One night last month, sitting alone in my chilly apartment and reading terrifying articles about COVID-19, I heard the soft ping of a Facebook message. It was an acquaintance I’d played with, on and off, at kink events in the early aughts. We hadn’t been directly in touch in years. We did some general catching up—“How’s your apocalypse going?”—and after about 40 minutes she asked, “Would you like to see some tasteful nudes?”
Would I? You fucking bet I would.
I admired her pics; we reminisced. By the time we wished each other goodnight I had a smile on my face and was feeling a lot warmer.
Would that ever have happened if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic? Maybe, but maybe not. There’s something about reflecting on illness and mortality and feeling a heightened awareness of our distance from one another, that perhaps makes it more likely folks will reach out when the mood strikes these days. And the internet stands at the ready, promising that in just a few clicks, we can bring someone close. In a distant sort of way.
The night after the nudes, I was invited to join a kinky storytelling Zoom meeting; the night after that, an online play party. Someone sent me a pic of a dominatrix in a latex hood: “Great for helping you not touch your face! LOL!”
My Instagram feed started to fill up with sex workers sharing tips about how to do cam work. On Twitter, friends started a femme-for-femme nude-sharing group. A friend who works with a sex shop sent me a bewildered text about soaring online sales.
Mar. 11 wasn’t just the date the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. It was also the day that sex began to change.
In short: All of a sudden, we’re using technology we already had in order to connect with each other sexually at a much higher volume, because, in many cases, it’s all we’ve got. Online sex is nothing new, but under current conditions—mandatory social distancing, isolation, travel bans, border closures—if you don’t already live with the person you’re snogging, your options are slim. So people have been taking to the internet at an unprecedented rate.
Let’s go back to my Zoom
“Anything that’s talking about non-COVID-related things is fantastic for mental health,” says Laroc, a Montreal-based organizer of the long-running series of kinky queer play parties Against the Wall. Laroc put together the storytelling Zoom I mentioned, which they describe as being kind of like a kitchen party—informal rather than prepared, friendly rather than focused.
“I think there’s something in the way queers find comfort in our shared sexuality. And we get turned on by our old stories. We don’t often get to recap after a scene, instead we plan another one,” Laroc says.
In a typical play party setting—whether it’s kink scenes or sex, or some of both—people often try to cram in many experiences over the course of a single night, taking advantage of the available equipment or hooking up with people they might not see again soon. “But now we have the space and time to make our memories come alive,” Laroc says. “And we can get ideas for when we get out!”
Some people aren’t waiting until they get out. David Findlay, a writer, visual artist and musician who splits his time between Ontario and California, describes a Zoom-based scene he orchestrated with several of his long-distance lovers. The action was focused on one hungry bottom. “The subject would self-administer the delights and tortures they were instructed to by everybody,” he explains, “with the occasional assistance of the fantastic live-in partner who was cleaning the sex toys or preparing the Jell-O.”
Findlay marvels at the experience. “Being bathed in all the goodies of these people, who live in different corners of the continent and share only that they’re brilliant, queer and raunchy, and all dating this one same weirdo and have a taste for this,” he says. “And happened to be available at 8:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night, Pacific Standard Time.”
Sadly, all this Zoom action might be short-lived according to Adam Davies, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph and a PhD candidate in education and sexual diversity studies at the University of Toronto. His research on gay men’s intimacies and masculinity studies has largely focused on hook-up apps.
Zoom reportedly said it may start enforcing its terms of service, which ban depictions of sex on the site. Even Grindr put out a stay-at-home message, which read, in part, “‘Right now’ can wait—make plans to meet up in the future instead.”
“On a psychosocial level, a lot of people are used to being able to access sex fairly easily,” Davies says. And the threat that they might be censored on online platforms, “is like saying what they’re doing is wrong or filthy.” Davies points out the long history of state control of queer men’s sexuality, and the legacy of blame and marginalization surrounding HIV. He says, “there are fears that queer men will be targeted again as a deviant population.” For instance, despite the growing current demand for blood and plasma products, in many jurisdictions gay men are still probited from donating blood.
Some public health messages about social isolation protocol reveal a default assumption that all couples are monogamous, and that everyone lives with their sexual partners. This doesn’t address the needs or well-being of people who are single or polyamorous, nor does it provide them with useful sexual health information.
For instance, Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s director of public health, suggested in a recent press conference that “monogamy is preferable at this time.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio banned Uber and Lyft carpooling, stating that only couples—specifically “real couples”—and family members could share a vehicle. And in France, strict lockdown rules forcing people to stay at home apart for work and caring for relatives mean that non-monogamous people can’t spend time with their non-domestic partners.
Davies agrees with the need for social distancing, but he says this information and messaging is not helpful for many queers. “As queers we often have sex with our friends, and we don’t necessarily live with our partners, or you live with only one of your many partners,” Davies says. “The ways our relationships are defined are so different from heteronormative monogamous coupledom.”
After all, he says, “queer men’s communities, historically speaking, have evolved through practices of cruising and anonymous sex, so for a lot of queer men, that’s a huge component of their identity and everyday lives.”
Nevertheless, Davies notes that because of contact restrictions, he’s seeing a “more relational hookup culture” emerge—and that it might not be a bad thing.
“From what I’m hearing there’s more of an investment taking place,” he says of the way people are using hookup apps. “And I’m seeing people use great harm reduction strategies. So, for instance, if you are going to go hook up, and it’s something you really need, choose one buddy or sex partner who’s not been interacting with others.”
A lot of people, he says, are “rethinking their sex practices in the sense of: How can I get off while respecting social distancing rules? How can I access the things I need for my well being sexually but also don’t spread the virus?”
Give me a buzz sometime
One way to balance sexual interaction with social distancing is by using sex toys in combination with the internet. Jack Lamon, worker-owner of the web-based cooperative sex shop Come As You Are, now located in Prince Edward County, squeezes in a conversation with me while he’s hurrying to fill orders. “It’s like Christmas. We’re at capacity,” he says.
He confirms that vibrators are as popular as always. But also, he says, “I can tell from orders that queer people are buying a lot more sex toys to use as couples, self-isolated or quarantined together.” Items such as harnesses and dildos in the colours of the trans, gay and lesbian pride flags are selling well right now.
While internet-enabled sex toys have been very popular for years, Lamon has seen an uptick in interest since the pandemic started. According to Lamon, the company WeVibe is the gold standard in the field, having held a teledildonics patent for years. They’ve produced vibrating butt plugs, cock rings, “wearable” vaginally inserted toys and rabbit-style external stimulation toys, all of which can be controlled by a partner anywhere in the world using a downloadable app with a user-controlled permissions system. WeVibe’s patent recently expired, so new toys based on the same principle are entering the market as well, such as the LELO penis sleeve.
Lamon speculates that we may see an explosion of new device designs during the current pandemic.
“I know, anecdotally, that people are using FaceTime, engaging on the internet and seeing each other while controlling a device that’s affecting the other,” he says. He has also heard of people watching porn together, and using FaceTime to watch each other watch porn. (How meta!) And he’s seeing an increase in orders with delayed shipping requests so people can use the item as a reward for accomplishing things, such as exercise—perhaps needing some sexy motivation to develop a healthy routine under the current circumstances.
Apparently the pandemic is making people kinkier, too. “The amount of BDSM gear we’re selling, kink stuff, electroplay—it’s through the roof,” Lamon says. “And it’s disproportionate to the increase in orders; if we’re triple the usual, BDSM is four times more.” He also mentions a sudden spike in sales of chastity devices for people of all genders, speculating that “it could be a way of dealing with distance.”
Books are also hot sellers, queer and otherwise: “We cannot keep The Queer and Transgender Resilience Workbook in stock!” he says. And Lamon’s biggest seller right now is—wait for it—Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel.
Originally published in 2006, Perel’s book explores the complexities of sustaining sexual desire in a domestic setting. It’s about long-term relationships in general, not pandemic isolation in particular, but it’s probably the closest thing to a guidebook we’ve got right now.
Hot sex and warm cookies?
While some people are single or separated from their sex partners (due to distance, quarantine, self-isolation rules or essential worker obligations), others are now managing constant togetherness. But for sex workers, the pandemic comes with another set of challenges: A professional one.
“To put it bluntly,” says Toronto-based sex worker Jeremy Feist, “being a sex worker is sort of contingent on physical contact.”
And while Feist had a presence on the Just For.Fans platform before the pandemic began, he says even selling videos is not a simple solution because “the kind of content that moves the best is sex. You can absolutely do a lot with solo content, but a hand and some Gun Oil can only take you so far.”
Faced with this problem, Feist has been forced to get creative. He’s made compilations of previous videos, for example. “But I’m also doing tutorials on stuff like baking, safer fetish play, clothing design and crafting, stuff like that. It’s not just about making stuff people can jack off to, it’s also about giving people stuff they can do at home to stave off boredom. Specifically stuff they can do without pants.”
One of his recent “Naked Baking” videos, for instance, is captioned, “Watch me make chocolate chip and Mini Egg cookies while REEEEEALLY leaning into the male gaze.”
While Feist feared that making changes to his content stream might turn off his support base, he feels it’s important to create new work to keep up with the new reality. “In nature, the animals that survive aren’t the biggest or most powerful, they’re the ones who are capable of adapting. If you can’t fuck? Look at YouTube. Look at your fellow creators. Figure out what people are watching, how and why they’re watching it, and then take it and apply the aesthetic of sexy naked fun times to it.”
It seems to be working: He says he’s seen an increase in the number of subscribers to his page. And beyond the numbers, Feist says, he’s really feeling people’s appreciation. “It would have been great if people could have respected the work of artists, entertainers and sex workers without the entire collapse of civilization. But at this point, the world is a burning horror show and I’ll take the wins wherever I can get them.”
In these scary times, erotic connection, even at a distance, can bring us comfort, care and a sense of community, as it has throughout history. Sexual creativity under constraint has always been a queer superpower—and not all heroes wear clothes.