Reflections on Sex during COVID-19, HIV+ Perspectives

Sex can be a difficult topic to discuss at the best of times, given it speaks to highly personal and intimate feelings we have about ourselves and others. But in COVID, with uncertainty about risk factors for transmission of the virus, it is extremely hard to get most people to open up about the issues it raises. Here some thoughtful HIV-positive people — some in lockdown states, some not — have put their perspectives down to help us to get our head around what having sex (or choosing not to) involves at the moment.

Sarah

Sex is not on the top of the list of priorities for a lot of the positive people I talk to, particularly women with families. Their concerns are mainly around material things like getting enough for their family to eat, homeschooling, and money.

This is especially hard for those that are not eligible for government assistance. Mind you, for many HIV-positive women who are single, the whole dating scene can be fraught anyway. The average heterosexual male is living in an era twenty years ago when it comes to understanding the risks of having sex in a time of Undetectable=Untransmissible. They just don’t get it, and the absence of education campaigns to the broader community hasn’t helped allay those fears.

Positive gay friends of mine find it easier to get HIV-negative partners, particularly in the world of PrEP and a greater understanding of U=U in the gay community, but even they are a little wary of what to do during COVID-19. If you are prepared to have sex in the first place, most of us realise the wisdom of limiting your number of partners and that some degree of negotiation around sex is a good idea before you start. I also understand that some HIV+ people living with co-morbidities feel the risk of contracting the virus is too great to have sex at all at the moment.

Showering beforehand and using hand sanitiser and condoms are some basic prevention methods. Developing a trusting sexual arrangement with one or two others, even testing for COVID if you think it helps, could help you to feel more relaxed about having sex during this difficult time.

David

Some might say that, at 67, I’m past my “sexual prime”. And there’d be some truth to that for me even though I have loads of friends my age and older who are having an excellent time, sexually, thank you very much. We all know there are sexual aids that can help performance in remarkable ways and if the urge is there, there is usually a way to reach the desired outcome. For me though, in the midst of a Melbourne lockdown with no visitors allowed, I found my declining interest in hook-up apps and most forms of online eroticism (apart from some sexy movie leads) fitted in with the more celibate times.

“What I am missing though is intimacy. No hugging or touching, no human contact. We humans have craved that since birth, and it is quite unnatural to have that suddenly taken away.”

A social chat on the phone, over Zoom or even in a physically-distanced space on a park bench can help a lot but some of us homo sapiens think a hug or a peck on the cheek is a natural part of everyday interaction.
Miraculously, I have a boyfriend but he’s locked away in an Asian country because of his country’s and our border closures, even though he is COVID-negative like me. Cuddles and emotional support over Skype aren’t quite the same. As for a number of my friends, relationships (and sex) are on hold because of this blasted virus.

Those of us who have finally managed to get a partner who is not fussed about our status and is willing to have sex with us but not able to live with us, well, we can be just a bit cheesed off with the current state of affairs. But if we’ve survived this long with HIV, we can knock this one on the head too … I hope.

Richard Keane

For most of my adult life, I’ve had others telling me how to have sex and with whom and under what circumstances. Sometimes this was done with little compassion and under a framework of potential criminalisation. Coming from a harm reduction perspective, I chose for many years to sero-sort and only have sex with other positive guys.

With the bio-medical revolution of U=U and PrEP, I felt I could finally let go of the weight of being seen as a vector of transmission and finally attain the healthy sexual life that I so richly deserved. Now this? I was triggered and my initial reaction was emotional and quite visceral.

I had to gather myself and remember that we are all in this together and that behaviour must be adapted to deal with the impacts of our second pandemic. There is no escaping the fact that individual behaviour can have unintended impacts on others. Even so, we must remain a community that supports each other rather than tearing each other apart.

Up until stage 4 here in Victoria, apps like Squirt were showing a huge amount of traffic at beats and parks after the closure of sex on premises venues. At the end of this lockdown, a broader conversation must be had that avoids driving men who have sex with men underground, back to beats and towards potential criminalisation.

To reduce potential transmission via contact with multiple partners. “Lockdown buddies” with a commitment to one exclusive sexual partner have become very popular in app land.

Bill O’Loughlin

What can I write about sex and COVID and being positive? It has been a constant barrage of shock, bewilderment, despair, and loss, slamming into me since March. As a gay man, I’ve always found immense pleasure in sex. It’s a core part of who I am and what I do. And, yes, as a single man who has a lot of hook up sex, there is always the quiet hope that one day I shall stumble across ‘the one’ [and central to his attractiveness would be unconcern about monogamy].

Now, with the likelihood of a vaccine being either far off or, in worse predictions, uncertain, I find myself lost, frightened and angry. My response to the daily news about the virus’ spread occurs on two levels. I am disturbed by its dreadful impact on our society, economy, and health and wellbeing, but I simultaneously analyse each development for its meaning on my ability to have sex. When coronavirus first hit, I, like most gay men, avoided sex for some weeks during the shutdown. Then, around Easter, when it appeared to be contained in Melbourne, I was amongst the many who surged back onto the apps and resumed hooking up. There was an eagerness and intensity as men compensated for the time lost in abstinence.

“However, when the pandemic took off again in late June-early July, the apps were noticeably slower in dying down. Were men reluctant to go once more back into that awful experience of going without sex? It is one thing to give up going to the movies or out to dinner, but not being able to have sex is in another dimension. We did it once and hated it, the prospect of going back into it is another matter.”

What are my options? Well, thankfully there is plentiful free porn, but that has its flip side of reinforcing the solitary loneliness of the viewer – not to mention the irony of perving on others having a great time. The proposal to agree with one or a few men to form exclusive and negotiated sexual arrangements isn’t easy because not everyone has such blokes up their sleeves [or anywhere else for that matter…]. I have discussed this with one root but he, like me, is letting things wait to see how the current spate of community transmission plays out.

The suggestion that, on the apps, we discuss details regarding experience of isolation and degrees of exposure in order to determine levels of risk associated with meeting for a root is a tough one, not to mention the associated and critical factor of requiring honesty and trust [Umm… with a bloke you’ve either simply rooted a few times or possibly never met…]. It goes against the whole way the apps operate i.e. fast, decisive, and oriented around the key questions: ‘what r u into?’, ‘dick pic?’ and ‘free now?’

So, where does this leave me? As I wrote at the beginning: shocked, bewildered, despairing and grieving. I live alone, so experience blocks of days where I don’t see anyone, where I don’t get to hug or kiss a friend. I am fortunate to have wonderful friends and spend much time on calls and zooms. I talk freely with some of them about how sex has become a dreadful, uncertain, and disappearing feature of our lives, and there is some consolation from knowing we are all struggling. But that only helps a bit.

Overall, we are in a bloody awful unprecedented world and, within that, we are each having to cope with the reality that hook-up sex for gay men has been thrown wildly into a new and uncertain dimension, and we don’t know what the fuck to do about it.

Paul

I am browsing one of the gay hook-up apps when this profile catches my eye and I start laughing. ‘I need to be bread,’ this profile says. No pic. Just like my profile. And then I think about it. I need to be ‘bread’ too. Pummelled and pounded and stroked. I need to be kneaded. But responsibly and safely.

But this is not happening now.

It’s Lockdown 2.0 so there is no going out between the hours of 8 pm and 5 am and no visits to the sauna where one eagerly entered the ‘moist breath zone’ to savour the anonymous delights of the flesh. Now I can’t even enjoy my undetectable status and at 65, having lived through the dark days of the last virus, this is a bit of a blow.

Instead, it’s a lockdown wank in my live-alone apartment. Lockdown for many people is a real libido dampener as it is for me. More like libidon’t.

Now I walk most of my sexual energy off and as I pace down St Kilda Road, empty trams pass me by with reminders of the road not travelled. The Melbourne International Comedy Festival signs on their sides taunt us with the laughter that we won’t be experiencing in a live theatre for a long time it seems. And cruising is out. Who knew that we needed so much of our faces to make that connection? But now there is no connection when ‘he’ passes by. With the compulsory face masks, it is just the eyes and they definitely don’t have it.

Still I know all of this is for the greater good. COVID-19 is spread by sex and I can wear that. I get annoyed at those guys still wanting to hook up during this time. Even the hook-up apps are now telling us not to. Yes, I’ve been tempted. Very. But I jump on that, so why can’t they?

If it wasn’t for my friends and mindfulness meditation, I know I would go bonkers. (Check out Jon Kabat Zinn’s meditations on YouTube. They are great.) Phone calls every day from my nearest and dearest to ‘only connect’ are now essential. Walks with my friend in the chilly air are also greatly appreciated. He tells me that you lose more weight walking in the cold than in the heat. So, we walk faster to burn off our ‘Corona curves’ hopefully towards a summer where the numbers have come down and we’ll be released from all of this.

Jay

In June, an article published on a local NSW gay magazine praised gay men for reducing casual sex and protecting our community during COVID lockdown, with at least 90% of the respondents of a study reporting so. I am not the 10%, in fact, I am not included in that study at all. I belong to what academia describes as the “hard to reach” group. We are gay men who use drugs, some of us are also HIV positive, unemployed, homeless, sex workers, migrants, English as second language speakers, people who have criminal records or other “hard to reach” characteristics. And we NEVER stopped fucking. But before you judge me and shame me, let me bring you back to March when Sydney first went into lockdown.

I have been in the chemsex/PNP scene for more than a decade now, and I tend to think I have been to both ends of this phenomenon. It used to help me escape from my reality and insecurity, but it also destroyed my life completely on a few occasions.

Over the years, I’ve learnt a lot of skills to manage my drug use. I found a circle of friends who care about me outside the bedroom, a job that fulfils my heart, a busy schedule with lots of social activities, a life routine that helps me to stay balanced. When COVID hit, my boss told us that we must stay home indefinitely, and everything changed. I know this applied to everyone globally; but what it meant to me is everything I have learnt and built over the years to prevent my next life-threatening overdose was taken away by COVID lockdown. So, I kept getting high and hooking up with others who decided to do the same. The frequency of my drug use increased from once every 3 months to 5 days a week.

“I read that article I mentioned earlier a few days after I was in an 8-hour coma and I felt ashamed. I remember thinking either I am a morally corrupt, selfish, promiscuous gay man who is alone in this world… or maybe other people in that situation are just not talking about what we are going through.”

I feel privileged to have those people who cared about me and offered their support in my dark times during COVID, and eventually with their help I figured out new ways to find stability in a time full of uncertainty.

Steve

Being sex positive and being COVID-safe really can be perfect bedfellows – ‘gloryhole’ is one word on everybody’s lips when talking about harm minimisation during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. But beyond state-sanctioned sex (which changes depending on where you live, based on the severity of the outbreak where you are) I have seen people explore novel ways to have some form of sexual interaction that reduces or removes the risk of transmission. Whether it’s solo play with toys, adhering to a ‘sex bubble’ approach where you strictly limit and control the group of people you have sex with, or even just simply not having sex (I don’t blame you, a respiratory pandemic is one of the few kinks I do not have).

We are also seeing some PLHIV gain new income streams whilst getting off through online pay-to-watch platforms – entrepreneurship and adaptation are key in this environment.

We’ve seen sex-on-premises venues open in some jurisdictions, and private play parties being run with strict control and COVID-safe plans, and where the outbreak is negligible, these activities can be relatively safe.

But it is up to you the degree of risk you are willing to accept in this environment. Regulations and rules exist for very good reasons. You control what you choose to do; so just because your friends have started going to the sauna on Saturdays doesn’t mean you have to as well.

Personally, my toe-tapping isn’t under any bathroom stalls. It’s usually tapping with impatience for my mac and cheese to get ready in the microwave. Being in a monogamous relationship with the person I live with brings its own challenges, but I have nothing to complain about, really. It has been really important to chisel-out private time for ourselves. Both of us are working from home and it’s just a small one-bedroom apartment in Kings Cross. I have had to put in the effort to make intimate time with my partner but just as importantly to make time to be intimate with myself. When you’re living on top of someone all day every day, you need to prioritise your private time.

HIV-positive people are very health-literate, and I have noticed that many of us have been the educators on this new pandemic whether we like it or not. We are blessed to have access to well-informed and proactive community organisations like NAPWHA that help us lead and navigate at the same time.

As HIV-positive people we are well aware of the harm and ineffectiveness of words like ‘responsible.’ While it can be tempting to shame those that are doing things that let down the rest of us who are doing the ‘right thing’ it’s good to take a moment and put ourselves in their shoes and try to understand why people are doing things we perceive as ‘wrong’ during this pandemic. We understand the power of bringing people on board to make the best decisions for themselves., While there will always be outliers that make riskier choices, we should be very proud of the way our PLHIV community has come together during this time and the compassion and patience we have all shown.

“Always remember there is no right way to do this thing called sex during a pandemic outside of what we need to be doing to reduce the risk of transmission. We are all doing our very best.”

**Please note: if you are currently experiencing a COVID lockdown, it is important that you observe all your jurisdiction’s rules regarding visitors to your home in the interests of public health safety.**

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