoom to better use (just know your privacy settings). Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…
Intimacy on screen
While getting off in real life may have its own hazards, doing so in front of a camera also has its unique issues. Intimacy isn’t all that intimate when you have groups of people surrounding you, watching your every move, directing you what to do, and weird undergarments taped to your genitals (I’m only going to focus on mainstream fiction, not porn which has, yet again, its own unique hazards). Sex on screen sells, and for years it has been a go-to for plot advancement, character development, or simple titillating filler. Though any penetration isn’t real, close contact is, from breathing on someone’s neck to sucking their tongue.
The pandemic has completely shut down film and television production for months, and there is many a concerned conversation on how to get the industry safely back up. Included in these Zoom calls is the issue of having cast and crew too close together for too long a time. Some may want to slash the red sharpie across all script pages that contain intimate scenes. But it’s not so simple. As I stated above, sex sells. Would there be the same viewership of WestWorld, Game of Thrones, or any Bond film if it weren’t for all the sex? I doubt it (one of my favourite Funny or Die skits is this by Alberto Belli, mocking all the fucking on HBO). When done well, showing intimacy between characters can be incredibly powerful.
As a sexual health educator, counsellor, and Intimacy Coordinator for film and TV, I take intimacy very seriously. It’s an important part of life for most people, and when we don’t have access to it, mental and physical health can be impacted. Being a big proponent of the harm reduction model, it’s my job to help people navigate intimacy safely. I firmly believe we can continue to portray intimacy on screen, but in an adapted and evolved format. A good story teller is able to depict such moments with an artful word, gesture, or camera angle.
New safety protocols for shooting will have reduced shared screen time with actors, and some actors may not even want to return to work at all. Some may work only with known and trusted others, with the possibility of their real-life partners standing in. Regular testing and set cleanliness are top priorities. There will be new and expanded roles for those responsible for set safety. Crew working very closely with cast (ie, Intimacy Coordinators like myself, Hair & Makeup, Wardrobe, Stunts) will have updated kits and be trained in extra safety techniques. Everyone will navigate their personal safety in their own ways, and they should not be shamed or penalized for it if they’re uncomfortable being on set.
For scenes that require it, intimacy will take on new forms, not much different from what I mentioned above for real-life sex. And yes, it will be great to see masks normalized in pandemic-aware stories the way condoms/latex barriers have (slowly) become. Barrier protections can be made sexy… or, at least, practically invisible if written/performed well.
In truth, the new intimacy is much the same as the old: adaptable to our needs and desires, and evolves over time. We can learn from the AIDS Crisis that began 40 years ago, which itself learned from previous experiences of how to intimately yet safely engage with others (whether to protect against pregnancy, an STI, or even the law). From safer sex to safer sets, the practices might be different, but the intention and outcome — a quick inhale, a sly grin, or slick thighs — are the same.