“Believe me, when the world feels like it’s ending, straight men are normally in the strip club,” says Pippa, a 26 year old dancer who works in a high-end venue in central London. This is no longer the case. The industry, like many others, is starting to feel the impact of coronavirus. “I don’t think a pandemic makes people horny,” she suggests.
Strippers in the UK have already been having a tough time (partly due to the demand-slashing impact of Brexit), which means that the pandemic has come at a particularly bad time. “It’s honestly a mess,” Pippa says. “There are far fewer people coming in who actually spend money.” The customers who tip well are mostly boomers (people aged between 55 and 75), many of whom are travelling businessmen. As a result of cancelled trips or, as Pippa proposes, “their wives having them on lockdown”, these men are not showing up.
Across the sex industry, workers are reporting similar problems. Wherever coronavirus has appeared, brothels are reporting a loss of business. Many porn actors are avoiding contact with other performers and suffering financially in the process. A gay sauna in Syndey has introduced mandatory temperature testing for everyone who wishes to enter – a measure which, given coronavirus can be asymptomatic, seems doomed to be partially effective at best. (During the writing of this piece, I reached out to a number of saunas in London to find out how they’re planning to weather the crisis but none responded.)
Recreational sex isn’t faring much better: a dogging community in Buckinghamshire has announced a hiatus due to safety concerns, while I’ve been told it’s become common to see men on Grindr switching their preferences to ‘chat-only’ for fear of contracting the virus. In a somewhat half-arsed attempt at corporate responsibility, Tinder are presenting users with an in-app advertisement imploring them to wash their hands, avoid touching their faces and “maintain distance in social gatherings”, which would rule out most of the things people like to do after successful Tinder dates. If the situation worsens and we’re subjected to an Italy-like quarantine, it goes without saying that this will have serious consequences for people’s capacity to have any kind of sex whatsoever.
Whatever mass celibacy may be heading our way, it’s unlikely to be state-mandated, nor will it need to be – the virus is turning us all into germaphobes. Most sexual contact is unhygienic by nature but, in the normal state of play, desire is enough to override any feelings of disgust. This is what allows us to lick all those sweaty, hairy orifices and ask our partners to spit in our mouths with such heady enthusiasm.
But as the pandemic is beginning to manifest in the UK, it’s making us warier of other people and their horrible, disgusting germs. When someone coughs on public transport today, it causes a real crackle of tension; people stare at the unfortunate sneezer with a hostility which doesn’t feel a world away from physical violence (sadly, the UK has already seen racist attacks relating to the virus). Across the country, there’s an air of hysteria about the dangers – real or imagined – posed by other people’s bodies, so it’s hardly surprising that our sex lives are taking a hit. When a virus which can kill you is being spread by respiratory droplets, who would want to swap fluids with a stranger?
“It seems a bit counterproductive to be using hand sanitiser in work and then go give a blow job to a stranger in the woods in the evening,” says Paul, 26, a gay man whose coronavirus-related anxieties have lead him to knock cruising, or indeed any kind of casual sex, on the head. “Much like hooking up with someone on Grindr, you aren't going to be aware of the individual's circumstances, like where they've travelled to recently, so you’re taking a shot in the dark. Certainly the pandemic has made me reconsider cruising.”
There are obvious parallels with an earlier crisis and it’s getting increasingly common to see analogies made between HIV and coronavirus, many of which are sensationalist and a little crass. But the AIDS crisis does serve as an earlier example of people having to change their sexual behaviour in the wake of a pandemic, and maybe there’s some lessons to be learned. Looking at the AIDS crisis could help us figure out what the issues at stake really are.
“We don’t want to say that they’re the same virus or they have the same effect because they’re different. HIV is relatively weak in terms of how it transmits,” says Dr. Steven W. Thrasher, a professor at Northwestern University and scholar of HIV/AIDS. Although HIV is less infectious, it’s far deadlier (the mortality rate for coronavirus is currently estimated at being around 2-4 percent, whereas for untreated HIV it could be as high as 90 percent). It’s therefore not particularly useful, from a biological standpoint, to compare the two viruses. “But there are political and epidemiological links,” says Dr Thrasher. “They both affect similarly vulnerable populations; people who are homeless or incarcerated or who don’t have access to paid sick leave are going to be unduly affected.”
The lack of unpaid sick leave may end up being the factor that hits sex workers hardest. Pippa, like most people who work in strip clubs, is a contractor rather than an employee, which means she’s not entitled to sick pay. It also means she has to pay rent to the club in order to work, which leaves her particularly vulnerable to drops in demand. All of this makes for a precarious situation at the best of times, but particularly so in the midst of a pandemic.
“I know quite a few girls are worried because it’s so empty and it‘s getting easier and easier to work a shift and leave with no money,” Pippa says. “The new year is always quiet and it’s very ruthless but now it’s just increasingly toxic and actually quite tough and depressing.”
Not everyone has the privilege of being able to follow the official advice on coronavirus; not everyone can self-isolate at will or opt out of close contact with strangers. Pippa’s work environment itself poses its own risks. “I’m kind of a germaphobe and strip clubs are, honestly, a cesspit of bacteria. Now I’m washing my hands 30 times a shift. I always hated it if a customer had a cold or was coughing before this. I think it’s very rude to come there if you’re not well! You have to get close to them. If you’re in a private room and someone is carrying coronavirus you will invariably get sick. I guess you could try to dance strategically but maybe you can get it if someone coughs on your butthole – who knows?”
One thing the coronavirus pandemic has really shown is that sex workers in the UK, and indeed any kind of worker, lack the flimsiest of safety nets. Whether you’re a bartender not getting paid for your sick days, or a stripper struggling to make ends meet because clients are staying away, the underlying problem is the same. In the face of a pandemic, no-one should have to worry about making rent – a point that plenty of liberal or even right-wing commentators seem to be finally accepting (if only because it risks affecting them).
But no-one should have to worry about being plunged into poverty because they’re sick, in any scenario, even if the only health at stake is their own. ACT UP activist Zoe Leonard once told Sarah Shulman: “What AIDS revealed was not the problem of the virus; what AIDS revealed was the problem – the problems of our society. It was this fissure through which everything, all the ways in which our society isn’t working, became really clear.” Already it feels as though the coronavirus is doing something similar, but whether this has any long-lasting, positive effects remains to be seen.
“We really have to shift our thinking to think how we need to take care of everyone,” says Dr Thrasher. “Even if you were to be selfish, you need everyone else to be well. And who can truly self-isolate? We all depend on each other.”
Unfortunately, in this context, maybe one of the most socially conscious things you can do is putting the dating apps on the back burner and having a wank at home instead. And then washing your hands really, really thoroughly.