So HOW IN THE HELL do we talk about sex and pleasure now?

Back when I was a wee baby queen in the glorious, terrifying, and schizophrenic ’80s, I remember going to Stop AIDS safer-sex parties in Chicago. They were kind of like sexy Tupperware or Avon parties where we practiced ways to eroticize condom use and have the hottest sex possible without exchanging body fluids, without inviting HIV.

We were fighting for pleasure.

We took the lead in teaching ourselves about safer sex because we had to, because the majority of the majority could not be bothered; because the majority of the majority didn’t care if a bunch of immoral, dirty, unnatural fags (and whores and junkies) died. We had it coming.

We fought for pleasure, and we figured out safer sex way before public health did.

We practiced pleasure during a holocaust, when the weekly gay papers had large obituary sections filled with the death notices of people in their 20s, and 30s. Every week, every week. We fought for and practiced pleasure in the grisly faces of death and government inaction, fragmented and culturally incompetent healthcare, ignorance, legal discrimination, unequal rights, stigma, and hatred.

Here we are more than 30 years later. HIV is hardly a historical footnote; we have mountains to move if we are truly going to “end the epidemic” or “get to zero.” But, hey, we now have extremely effective oral tablets that prevent HIV, exciting new ways to prevent HIV on the horizon, and we know that people living with HIV on successful antiretroviral treatment can’t transmit HIV to their sexual partners. Governments and stakeholders around the world have plans (some of them good) to drain the HIV swamp.

It’s 2020, and the entire planet is facing a brand-new virus — a fearsome pandemic spawned by a novel coronavirus that leapt from animals to humans — that you can catch from breathing… literally. We know COVID-19 can be transmitted by people who don’t know they’re sick, and by people who don’t have any symptoms. There are many symptoms, and all of them look like other common things we all experience.

If you are exposed, you may not get sick for up to two weeks, and you may not get sick at all. Every person with COVID-19 has the potential to pass the disease on to one or more other people. Some have mild illness, some have severe illness that leads to death. So far, it’s impossible to know what trajectory you may take should you become exposed. Will you remain symptom free? Will you have a mild version that isn’t much to complain about? Will you be laid out at home for weeks of fever, pain, and hallucinatory agony, but recover? Will you wind up in the ICU with battered lungs and a tube down your throat breathing for you, until that stops working and you die, alone?

There are some clear echoes of HIV there, can you hear them? And like HIV, COVID-19 is disproportionately hurting communities who are already marginalized and vulnerable due to white supremacy and structural, systemic racism, homophobia, and misogyny. To date, the majority of COVID-19 deaths in Chicago are among black people. Statistics from Michigan, the Carolinas, and Milwaukee show disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infections among black people.

We don’t have a vaccine for this coronavirus yet, and we don’t have treatment. Testing is still inaccessible to many of us. We have a number of mitigation efforts we are using, including hand washing, staying inside, and physical distancing.

So HOW IN THE HELL do we talk about sex and pleasure now? More importantly, how do we do more than talk about it? Exactly HOW does sex occur when you have to be six feet away from everyone (except from the people you live with) and should probably be wearing a mask and keeping your hands away from your face, and their face?

Lots of sexy smart thoughtful people have weighed in. I’ve read clear, straightforward, non-judgmental guidance from the New York City Health Department, and perused articles in Huffington Post and Glamour and elsewhere. One of my favorite activists and cranky queers JD Davids  wrote a fabulous piece reminding us that sex that is good for us is good for us while providing lots of creative ideas to make physical distancing hot. I watched The Counter Narrative Project’s panel discussion on “Intimacy in the Age of COVID-19” focusing on black gay men. I came across this fantastic harm reduction info and resource guide for sex workers produced by COYOTE RI and written by @malanasqueendom.  I was so happy to find that one that I squealed. And bonus — the guide is continually updated.

After all that researching and squealing, I got on the phone with the squeal-worthy Dr. David Malebranche, a brilliant physician/activist to talk it through. Of all the advice we had studied up on, the one tidbit that resonated the most with both of us was “love the one you’re with.” Masturbation. You are, after all, your best sexual partner. Who knows best what your buttons are, where to find them, and how best to press (or lick, bite, stroke) them? YOU. You are your sunshine, you light up your life, you are so beautiful to you. While every May is officially International Masturbation Month, every day of the year is an opportunity to enjoy a little afternoon delight morning, noon, and night. (Special bonus if you are of a well-seasoned age and got all those ’70s music references.)

And the options to help take you there! There is so much porn to curate, what you are waiting for? Maybe it’s time to do a little exploring and sampling to expand your taste boundaries. Untick your filters. You’ll never really be alone on Porn Hub. And while we all can get most of the porn we want for free, consider paying for some of that material and support the humans who help you get off — a lot of them have suffered huge financial hits due to COVID-19.

Toys, toys, toys. Dildos, butt plugs, pocket pussies, thingamajigs, jing tinglers, and blum bloopers. There is an argument to be made that sex toys are essential items these days, though some folks at Amazon disagree.

Keep sending nudes, don’t stop sliding into those DMs. Make naughty stories on FB and IG (see sidebar #DailyLookChallenge), let it fly on Freak Twitter. Play with FaceTime and Houseparty. Sext. Bring back phone sex. Oooooh, what are you wearing?

If you live with a person, or people, you have sex with – good on you as long as everyone in the household is following all the quarantining and physical distancing guidance. If you are on PrEP, keep taking it. If you are HIV-positive and on treatment, keep taking it.

Side note: if you have been on PrEP and you are NOT having sex with anyone other than your number one fan (that’s you), you may want to consider a drug holiday. If you are not in situations where you could be exposed to HIV, you don’t need the protection PrEP provides. That said, if you want to potentially explore a vacation from PrEP, discuss this with your PrEP navigator or your doctor/nurse to make sure you go off, and go back on when you are ready, as safely as possible. If you are someone who found it challenging to develop the PrEP habit — taking your pills consistently and correctly — you might want to consider just staying the course. You worked hard for that habit.

“Just say no” to hooking up during this COVID-19 era is the prevailing wisdom, and while my instinct is to rebel against that ultimatum, it makes sense. It makes all the sense in the world to do your best not to put yourself in harm’s way – remember, it can be transmitted by breathing.  And as Dr. Malebranche says, “There is just so much that is unpredictable and so much that is not known about this virus.”

But let’s be real, some of us are not going to follow “just say no.” In that case, limit the number of your partners. Think about having a “quarantine bae” who is the only person you are having sex with, and vice versa, and you both are doing your best to follow all the other recs. Don’t do anything if you are feeling sick in any way. Take careful consideration of where you will be hooking up. Avoid kissing. Put that face in a pillow, and choose other positions that are not face-to-face. You could position yourself six feet from each other and masturbate as well. All of this is harm reduction, not harm elimination.

Finally, a few notes on pleasure. Pleasure includes sex, but pleasure is much much much bigger and juicier than just sex. Multi-hyphenate Chicago leader Elijah McKinnon talks about the “three M’s” in a recent Instagram post, “Meditation, Masturbation, and Moisturization.” We’ve covered the second M, but the other Ms remind us that pleasure is about sensual and supple; it’s about smooth elbows; it’s about quiet, peace, and serenity; it’s about connecting with your inner being. Pleasure also includes other Ms we could add to the list: Music, Movies, Magic, Macramé, Macaroons…

Eat delicious things. Drink tasty drinks. Take walks. And my favorite thing to do of all, nap. According to The Nap Ministry, rest is a form of resistance and sleep deprivation is a race and social justice issue.  Ah, the pleasure of a cozy afternoon nap, while undermining capitalism and deconstructing white supremacy. What the fuck is hotter than that?

Jim Picket is Senior Director of Prevention Advocacy and Gay Men’s Health at AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Most of his work focuses on advocacy in support of PrEP implementation and research into new ways to prevent HIV. He’s been living with HIV since 1995.

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