Text by Pierre Brouard
Just “stay in the house and shag” said UK comedian Guz Khan when asked how he was coping with Covid-19.
That’s all very well I thought when I read the interview on the Guardian online, but what if you don’t really have a house that’s conducive to sex at any time of the day; or you live alone (I guess masturbation counts as being sexual, I will concede, but then a friend I was chatting to said he was “seeing how long I can go without masturbating” – but why? I thought); or your partner is abusing you; or you are so exhausted from 24 hour parenting and schooling sex is the last thing on your mind; or you have to go to work because you work in an essential service.
I also wonder if sex in an epidemic is the same as sex when life is “normal”? Beyond the advice columns about whether sex can be as safe as it was BC (before Covid) – in sum the experts say it’s ok to do what you want if you are Covid free, you should avoid each other completely if one of you has it, and you could switch to technology if you live alone or apart from your partner (video sex, sexting and the dreaded Zoom of course) – what do epidemics of fear do to our sex drives?
A Google search found this fascinating chapter from War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa by Joshua S. Goldstein. These are my take home messages, with a Covid twist.
We can become obsessed by sex
When we think we might die, we can become obsessed with sex as there is a sense of urgency about having one last intimate experience of life, or possibly the sex is a distraction from our deepest fear, death.
“Soldiers show an ‘almost universal preoccupation with sex’ – an ‘obsession with sex in a community of men…deprived of usual social and emotional outlets.’ A British officer in World War I concluded that ‘[m]ost soldiers were ready to have sexual intercourse with almost any woman whenever they could.’”
Here in Gauteng a man was arrested in a road block for trying to go and visit his girlfriend, not visit his dying granny as he initially claimed. Perhaps he was just going to have tea with her, who knows?
These obsessions don’t occur in a vacuum
US and British military culture in World War II promoted this preoccupation with sex. As Goldstein notes, over 5 million copies of Life magazine’s 1941 photo of Rita Hayworth (captioned the “Goddess of Love”) were sent out to US soldiers. They were published not only in men’s magazines but in service publications like Stars and Stripes (or for Britain, Reveille).
Obviously this is a heteronormative take on war-time sexuality but it speaks to the idea that sex can become a preoccupation when we are deprived of it, and that military systems found a way to channel this: it was in their interest to entertain the preoccupation, given the horrors of war.
In South Africa, the idea that sex might be a need in a time of Covid would be regarded as frivolous by some and the regulations around staying at home, on the surface a key part of the “flatten the curve” strategy, dovetail very neatly with our generally conservative morality. But like HIV, Covid has been a revealer of our sexuality: sexologist Dr Eve on a Radio 702 show shared how many infidelities were being exposed through this lockdown!
Social norms can become disrupted
Another consequence of war is the disruption of social norms, especially if soldiers operate far from home, with new sexual opportunities and motives. “The disruption of normal sexual patterns was noted empirically by a New Orleans ‘madam’ whose business increased when America entered World War I: ‘I’ve noticed it before, the way the idea of war and dying makes a man raunchy. It wasn’t really pleasure at times, but a kind of nervous breakdown that could only be treated with a girl and a set to.’”
Men saw sex workers, with and without military blessing, and sometimes formed relationships with local women (whose own relationships may also have been disrupted). “A US soldier in France in World War II wrote to his father that he planned to ‘get my fun where I can get it while I’m still alive. And to hell with tomorrow – it may never come.’ And apparently US airmen in England “who beat the odds by surviving could have sex after a mission, consistent with the testosterone boost produced by a ‘win’”. Who were they having sex with, at such short notice? I wonder.
We could debate whether seeing a sex worker is a disruption of a social norm, but the words of that brothel owner are rather poignant – the men were having a “a kind of nervous breakdown”. I would venture that this is what a protracted lockdown can produce: will this change the way we have sex during and after “the time of the virus”?
Being at the front or the back mattered
In wartime the areas of greatest violence – the front lines – had far less sexual activity than the more peaceful areas behind the lines. “The ordinary soldier found that ‘[i]n the trenches there was no place for sexual life, at least not for a normal one…. According to Hirschfeld, soldiers in the trenches had few outlets for sexual energy and suffered ‘sex hunger’ on a massive scale – an ‘oppressive sex starvation.’ Sex hunger was compounded in World War I by the close quarters of men at the front, which often made even masturbation impractical. In World War II, by contrast, one soldier was more often alone in a foxhole, although a great stigma still attached to masturbation.”
Behind the lines, by contrast, sex flourished in World War II. “By one calculation, the average US soldier who served in Europe from D-Day through the end of the war had sex with 25 women. The peak was reached after the surrender of Germany in 1945. Condoms had to be rationed at four per man per month and medical officers considered this ‘entirely inadequate.’”
This is a fascinating observation: the imminence of death and sex urgency seems implied in the words of the “madam” above, and in the letter of the US soldier to his father, but perhaps it is the anticipation of death rather than the proximity of it which is more provocative? I think here of the frontline medical staff dealing with Covid – I would imagine they are too exhausted and afraid to think of sex, whereas the rest of us in a panicked lockdown might be more inclined to sexual abandon or risk (or not, as I suggest below).
“Normality” seems broken
“Hirschfeld claims that bestiality provided another substitute outlet created by the sexual starvation of the war”, said Goldstein and “a military physician posted with a division of the Austro-Hungarian army on the Italian front reportedly thought that at least 10 percent of the men had sex with animals (usually their horses).”
And, not surprisingly, psychological problems after the war often included sexual dysfunction, such as inability to maintain an erection, well after returning to civilian life.
Depression, anxiety, job insecurity, all of these are likely in our current climate, and they are the enemy of a relaxed and comfortable sexual life. What we are going through as a country is not normal by any stretch of the imagination.
“Just stay in the house and shag” seems suddenly so bourgeois, so lacking in insight. We are living in the middle of a massive social experiment. Like my friend who has quit masturbating for a while, it’s one which may not have a happy ending.