Intimacy in a pandemic

It is now illegal under UK lockdown laws for couples living apart to have sex indoors - so English newspaper headlines this week have highlighted. It’s also illegal to have your Gran round for dinner (unless it’s a barbecue in the garden), or the vicar for a cup of tea in your front room, and you definitely can’t have a few drinks and crash on your best mate’s sofa…. But those don’t make such good headlines, I guess.

As lockdown continues and begins to lift, reports show increasing instances of people ignoring government guidance, which is perhaps why specifics are now subject to law, rather than merely guidance.  

However, people routinely break laws that they don’t feel are important relative to their personal wants or needs, e.g. breaking speed limits, driving in bus lanes, underage drinking, or taking illegal recreational drugs. The penalties for these, as first offences at least, are similar to the penalties for breaking Covid laws – small fines, and no criminal record.

People also break laws that they see as unjust – deliberate acts of defiance against the state, as a means of showing their dissent (their lack of consent) to submit to laws or systems they feel are morally wrong.  We can see this locally and globally, from small libertarian protests against lockdown restrictions, to mass demonstrations against police brutality and white supremacy. 

Much of people’s compliance with Covid rules in the UK seems to be underpinned by shame.  The term “Covidiots” is bandied about on social media as people blame each other for the high death toll, rather than holding the government and its botched messages to account. The use of shame to control people is a coercive tool, easily applied in a culture of entitlement as those in power obfuscate, divide and rule – herd immunity may be their desired result, but the moral outrage at that means that the government has had to appear to take a more humane approach.

Dominic Cummings was defended as having ‘done the right thing’- he broke the rules but he was acting for the good of his family. Still… shame on those who would host a family gathering and expose their elders to harm; shame on the grandparents who’s desperation to hug their grandchildren meant they risked their own lives; and double-shame on those who would break the law to spend a night in bed with their non-resident lover; and don’t talk about casual sex, please, we’re British.

What governs people’s behavior, ultimately, is not the law, but their own personal morals and ethics, and these are reinforced (or not) by society and community, through moral outrage, social media keyboard wars, social compliance or civil disobedience.  

Just as some will be outraged by illegal drug use, others will seek to amend the laws to decriminalize drugs, some will take drugs casually without thought, others will consider the moral conundrums of specific drugs in specific circumstances, drug distribution, sales and criminality, and many won’t think about drugs at all until confronted by them. Sex and drugs and rock n roll, eh? Some people will unashamedly take illegal drugs to release their inhibitions to have sex that is perfectly legal, but wrapped in shame.

None of this happens in a vacuum. The complex curation of social scripts occurs within political systems and power dynamics – so when the news media reports that ‘sex is now illegal’, moral outrage flies in different directions.  Is government interference in intimate, private lives an infringement of basic liberties? Are legal restrictions not going nearly far enough to control the pandemic? It’s possible to agree with BOTH those moral positions, and/or a myriad of potentially ethical positions in between.

As the pandemic continues its course, it’s clear that in the UK (and beyond) we will be living with Covid for quite some time. Lockdowns are lifting, and people are making their choices about what that means for them.  Some will obey the letter of the law, some will flout the rules with no concern for their own or others’ health, and many of us will be trying to make our own risk assessments and ethical judgements about what we can and can’t do safely, for ourselves, for those we’re closest to, and for our wider community.

Covid isn’t the only risk to our health. Human beings have a physiological need for contact and connection with each other, and restricting people to live in isolation for long periods of time is surely not healthy. 

Individual circumstances are hugely varied.  Many people don’t live in the same household as the people they feel they can or most want to connect with.  Sex is one manifestation of that kind of connection. So is hugging, sitting close to another human and talking for hours, cuddling up on the sofa to watch a movie together, sharing a meal together, dancing in close proximity, and many, many other things that are currently not on the list of things it’s legally permissible to do inside a house you don’t live in.  

Extending a household bubble by passing a child from one parent’s home to another and back is allowed (even if one of the households has an elderly resident and the other has a key worker exposed to risk daily.) Extending a bubble between two non-resident lovers so you can stay over at each other’s houses is not allowed (even if neither of them is in close contact with anyone else.)  In terms of risk of spreading the virus, what is legal and what is ethical don’t always seem to match.  

So how do we assess the risks, within the limited information available? When do we decide to break the law? Is quickie sex with a stranger (no kissing) more or less dangerous than having your Gran round for dinner? 

Living with Covid long term, people will have sex. They won’t all be living with the people they have sex with. And just as they need information about STIs and the relative risks of particular sexual behaviours and ways to manage risks, so they will need information about the risks in relation to Covid-19.  Moral panic won’t stop people having sex – it never has and it never will.  

There is an urgent need for frank and open conversations so people can make informed choices.

There is an urgent need for research to back these up.

The fact is people will break the law, and like needing to know the risks of driving 40 in a 30 mph zone (you’re far more likely to kill someone if you hit them), people need to know the risks of various types of intimacy in lockdown. Let’s channel that moral outrage where it’s most useful – hold our leaders to account for informing us and shaping policy about risk to life, instead of shaming people for their informed choices as consenting adults in private.

© JENNY WILSON and LOVEOFFSCRIPT.CO.UK, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to JENNY WILSON and LOVEOFFSCRIPT.CO.UK with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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