Bodies, Sexualities, and Masculinities in the Time of Coronavirus

in Journal of Bodies, Sexualities, and Masculinities
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  • 1 Brandon University, Canada
  • | 2 Newcastle University, UK
  • | 3 University of Pittsburgh, USA

As we were putting to bed the first issue of Journal of Bodies, Sexualities, and Masculinities, we began to see headlines about the coronavirus and its disease, COVID-19. By the time the issue came out, it was clear that the world had changed. This introduction is written during a time of being self-isolated, quarantined, and in various forms of lockdown. We are now told to socially distance ourselves from one another. We are all paying close attention to whether or not the curve has been flattened or planked.

These are anxious times for many, and for others this is an exaggeration. The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, said the media was just “fear-mongering,” and he explained that “with my history as an athlete, if I were infected with the virus, I would have no reason to worry, I would feel nothing, or it would be at most just a little flu.” His sentiments are not those of an ill-informed president; rather, he is part of a community that feels that the reaction to the virus is overblown. But his words speak implicitly about what is at stake in Journal of Bodies, Sexualities, and Masculinities, namely, the way these three key terms coalesce. Bolsonaro is speaking about his body, framing it in masculinist terms, and undoubtedly, as many theorists of masculinity have demonstrated, also reaffirming his body's heterosexuality. To admit that the virus might infect his body would be to admit a vulnerability, a weakness, a body that could be feminized. To frame the infected body as feminized, of course, has its own history; one can think here of Leo Bersani's agenda-setting “Is the Rectum a Grave?”

To be certain, we are not making wholescale judgments about men, masculinities, and COVID-19 (it is too early for such studies), but while Bolsonaro reflects one side of this equation, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might reflect another. On March 12, Canadian news media began to report that Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, wife of Justin Trudeau, had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and consequently Trudeau would self-isolate. For the following weeks, Trudeau only appeared on the front steps of Rideau Cottage to address the media, which were all positioned a safe distance from the Prime Minister. Bolsonaro and Trudeau, despite being politically distinct from one another, also represent very different visions of masculinity. For Trudeau, the discourse was not about himself, him being healthy, but rather about those around him—he needed not to protect himself, but to protect his family, his colleagues, and those with whom he engaged on a daily basis. Heather Marcoux (2020), writing for Motherly, reports: “It's hard to imagine someone could be running a country (in the middle of a global crisis, no less) while taking care of their children without any help, but that is what Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is up to these days.” Indeed, Marcoux writes that “Trudeau's feminist reputation … is recovering its former sheen on the world's stage,” and further:

It is awesome that Trudeau is making this work. He's setting an example of social distancing and is leading his country in more ways than one right now. And he's showing the world that dads aren't helpers, they are full, capable parents. His personal commitment to social distancing and fatherhood can be a valuable example to other men leading nations and households through this crisis.

The article concludes: “I hope Justin Trudeau doesn't forget what it is like to try to work without childcare,” reminding readers of the importance of universal childcare. Undoubtedly, for many Trudeau is an example of what to do, while for others he is an example of what not to do. But interestingly and importantly, this issue is being discussed in highly gendered terms.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, appeared back on the political stage after being in intensive care as a result of contracting the virus. A few weeks earlier, the prime minister told his cabinet: “We are engaged in a war against the disease which we have to win.” Soon after, his partner Carrie Symonds gave birth to their son, Wilfred Lawrie Nicholas Johnson. Although a relatively unremarkable name, Nicholas was chosen as a tribute to the doctors that had saved the prime minister's life; this was a powerful symbolic gesture to new heroes battling against an unseen enemy. Now back leading an army of doctors and nurses, the prime minister promised to get the essential equipment to the frontline in order to protect workers in their fight against the virus. On the 75th anniversary of victory in Europe (VE Day), the prime minister urged the British public to show the “same spirit of national endeavour” that was demonstrated by those fighting Hitler seventy-five years ago (Vaughan 2020). This was not a masculinity being written onto the tough man's body like that of Bolsonaro, or the invocation of familial paternalism of Trudeau: this is a national leader whose stoic, uncompromising, and steadfast masculinity mobilizes “distorted myths and narratives of heroic past national glory and military campaigns” (Christoyannopoulis 2020).

Such popular representations and their accompanying gender and sexual rhetorics are calling out for scholarly work that reflects on social life, and we can hardly imagine a more pressing topic than masculinities in a time of pandemic. As the pandemic begins to subside, as the curves are flattened or plateaued, it is also telling to look at how gender has affected government. When one reviews reactions to COVID-19, it might be hard not to see differences that might very well be gendered. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for example, seemed reluctant to admit the severity of the problem, meanwhile Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern effectively shut down New Zealand, bringing it to Alert Level 4, which ensured that everyone was required to stay home, except for essential workers. Indeed, The Guardian asked: “Are female leaders more successful at managing the coronavirus crisis?” And the author of the article note that “plenty of countries with male leaders have also done well. But few with female leaders have done badly” (Henley and Roy 2020). It is certainly interesting that these kinds of questions are being asked. What might it mean that women leaders were more effective in managing the crisis? Recognizing, of course, that these leaders come from diverse countries, such as Germany, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Taiwan, and New Zealand.

Perhaps, now, more than ever, the phrase “toxic masculinity” makes sense. These bodies, upon which masculinity is written, embodied, and performed, quite literally became toxic, became viral. They became dangerous in ways they had previously not been imagined. Their danger became all the scarier when we realized that an asymptomatic body could carry and spread the virus. The discourse then was about community transmission, and it was necessary to shift from the potential harm to an individual and toward the responsibilities of the individual to stop the spread, to “flatten the curve.” This shift is important.

This shift is important for this journal because it is a rewriting of how we relate to one another. How do we maintain our personal and sexual relationships in a time of COVID-19? Headline after headline spoke about sex and COVID-19. WebMD reported that a study found that “you can't get Coronavirus through sex” (Preidt 2020). Interestingly, the study is based on “semen samples from 34 men in China an average of one month after they were diagnosed with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19” and, as we learn, “laboratory tests did not detect the coronavirus in any of the semen samples” (Preidt 2020). This report is based on a study that appeared in Fertility and Sterility. In contrast, Diangeng Li and colleagues (2020) present evidence that the virus was present in the semen of men with COVID-19. What is interesting for the Journal of Bodies, Sexualities, and Masculinities is not whether the virus is present or not in semen; rather, it is how quickly men, masculinity, and science coalesce. Furthermore, while there are concerns raised as to the number of men contracting and dying of the virus, men's sexuality has emerged as an important context for discussing the nature of the virus.

Over at Psychology Today, readers found articles like “Safe Sex in the Time of COVID-19,” which begins with “what a difference a pandemic makes,” perhaps a candidate for understatement of the year, and the author, Michael A. Perelman, continues:

[O]ur world view on masturbation has changed immensely since early medical writing regarded masturbation as the cause of many diseases and illnesses. Today, the New York City Department of Health informs us, “You are your safest sex partner. Masturbation will not spread COVID-19, especially if you wash your hands (and any sex toys) with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after sex.”

Perelman is certainly right that historically masturbation has been imagined to be a source of “many diseases and illnesses.” Likewise, it was not long ago that President Clinton fired Dr. Jocelyn Elders for suggesting that masturbation was a safe sex practice. Interestingly, Forbes Magazine reported that “sex toy sales are buzzing with social distancing from COVID-19 Coronavirus” (Lee 2020). In the United Kingdom, there has been a decline in the reporting of the incidence of sexually transmitted infections and HIV. It is not yet clear why this is happening; is there less risky sex, less accessibility for treatment, delays in the reporting of infections? Has masturbation become the most popular sexual practice as it was for some English counties during the seventeenth century (Quaife 1979)?

State directives to restrict people's interactivity are resulting in, for some, an adaption to their sexual lifestyles. On-premises sex clubs moved their business to digital platforms by promoting a range of online encounters. Zoom play parties and Virgies (virtual orgies) are increasingly being used as a temporary response to the closure of a number of sexual (p)leisure encounters (Bartee 2020; Gilmour 2020). Curiously, Forbes Magazine also reports that the term “coronavirus” began to appear on Pornhub on 25 January 2020. Writing on 13 March, before much of North America had begun to “lock down,” Curtis Silver notes that “in the past 30 days there have been over 6.8mm searches containing the keywords ‘corona’ or ‘covid.’” As Silver (2020) notes, “with the American public getting ready to settle in for a few weeks of self-isolation, Pornhub is likely to see another rise in traffic, regardless of keywords.” For Holland, some sexual practices are being organized at the state level. The Dutch government's National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) has suggested that people reading erotic stories and masturbating at a distance might be complemented by single people identifying a “cuddle buddy” or “sex buddy” (Bamidele 2020).

One of the challenges that also need to be recognized here is that while people are being encouraged to masturbate, are consuming more and more pornography, and engaging in alternative forms of digital sex, sex workers have been significantly affected as well by the coronavirus. The same sexually progressive Dutch government is refusing to support self-employed tax-paying sex workers by excluding them, rather than the owners of brothels, from business relief schemes. CTVNews reports that “sex workers saw their incomes disappear overnight when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in Canada. Now many are in desperate situations in need of food, rent, basic necessities. Some are now homeless and without any income” (Wright 2020). The Guardian likewise reports on the situation in India, noting that “it is now a month since India went into total lockdown on 26 March to contain the spread of Covid-19. With no clients, Bibi's savings have dwindled,’ and even though “the government has announced relief schemes for the poor … women working in the sex industry are outside their ambit” (Chakraborty and Ramaprasad 2020).

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on global sex lives, which is to say nothing of the seemingly endless new cases and deaths as a result of COVID-19. We do not wish here to trivialize this and make it all about sex. It is not. But, we cannot help but note how COVID-19 has affected bodies, sexualities, and masculinities—and, of course, a host of other identities and practices. The New York Times reports that “domestic abuse rises worldwide” during the COVID-19 pandemic. António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, wrote on Twitter: “I urge all governments to put women's safety first as they respond to the pandemic” (Taub 2020). We highlight this here because in these domestic violence cases, we see an all too familiar side of intimacy and masculinity, one marked by violence. We do not mean to suggest that men are always violent, not at all. But we would be fooling ourselves if we did not recognize that this too is part of the side effects of COVID-19. When we think about pandemic, for there will be another pandemic, we hope that we will take this lesson into account and ensure that we are protecting one another not only from the virus, but also from violence.

At the same time, death rates suggest that men are twice as likely to die from the disease as women, and the virus has been labeled the “global mankiller” (Reeves and Ford 2020). In Italy, it is suggested that 71 percent of people dying in the country are men (Chalmers 2020), and in Spain men are dying at twice the rate as women (Linde 2020). The “sex hormone” testosterone has once again become an explanation for the difference in death rates (Puiu 2020). Low levels of testosterone have been seen as compromising immune systems by causing confusion when targeting pathogens. However, it is also known that testosterone can support the immune system. However, we know that treating men as a homogeneous group either socially or biologically has limited analytical purchase. Current data suggests that men in lower-skilled jobs, men aged 44 and over, and men from minority ethnic heritages are more likely to die than other men and women (Schomberg 2020). A more social and cultural understanding of men's lives, their work, and what their bodies are doing is needed now more than ever.

Alongside this, it remains unknown what impact lockdowns and their broader implications have had on men themselves. Globally, men's suicide is at least three times higher than that of women (Sher 2020), and one of the main causes of suicide is men's isolation (Cleary 2012; Oliffe et al. 2016). Early reports in the United Kingdom suggest that there has been a spike in suicide cases with a men's mental health online support group receiving triple the number of posts it has received as compared to March (Davis 2020). Despite men's mental health issues, men are also less likely to access healthcare provision. It is suggested that as a result of the lockdown, the spaces where men have previously visited to talk about their lives, through work, sports, the pub/bar, are no longer available. It may be the case that, not only are men likely to be committing more violence toward their partners, they are also likely to be increasing the harm that they do to themselves.

Finally, it could also be argued that the virus is creating new forms of intimacy with strangers. We are being urged to look out for other bodies, negotiate distances, and protect them and ourselves from harmful bodily fluids. Bodies, at this moment, have become centrifugal, bringing us closer through the intimacy of distance. For example, we acknowledge strangers in order to awkwardly manage two metres apart on the street, we are voyeuristically peering into the hitherto private spaces of people we work with through video telephony, and we are speaking to self-isolating neighbors who had previously remained hidden in suburban anonymity. In the process of creating more distance between bodies, we are simultaneously, in some instances, becoming closer.

This editorial, of course, is speculative at best. We are still living in and through the coronavirus pandemic. What we do know, as some of the studies mentioned above already are beginning to indicate, is that change is not a four-letter word, but a reality. The changes in sexual and social relations have led to an increase in violence, Zoom orgies, and an understanding of the proximity of individuals to our bodies in so many ways. We have, similarly, just in the five weeks of pandemic so far, seen over 26.5 million new applications for unemployment in the United States (Lambert 2020)—a data point that speaks to a wider set of employment matters. Employment is always already about—and impacts—our understandings, roles, and realities of gender and masculinities, as well as our relations within, between, and through these and sexual practices and relationships.

We do not yet know what the other side of this will look like, but we do imagine that many scholars will be thinking about the impact of coronavirus on their particular fields of research. We welcome those discussions and contributions. We have much to learn, many new questions to ask, and new answers to pursue. And perhaps we will all be sure to wash our hands frequently and just a bit more vigorously.

Jonathan Allan, Chris Haywood, and Frank Karioris

22 May 2020



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