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Viral Loads: Sex, Ethics, and Erotic Representations of the Covid-19 Pandemic

 

Tucker Landesman

Video and stills by Matt Lambert

 

I. Moral masturbation

You are your safest sex partner.
New York City Health Department
Safer Sex and Covid-19
March 21, 2020

I have not been admonished to practice abstinence or monogamy with such intensity since I was a rebellious teenager and George W. Bush was mandating “abstinence-only” sex education. But by mid-2020, flattening the curve necessitated a hiatus on normal sexual behavior. Multiple surveys of gay and bisexual men in the USA, Australia, Israel, Brazil, and Portugal have found that majorities of men who have sex with men have significantly reduced their number of sex partners or stopped fucking casually altogether in response to the threat of Covid-19. The same research highlights the psychological toll that respondents have experienced as a result of lockdowns and uncertainty.

Reviewing media narratives of sex and sexuality during the coronavirus pandemic, Professor Nicola Döring writes that sexual behavior often associated with LGBTQ people and other counterculture sexualities (polyamorous and open relationships, casual fuckbuddies, and cruising or anonymous sex) were “largely prohibited in the Covid-19 pandemic mitigation measures.” This has triggered a sense of déjà vu for gay men old enough to remember when AIDS was called “gay cancer” in the press and was called gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) by scientists. It also unsettles queer millennials like myself, whose identities were profoundly shaped by the trauma of the AIDS crisis and lingering stigma of HIV. Writer, activist, and associate at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, Jeffery Escoffier writes that early panic around AIDS led to demands for gay and bisexual men to “reduce the number of anonymous sexual partners, know your partner and his sexual history, close the bathhouses, stop using poppers, stop having sex.” Nearly four decades later, sexual health advice tailored to Covid is eerily similar. While it now applies to the general population and not just “promiscuous” homosexuals, it still feels in direct violation of queer culture and political identity.

For many queer men, sex is a principal means of socialization and a logical response when we feel bored, anxious, lonely, insecure, optimistic, sad, happy, annoyed, or celebratory. Lockdowns—should we respect them—deny men like us a dependable coping mechanism and force us to confront ourselves in ways previously avoidable. Understandably, many local LGBT organizations have grown concerned about the possibility for increased drug and alcohol use. Chemsex, i.e. fucking while high, is a common hobby among gay men. For some, it is a dangerous compulsion. Research from the United States suggests that men who have sex with men consume methamphetamine at rates between 25 and 45 times higher than the general population. Shelter-in-place directives and shuttering gay bars and bathhouses deprive those men of important care networks. Good data specific to gay and bi men aren’t available, but drug use and overdoses have increased across the US since March 2020, including a 20 percent increase in meth use.

Few in the media—whether queer or mainstream—have sympathized with the predicament of pro-sex sluts during lockdown. The Australian gay magazine DNA reprinted the advice of a well-known gay doctor in Sydney to his patients: after disparaging the “irresponsible” inquiries of gay men who were wondering how they might mitigate risk while getting high and sucking dick, he wrote, “Consider the unthinkable and maybe stay at home with some porn.”

Undersexed and confined to home, many of us did jack off. A lot. The largest pornography website, PornHub, reported a 25 percent bump in traffic during April, and those numbers held steady at least through June. Many big porn studios ceased operations in early 2020 in accordance with public health advice concerning physical distancing at the workplace. In order to resume production and to meet soaring demand, the industry has had to get creative behind the camera. HIV Plus Magazine reported that new safety protocols include Covid testing for all actors and crew based on the testing system created during the HIV epidemic. Other Covid-safety measures include shooting new scenes outdoors and quarantined performers filming content with live-in partners. The acclaimed director Chi Chi LaRue even tried directing via videoconference.

While the major players in the industry have toed the ethical line in order to protect the health of their actors and production crews, the amount of self-produced content has soared. According to Dominic Ford, the founder of Just For Fans, the number of content producers has doubled or tripled as of June 2020 and the swelling volume of monthly subscriptions to individual models has led to an increase in sales revenue by 30-35 percent. OnlyFans, another popular subscription service, reported a 75 percent increase in model profiles during March and April. At this point, when I browse gay Instagram or Twitter and come across a profile full of home-workout selfies, pouty lips, and six-pack abs, I’m surprised if the bio doesn’t include a link to their OnlyFans page.

 

Despite disrupting the industry, almost no studio productions have creatively engaged with our daily lives under the pandemic. One exception is “A Modern Massage,” produced by Men.com. The scene opens with a fully clothed masseur (Jason Vario) sanitizing his massage table. In white pants and a tight white t-shirt, his bulging tattooed biceps stretch the cuffs of his short-sleeves. He’s wearing blue latex gloves that can be purchased from any pharmacy and he is using a clear plastic face-shield. The camera sensually pans Vario’s handsome face and strong arms as he dutifully wipes every inch of the black leather-upholstered massage table with a paper towel and sterilizing agent. Then he calls to his client (Shane Amari), offscreen, "Alright. Ready to go when you are." Amari appears wearing a thin white towel and hops onto the table.

“Finally, a massage. I’ve been waiting for months.”

“Well, I’ll make sure to take good care of you.”

“I really miss human contact,” says Amari.

But Amari’s eagerness turns to surprise and then annoyance as he watches Vario don a fresh pair of latex gloves. He rolls his eyes once and then again when he’s told to cover his own mouth and nose. He makes no attempt to mask his disappointment. “I guess so,” he says, shrugging as he accepts the paper mask.

It is shocking that we haven’t seen more mainstream gay pornographic representations confronting, navigating, or performatively disregarding risk during the pandemic. As a theater of the absurd, gay porn is well-suited to ironize and eroticize existential threats. Nearly every trauma typically associated with queer male experience is regularly reimagined by the medium. What might have been a hate crime turns into a gang bang. Instead of being fired for being gay, the boss forces his employee to worship his feet before bending him over a desk. In place of being rejected by our best friend in high school or by the men who are supposed to love us unconditionally (our fathers and uncles, our older brothers and cousins), these men indulgently affirm our sexual desires. If porn helps us collectively process fear, loathing, and violence, why shouldn’t it take on self-isolation, physical distancing, and pandemic paraphernalia?

The opening dialogue of “A Modern Massage” captures the annoyed resignation of tempered pleasure, but the scene subsequently follows the genre’s canon—the masseur oils up and begins to rub down his client who immediately releases a soft moan of relaxation. As Vario works his way down Amari’s back, the small towel covering his ass requires adjusting. Amari clearly wants the massage to heat up, so he purposefully pulls the towel down.

“Is everything OK?” Vario asks. Amari responds by pointing at his flexed cheeks and giving them a deliberate slap. The masseur raises his eyebrows and then smirks knowingly. He nods his head and bites his lower lip while eyeing the temptation lying before him.

“Got it.”

In contrast to the thousands of other massage-cum-sex videos, this example provides the constant visual reminder that, actually, everything is different now. The physical contact between hands and body is "protected" by a layer of latex. When lubricated with massage oil, the latex sounds . . . squeaky. The gaze of the masseur is filtered through the distorting glare of a plastic shield. The moans of the horny client are muffled by a paper mask.

None of these protective materials are entirely new to gay sex or gay porn. In a certain sense, queers and other social deviants have been using and eroticizing PPE (personal protective equipment) for decades. Latex condoms are the most obvious example, even if they have waned in recent years. Moreover, latex gloves themselves are widely used as protective barriers during fisting, although black latex is generally preferred over the generic hospital-blue featured in “A Modern Massage.” Latex and rubber body suits, gas masks, mouth gags, and hoods are normal BDSM gear that operate as costume fetish and PPE for those who want a thin barrier between them and various body fluids or the sting of whips and paddles.

Back on the massage table, the masseur is focused on Amari’s ass. Amari is now sans towel and is finally getting the human contact he has been craving after months of physical distancing. The gloved hands massage his hairy buttocks (body hair is so in right now). Vario spreads his client’s cheeks to give the viewer a peek of pink anus and then slips his middle finger into Amari’s relaxed asshole. The shot changes to look up at Amari’s face through the table’s headrest. He jumps, opening his eyes wide, looking from side to side. Vario licks his lips as his index finger joins the penetrating middle finger.

But Amari can’t take it anymore. He lifts his head to look straight into the camera.

“Well take the gloves off at least!” he says.

Vario chuckles and offers his hands so that Amari can hastily remove the gloves. “Much better,” Vario agrees in a deep, calming voice. He continues to finger his client’s ass.

Not long after, the masseur walks to the head of the table, pulls his white trousers down to mid-thigh and reveals his considerably large penis. The two men exchange a look of understanding. Vario gives a commanding nod downward and Amari begins to hungrily suck his cock through an unexplained hole in his mask. Amari’s moaning satisfaction may be common at this point in porn—the sexual tension is cut, the erect cock finally exposed and consumed—but given Amari’s desperation for human touch after months of corporeal isolation, his exaggerated reaction takes on new significance. It’s a moan of relief, of long-awaited release. Indeed, many viewers may sympathize.

It is easy to identify with Amari’s annoyance at being massaged with decidedly unsexy blue gloves. I sympathized as he repeatedly repositioned his face mask. Stop touching your face! I wanted to yell at my screen as if somehow it would make a difference with a mouthful of dick. Eventually Amari tears his mask off completely, but Vario’s face shield remains a curious reminder of the pandemic throughout the scene. When Amari signals he’s about to climax (he’s straddling Vario), Vario tilts his head forward, and Amari shoots his load all over the plastic shield.

After Vario cums, the dialogue circles back to the pandemic. Through his cum-covered face shield he looks down at a panting Amari, winks, and says, “Don’t forget to wear your face mask on the way out. Be safe.”

 
 

II. But it’s so hard to be good

Our lives under the pandemic feel like the emotional equivalent of a poorly planned six-way roundabout. We’re unnerved by our own vulnerability and by the vulnerabilities of our loved ones, scared of contracting the virus and nervous of transmitting it to others. Bored at home, our loneliness can easily slide into depression, which may temporarily give way to manic levels of ecstasy when we allow ourselves some unrestricted social interaction. Of course we might feel appropriately guilty after risky excursions; or we might reach our limit and say, fuck it, heading out to movie theaters—or orgies. The political polarization of the virus and the moralizing categorizations of people based on their willingness to self-isolate and physically distance (often erroneously assuming everyone faces equal economic, social, and emotional costs of staying home) makes it harder to collectively process contradicting emotions with compassion or even humor. In fact, many of us have self-righteously wished illness on public offenders and have mutedly celebrated the contagion within certain political groups or cities and states controlled by “freedom-loving” anti-maskers. Such schadenfreude has extended to whole countries when their lack of appropriate protective measures bites them in the ass (smug Sweden with their fantasy of herd immunity and personal responsibility. You failed, Sweden! We told you, Sweden!).

Porn and erotica are perfect mediums to address the conflict between wanting to be a good, responsible person and also wanting to seek pleasure. Public health officials and mainstream and gay media have told us to buck up and repress our sexual behavior. Since staying home saves lives, sitting on the couch and masturbating is some of the most responsible, ethical behavior to which we can aspire—finally!

But sex is about identity and community just as much as it is about pleasure. It is about constructing and maintaining a sense of self. Staying home and masturbating will never be a logical substitution for the vibrant sexual lives that many of us once lived. In hedonist Berlin, this feels particularly acute. The Berlin-based comedian Daniel-Ryan Spaulding’s erotic story "Horny Quarantine“—part of his YouTube series It’s Berlin—hilariously spoke to the internal conflict we faced as the weather warmed in the spring of 2020 and we started to feel that itch of rebellion. The video opens with Spaulding standing in front of a wall full of fading graffiti in the spring sunshine.

“I love just staying at home, cuz I’m so good. It makes me feel good about myself. I’m good.” His jaw is tense and his lips are pulled back in a forced smile. He laughs like someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He sighs and runs his hand through his hair. “Imagine how bad it would be if we didn’t stay at home. That would be so bad,” and then he begins to imagine a story in which a hot Italian named Giovani and his friend, the gym-fit Lloyd, meet up in Mauer Park, responsibly, for a chat and a physically-distanced walk. But while strolling the “two hot gay friends” suddenly hear the umsta, umsta, umsta of a techno beat from a DJ spinning in the open air.

They try to resist but, “it’s like that moment when you decide not to use a condom. —Should we? —We can’t! —But we want to! —We can’t! —But we want to. And then before you know it, it’s already starting. And they start dancing and kissing. And all of a sudden, it’s started. And there’s thousands of other gay guys in the park. And there’s like this huge rave, umsta, umsta, umsta. And all the hot gay Berlin guys are there. And we’re all kissing and touching each other wherever we want.”

In the flash of a techno beat, Giovani and Lloyd’s sanctioned, outdoor excursion morphs into an illegal thousand-person rave-orgy. In Spaulding’s fantasy, when the police are called to break it up, they start beating the revelers with their nightsticks, “but we like it… and the Polizei like it too.” The police rip off their uniforms and join the sexually-liberated ecstasy. Then the military shows up with water cannons but realize that they’re no match, so all the sexy German military men submit to their repressed homoeroticism. Fueled by ketamine, coke, and MDMA, “we don’t care. We’re sucking and fucking and doing everything. It’s a party. It’s time. It’s time for the party. […] No one can stop us hot Berlin gay guys. […] It’s a real, awesome, sexy, Mauer Park, Berlin, gay orgy!” Eventually German Chancellor Angela Merkel—known for her steadfast leadership and her no-nonsense, science-based pandemic policy—shows up to beg for responsible behavior, “You must shtop this right now. Vee must think of dee elderly!” But she’s turned away, defeated. Spaulding’s breath begins to quicken and becomes uneven as he imagines thousands of men collectively orgasming under a rainbow and then holding each other. “That would be so bad if that happened. That would be awful.”

Spaulding’s video was clairvoyant. Clandestine raves did eventually pop up in abandoned bunkers and warehouses around Berlin, and the city’s many cruising sites were bumping throughout the summer. The video resonated with viewers. Top comments on Spaulding’s YouTube video include, “I’m not gay but I would join,” and “This is the sexiest a video can get without being porn.”

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“Why hasn’t more porn blatantly eroticized rule-breaking?”

 

Why hasn’t more porn blatantly eroticized rule-breaking?

Pornography gleefully flouts more social norms than any other form of media. And while amateur producers—predominately heterosexual—have been increasing the amount of porn that fetishizes sexy nurses and doctors wearing PPE, even ironizing “corona gangbangs,” most of the porn industry have shown concern about doing their part to keep the population safe during 2020. PornHub solicited donations for frontline charities through ScrubHub.tv, a site hosting tongue-in-cheek hand-washing tutorials with sexy titles such as “Whipped & tied up xtreme bad girl gets punished & washed hard!” The independent porn-producing couple, Mika Sky and Chase Poundher, published what might be the first viral corona porn in March 2020, where a Covid-concerned daddy scolds his “horny slut” for not using an N-95 mask and for thinking the virus is flu-like and “all the way over in China.” After the scolding, he “pounds her” while they both wear masks.

There are good reasons why porn producers have not wantonly eroticized pandemic protocol rule-breaking— among them the health of their actors and production teams and genuine concern for public safety. Reminding us how President Reagan for years evaded any public mention of HIV/AIDS and the thousands of gay men dying across the country, gay Twitter welcomed “the straights” to an infuriating reality where a virus is devastating communities but the government refuses to adequately respond.

I first became involved in AIDS activism and sexual health education while in high school. Heavily influenced by queer health messaging at the time, for years I refused to watch bareback porn out of principle. When I did find a bareback scene so irresistible that I couldn’t turn it off, I felt momentarily remorseful after the fact. I was somewhat militant but hardly unique. A 2014 survey of gay men found that 17 percent of respondents preferred to watch porn that respected the “condom code.” Filmmakers and performers who broke the code drew ire from gay activists and concern from public health researchers who argued that bareback porn was contributing to risky sexual activity among men who have sex with men. Their hypothesis was difficult to substantiate with data, but HIV transmission rates were holding steady, even increasing in some populations, despite the widespread campaigns to increase knowledge about HIV transmission and safer sex. While the condom code still exists among many gay men and sex educators, today’s fight to end HIV/AIDS increasingly focuses on “treatment as prevention” (universal early treatment of HIV with antiretrovirals) and increased access to free PrEP and PEP (pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis, respectively). Subsequently, condom use in pornography has considerably waned.

Unlike some gimmicky corona porn that fetishizes PPE, pre-PrEP gay pornography rarely showed the actors putting condoms on. Sexual tension would build and the camera would show a naked dick rubbing against an ass. But at the moment of penetration the camera would cut to a medium shot and magically the dick would be “wrapped” in latex. With the right lighting and filmed at strategic angles, it can look like the condom isn’t even there. In the business, this is called the “magic condom,” and the technique is still used with performers who prefer to use condoms and in countries where PrEP is not widely available. It’s as if directors understood the ethical and health imperatives of condom use, but also decided that showing someone put on this bit of PPE is awkward and unsexy. In contrast there is something sexy to breaking a rule that regulates pleasure and dampens sensations.

Until recently, the condom code was accepted as necessary for the greater good. It was ethical and absolute. Those that violated the code—explicitly, willfully—were culpable. Jose Mirabella, one popular gay blogger at the time, antagonized consumers of bareback porn by declaring that "bareback porn is killing our community and you’re to blame.” A major offender was Treasure Island Media, a gay porn studio that actively courted controversy with titles such as Viral Loads. The writer Escoffier quotes studio founder Paul Morris, calling condoms in porn an “epidemiological fetish,” saying that “the condom isn’t about safety or survival, it’s about apology, guilt, and relinquishment,” insisting that “condom use in gay porn is a sexualized way of saying, ‘Look, we’re good boys, normal and responsible just like the straight folks.’”

Should we clamor for more corona porn as an echo of this transgressive bareback genre that eroticizes not only the explicit denial of the condom code but also the potential exchange of the HIV virus?

Dr. João Florêncio, author of Bareback Porn, Porous Masculinities, Queer Futures: The Ethics of Becoming-Pig, explains that “there are some very important differences between the Covid-19 and HIV viruses and how we understand and mediate risk from an ethical perspective. For HIV, risk is contained to the sexual practice.” It starts and stops with each sex act. In contrast, “you carry the risk of Covid with you when you walk down the street, when you talk to someone, when you simply breathe close to another human.” The cascading risk of an airborne virus makes it difficult to stake a claim to subversive, anti-respectability politics. However, with respect to corona porn, Florêncio is adamant that we shouldn’t place the burden of public health on the porn industry. “Porn is fantasy. It’s desire—it’s always about watching something that you can’t have. If porn has an ethical obligation concerning Covid-19, it’s principally labor-related: making sure the models and crew are safe and healthy.”

Despite the differences between HIV and Covid-19, just like community health advocates learned in the fight against HIV, shaming is an ineffective outreach strategy. Indeed, to fight Covid, many health communications specialists have followed the examples of harm reduction and risk management strategies developed in response to the HIV epidemic among men who have sex with men, trans women, sex workers, and drug users. Drawing from that history, epidemiologist Dr. Julia Marcus has written extensively against binary risk perception and in favor of risk reduction strategies to combat “the profound burden of extreme physical and social distancing.”

However, public debate that recognizes the nuances of risk outside of a binary is still rare. This is unsurprising—ideology prefers to traffic in absolutes.

 
 

III. It’s good to get off

Stay home, stay safe.” The directive to isolate violates our social nature, but the pleading messages from health officials, scientists, politicians, and responsible friends on social media stand against the reckless rhetoric from “covidiots” in Trump’s USA, Bolsonaro’s Brazil, and in many European countries (Germany’s massive “lateral thinking” anti-public health demonstrations have been a national embarrassment). As a result there has been little room in public conversations for compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and for critique of authoritarian moral absolutism.

But there is porn. Too taboo for cable news’ talking heads and less judgmental than righteous Twitter threads, porn and erotica is an unlikely but welcome space to play out fantasies of risk, consider collective responsibilities, and offer cultural criticism. Porn and erotica can even be a form of care: challenging and reaffirming without preaching.

Though the big studios have conspicuously avoided wrangling with Covid, smaller artists have heroically taken on the subject with creativity and chutzpah, such as all the contributors to Evergreen's COVID-69: Personal Protective Erotica series. The Berlin Porn Film Festival in October 2020 exhibited a series of corona-themed shorts in which filmmakers seemed to respond to a range of questions: What do we owe each other? How do we live, suffer, and get off during lockdown? How do we respond to the technical and pragmatic challenges and continue to make porn? How do we make life a little bit better for others in isolation? Screened online and in real-life movie theaters (the festival happened just a few weeks before Germany entered a second lockdown), the shorts ranged from tongue-in-cheek comedy, to arthouse erotica, to the sensually affirming. Besides two films that clearly had more artistic aspirations, all the shorts exhibited what might be considered responsible corona porn: the performance of pleasure within the confines of public health guidelines. Here was tangible reassurance that some of us, at least, were getting off and following the rules.

The one film in the corona shorts session that trended heteronormative happened to be the most wholesome: “Sex and Love in the Time of Quarantine,” produced by the Barcelona-based feminist porn-maker Erika Lust. The film is a genuine, erotic reaffirmation that we’re all in this together, inviting viewers into the private homes of six performers (two couples and two solo acts) during the early weeks of quarantine. The film opens sweetly with the Florida-based couple King Noir and Jet Setting Jasmine sitting casually dressed in front of the camera. We hear a long, single cry of an infant coming from another room off-screen. “Uh-oh,” says Noir. Both parents freeze. Their bodies tense up and their eyes unfocus as they sit still, straining to hear if the cry will subside. Both Noir and Jasmine place their fingers to their puckered lips and softly sssshhhhh to the camera. It’s cute and relatable for the parents out there trying to juggle toddlers and videoconferences, or perhaps for those trying to film themselves making love without cameos from their children. A few written sentences from Erika Lust introduce the film, “It’s so strange to think that over half of the world is living in quarantine right now. What are you doing after washing your hands? Are you touching, fucking, sucking, licking enough?” The featured performers are presented in their homes, sharing details from their quarantined life in a reality TV confessional style. Casey Calvert in Los Angeles tells us she had to cancel her 30th birthday trip to Japan. A couple known as MySweetApple films the daily applause residents give to healthcare workers at 8 PM from their rooftop in Barcelona. Each of the performers tells the camera how lockdown has affected their sex lives before filming themselves either making love or masturbating. The end result is sweet and edifying of Covid-19 sexual health guidelines.

We might all be in this together, but some of us have had it much worse than others. In Covid Obsession, an Italian entry to the film festival, the performers—who we are told at the beginning of the film are roommates adhering to the strict Italian quarantine measures—merge the mundane and the explicit. We see the roommates drinking tea, cutting their nails, urinating, and masturbating in complete isolation from one another. An anti-melodic soundscape of high-pitched tones and noises aggravates the soundtrack, making for a disorienting, anxiety-inducing experience.

If you’d like to donate, VITIUM is now re-directing everyone to this very comprehensive list of funds collected by RED UMBRELLA FUND.

 

Sex workers have been hit particularly hard by the lockdowns. With shrinking clientele and abandoned by the state while simultaneously being mandated to stop working, sex worker mutual aid initiatives have sprung up around the world. Two films in the Festival’s corona series were produced as fundraisers for sex worker organizations. “Moan Together” is a four-minute music video by the celebrated queer filmmaker Matt Lambert, who pieced together crowdsourced video from sex workers and performers who dance, jack off, play with dildos, and lip synch to music by BabyDykez, whose queercore lyrics are on point for 2020: “Got nothing to do / got nowhere to go / Fuck me slow and fill up my hole […] The world is burning, we might be the last / The only way to die is with a dick in my ass.”

Another film that fundraised for sex worker economic relief was “Sex in Times of Corona” an eight-minute short produced within a network of Berlin-based alternative porn producers. The film opens with a friendly-looking cutie sitting behind a desk wearing a white coat that doesn’t quite look medical but maybe does add a bit of authority. His hair is slicked back and he is wearing nerdy hipster glasses. In an infomercial voice he asks the viewers, “Are you suffering from pre-sexual arousal? Lockdown got you down? No worries. There is no need to be celibate these days.” He assures viewers they can have sex as long as appropriate measures are taken. Two people in hazmat suits and gas masks attempt to kiss and fondle one another. Cautioning against “falling into bad habits,” he says, “sexual intercourse is so 2019.” Rather, he offers a series of tips about how to pleasure yourself and others safely.

“Stay in touch without touching.” A woman does burlesque striptease from her window. Across the courtyard, neighbors ogle her from their windows and applaud.

“You cannot count on stable wifi, so explore other means to stay connected.” A sexy young punk lies on an old sofa, a tin can and string held to his ear, stroking his beautiful dick. The string is connected to an apartment across the courtyard where a trans man is talking dirty into another can while jacking off his strap-on dick. He has spiked blonde hair, purple nails, and bright pink lips. He’s wearing rolled-up jeans shorts and a hot pink mesh halter top.

More tips follow: essential goods like toilet paper can be withheld from roommates as BDSM play. Sex toys are safe to use with partners as long as you maintain proper distance. For this one, we see a young woman’s aroused face. The camera pans down her body and we see her being penetrated with a dildo that has been jury-rigged onto a two-meter pole extending out of the window, pumping in and out of her vagina by her neighbor who is standing at an adjacent window. BDSM needle piercing, renting a sex dungeon for masturbation, and erotic dancing for your “doppelgänger” (in the mirror or as a TikTok duet feature) can all be sage solo play.

“Or you can get surreal,” the expert narrator suggests. A man and a woman appear in split screen. The shot pans from their faces down their bodies. We see his flat chest and her breasts. Both are moaning in pleasure. But when the camera arrives between their legs they’ve managed to switch genitals and we see the guy eating his own pussy and likewise the woman sucking her own dick.

The final scene is my favorite. “Do you enjoy a juicy cum shot as much as I do? Better run fast!” The sexy punk from earlier is rubbing his penis. He’s kneeling on his windowsill, dick waving in the fresh air. He shudders in orgasm, thrusting, and shoots his load out of the window. He jumps back from the window, races out of the apartment, runs down the stairway, leaps out the building door, and miraculously appears under his own window just in time for his cum to rain down on his face. He licks his lips, wipes some stray cum from his eye, and sucks it from his finger.

The nerdy narrator ends the film by reminding us to “stay inside and stay safe.” During the credits we are assured that all scenes were produced by “mini teams” consisting of only co-habitants. “Production followed the local regulations of the city of Berlin for the prevention of Covid-19.” Nearly all the corona shorts screened at the festival included a similar message at the beginning or end of the films. I was reminded of the disclaimers common among studio-produced gay porn about all of the actors being of legal age and undergoing HIV and STI testing before filming. Especially for bareback scenes, the statements would include an encouraging statement about “playing safe,” as if to say, “we may be breaking the condom code for your viewing pleasure, but you definitely shouldn’t.”

Theo Meow, one of the many collaborators in the film, assured me that the actors and crew followed Covid-19 hygiene measures and included the statement to avoid any easy moralist criticism of making porn during the lockdown. “I feel like a lot of people lost tolerance for any ambiguity. It’s like the rules made it easier for them to cope with the uncertainty—‘If I follow the rules, I’ll be safe. If I don’t follow the rules, I’ll definitely get corona.’”

Getting fucked by a dildo on the end of a two-meter pole, fondling one another dressed in full body PPE, and reserving a room in a sex dungeon for solo masturbation all come off as ironic representations of sexual satisfaction. We know that catching our own cum out of the window is impossible. We know that in all likelihood, a cabaret striptease show delivered from our apartment window is more likely to be met with jeers and possibly a knock on the door from the police rather than applause. Even worse, we’d probably just be ignored. How then should we read such acts of supernatural sexual prowess?

“We never planned to send a message out into the world,” Meow told me. “We wanted to have fun. We were stuck inside and bored, and shooting the porn was a way to reclaim some of the agency that had been stripped from us by the lockdown. And it was fun. Strictly commercial, political, or artsy productions are so much work because there is a lot of pressure to make everything perfect. This porn we did for ourselves. A lot of the solo scenes were self-directed and filmed in the performers’ homes, and the others were filmed within our own network of friends in the same apartment building. I live in a shared flat and we’re kinda like a porn flat. To me, I think the film says that eroticism and sexuality will always adapt to the circumstances. I feel like this whole corona thing is a big kink, and the eroticism lies in the restraint and confinement we feel locked in our apartments.”

The film urges creativity but recognizes the obvious limits to physically-distanced erotic play and pokes fun at the absurdity of the moment. We know you are so horny and lonely you are about to go insane, but have you tried using FaceSwap to suck your own dick?

 

So-called corona porn demonstrates how porn and erotic storytelling can build space apart from the politically polarized lockdown hell. It can warmly reaffirm sexual desires and express solidarity. It can be the scream of anxious fury into the void. It can be a form of mutual aid and awareness building. And it can be a space for play, humor, and even critique.

Rufus Bright, the actor who played the announcer in “Sex in Times of Corona,” thinks that porn producers and directors who think about big-picture messages are the exception. Amari, the horny muscled man in “A Modern Massage,” told me he didn’t even know the plot of the film before arriving on set: “we just showed up to fuck.” When I asked if he thought the filmmakers were commenting on the moment, perhaps even on the conflict of responsibility versus pleasure, he said he doubted it, “I think they just saw the opportunity to create a new theme.”

After all, “it’s just porn.” Porn is a genre that most people consume voraciously and uncritically. Few of us are buying tickets to porn film festivals. However, considering the amount of porn that the world consumes—billions of hours a year cumulatively—we shouldn’t dismiss its cultural value or potential. The queer critic Escoffier writes, “It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of video pornography among gay men.” Due to its unabashed depiction of gay male sexuality and its ubiquity, it is often the first explicitly homoerotic media that young gay and bisexual men experience. Similarly, Florêncio told me that “as a pedagogy of desire, bodies, and affects, porn provides a representation of desires and pleasures that were and still are denied in other forms of media.” Even when creators don’t intend their work to be taken all that seriously—if they do it for a laugh or for the viral clicks—the results can still speak truth to the moment. Audiences project meaning onto content that reverberates with common experience.

Meow has a point when he says that sexuality will always adapt to the circumstances, that eroticism will always find a way. Sometimes we explore and discover new practices of sexual pleasure within the shifting norms of health and safety. Sometimes we play with those very guidelines, flirting with constraint, denial, and surrender. Sometimes we ignore the norms altogether and justify our transgressions as a form of liberation. None of these contradicting responses are in total opposition. We often find particular pleasure in tension and then experience release while watching erotic representations of moral ambivalence. This is by no means new, but it rings especially true during times of corona. And we may as well encourage these new eroticisms. We may as well enjoy them.