This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Alan stopped cruising for sex at public parks in Southern California for a month after the COVID-19 lockdowns began on March 19th, but has since been twice. As social distancing recommendations continue, he believes it’s naïve to think that guys will just stop having sex in parks altogether. “We have animal instincts, and we have a right to indulge in our desires,” Alan, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, explained to VICE through Squirt, a website known for its cruising listings. "Sex is the main reason why I live life right now. If I didn’t have this outlet, I don’t think I’d be around much longer,” he continued.
Many people are looking for anonymous park sex on Squirt, which operates internationally, despite the pandemic. It might be difficult to imagine why anybody would risk having sex with strangers in public when there are over 100,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S. alone. But the reason relates to something that’s rarely discussed in the national conversations around COVID-19.
“Sex and human contact are basic human needs,” said Scott A. Kramer, a psychotherapist serving the LGBTQ+ community in New York. “It’s like eating and drinking water. Without addressing [these needs], we are ignoring a huge issue, and we’re doing our community an enormous disservice.”
“People get so pent up and so involved in their needing to stay in that, sometimes, without any physical contact, or if they don’t go out at all to see anyone, what can happen is there can be sort of this explosion of behavior that can be harmful,” Kramer explained.
Greg, a 61 year-old man who works in the trucking industry whose name has also been changed for privacy reasons, believes that “people will stop having sex in parks at about the same time that Donald Trump gets a soul and admits he is a compulsive, lying psychopath,” he told VICE. He believes that sex is a “biological imperative,” and it’s illogical to think people will hold off as social distancing continues long-term. Greg also pointed out that sex continued during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. (At that time, activists centered the conversation around harm reduction, rather than abstinence.)
When asked about precautions he takes when having sex in parks, Greg didn’t indicate any measures that were meaningful to preventing the spread of COVID-19he goes by appearances, and won’t go through with an encounter if somebody “looks sloppy [or] unkempt, [or] smokes.” Even if he avoids visibly ill people, Greg risks coming into contact with people who are presymptomatic or asymptomatic, in a situation that would allow the virus to spread.
John, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, stayed away from park cruising in southwestern Ontario for three to four weeks after the lockdowns. He told VICE he’s been back to the parks two times for sex, and admits a “weakness” for “risky public encounters.” “The experience was a little more intense,” John said in an email to VICE. “[There was] definitely more fear of not only being caught, but also possibly getting COVID. I made sure to really grill my hookups about their health and where they have been."
In order to keep people safe while still satisfying their sexual desires, Kramer suggested not shaming them for acting on their feelings, a common online activity. “It’s going to make them maybe go out and do it again,” Kramer says. Shaming can drive behavior underground, and could increase the behavior if it’s fueled by anxiety.
Like shaming, abstinence-only approaches are proven not to work. A harm reduction approach, by contrast, can curb negative outcomes by educating people about how to reduce risk, rather than expecting them to not do the risky thing at all.
If we accept sex as essential, the next step is publicly talking about actual ways people can have safer sexual contact beyond a mere Zoom session, as Kramer suggested. “If we can come up with some realistic ways where people can interact face to face that makes sense for them, and where they feel safe, then I think that’s the best way to go.”
He believed that these conversations are already happening amongst friends, but thought it will be necessary to breach the topic on a larger scale. Policymakers and health experts could help the public think about the difference between low and high-risk activities, and help them accept that there are going to be people who take more risks despite the warnings.
“People have been experiencing sexual abstinence but not based on choice,” Kramer said. “If people want to meet… there can be ways to do that safely, like jerking off a safe distance from each other. Or having some very trusted partners that you know have been isolating.”
In a guest opinion piece in the Bay Area Reporter in April, writer Alan Lessik covered a variety of no-risk options that most of us know about, like using sex toys or watching porn. For low-risk sex with another person, he suggested shacking up with a playmate during the lockdown to create a safer-sex bubble, after each person follows a 14-day quarantine. During the quarantine, both people can leave the home so long as they follow social distancing and cleanliness protocols inside and outside of the home.
For what Lessik describes as “low-medium risk,” he suggested having a trusted and exclusive sex partner outside of the home for the duration of the pandemic, after both quarantine for 14 days as well.
“Sex is important,” Kramer reiterated, which is probably the best explanation as to why these guys cruise the bushes during a pandemic. “If it’s not talked about, like the way it’s usually not talked about, then we wind up with uninformed people taking too many risks.”