Can I touch you like that? – On communication in a pandemic…

‘Touch has a memory. O say, love, say

What can I do to kill it and be free?

John Keats

This pandemic is kind of shit, isn’t it?

It’s been hitting me in so many different ways recently. Work is still hard and I can’t see it getting easier soon. Lockdown and the separation it entails is becoming harder as official guidelines relax but I don’t feel safe yet. I miss seeing my family with ease. I miss seeing my friends in person and in groups and in crowded public places. I hate that I have lost faith in the government again. And, as superficial as it sounds, I am incredibly sad about all of the summer events that I love that aren’t happening anymore. Holidays, outdoor cinema, rooftop bars, and summer sports. Last week should have been Queens. Next week should be Wimbledon. I miss tennis. Damn, I miss tennis.

But tennis has still been in the news – sadly, for not great reasons. They’ve started trying to restart tournaments and, well, it’s not going well. Novak Djokovic is working hard for the title of my least favourite person and hosted an exhibition tournament called the Adria Tour that seemed to me like the epitome of arrogance and was wonderfully described by Marina Hyde as ‘one of the great stories in the annals of sporting twattery.’ They didn’t restrict travel or apply quarantines despite having an international field of players, they allowed hundreds of spectators into the stadiums, and they didn’t enforce any kind of social distancing on or off the court, now infamously being photographed dancing together topless in a crowded nightclub. They either didn’t believe the risks or felt they were invulnerable to them. When asked if this was wise, Djokovic told journalists (on a Zoom-based call) that ‘you can criticise us and say this is maybe dangerous. But it’s not up to me to make the calls about what is right or wrong for health.’ FFS.

Inevitably, there are now reports of players and team members testing positive for COVID, including Djokovic himself and two other top players – Grigor Dimitrov first and then Borna Coric. Even worse, it is proving to be a PR nightmare for the entire tennis world. What does it mean for other tournaments? Doesn’t it just prove that the players can’t be trusted to act responsibly?

While I could rant for a long time about how people in positions of responsibility keep underestimating the coronavirus, what really interests me is how people are talking about the disease in this context. As lockdown regulations relax, people are still going to catch it and are still going to get sick. While the risks may be lower, they’re not gone. This nightmare isn’t over and may never be. This disease may be something we have to live with for a very long time and we are going to be talking about it for a long time too.

And so I was fascinated with the expressions used by the team on an emergency episode of the ‘No Challenges Remaining’ tennis podcast about the outbreak at the Adria Tour. They spoke about about how great it was for Dimitrov to disclose his illness, how important it was that a high profile person had been public about their disease status and how they hoped that it would encourage others to come forward…

…and all I could think about was how much it reminded me of how we talk about HIV. Know your status. Get tested. Take precautions.

Dan Savage has mentioned on his podcast that there are similarities between the COVID and HIV pandemics – how we are all having to balance the need for intimacy and sex with the risks to our safety, how we don’t really know enough to properly understand the risks that we are taking and the guidelines were and are inadequate to really guide us, and yet how people are still hooking up even though they know how bad it could get.

Obviously, HIV is different from COVID. During the height of the AIDS pandemic, contracting HIV was almost certainly a death sentence for everyone who caught it, unlike COVID, so having unprotected sex was a huge personal risk. In contrast, the dangers with COVID are less personally extreme and more general and non-specific – as a young, fit person, the personal risk from COVID remains low but contracting HIV wouldn’t risk the health of other family members or the unexpectedly vulnerable person you sat next to on a long tube journey.

Importantly, there is also not (yet?) a stigma surrounding contracting COVID, whereas this remains a significant problem with HIV diagnosis, which was why I was chastened to hear them talking about the importance of high profile sportsmen disclosing that they had contracted the disease. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would keep it a secret and yet I can see why they would. I can definitely see a future where people are criticised for acting irresponsibly and personally blamed for catching the virus. After all, my reaction to Djokovic’s announcement was almost there already…

But if we want to keep ourselves safe, we are going to have to talk about the risks we are willing to take and we are going to have to accept that these methods aren’t infallible. We’re going to talk about exactly what we need to feel safe so that if we do then catch COVID, we don’t feel violated by others overstepping our unspoken boundaries or feel guilty for the unexplained choices we’ve made.

We’re going to have to think about whether we want to hug or touch our friends, lovers and relatives, and we’re going to have to stick to those boundaries. We’re going to have to talk to partners about who else they’re seeing and what precautions they’re taking, and we’re going to have to trust their answers. And once the antibody tests are more widespread, we’re going to have to talk about our status and come to mutually satisfactory agreements about what that means for us.

Poster asking to ‘keep your distance’ - an example of pandemic communication

Those of us in queer, polyamorous or kinky relationships may recognise these sorts of discussions as we’re often having them already. Edge play, pain, rope, humiliation, submission; none of these can be approached safely without a conversation first about what is expected and where there may be hard or soft limits and boundaries. Understanding relationship structures or future expectations in open relationships helps prevent later misunderstandings between partners. We talk about our latest STI test results and tend to be more vigilant about regular checks. These are all communication skills that are going to become very useful in the next few months!

But I fear that these conversations aren’t so common in the wider population. It’s almost a cliche that people in monogamous relationships have different definitions of what constitutes cheating – is sexting cheating? is kissing? how about flirting? – and the fact that STI rates are similar in both monogamous and open relationships suggests that there isn’t the same emphasis placed on STI disclosure and honesty, and maybe now is the time for all this to change.

In many ways, our personal interactions have already changed. We are already checking in with each other before going straight in to hug someone outside of our household. We are already talking about what we need to feel safe.

But I say ‘we’ knowing that this is most likely going to be read by people already practiced in these types of conversations – you’re reading a sex blog after all! And while the use of language and practices familiar to the sex literate community in this way is fascinating from a linguistics perspective, I have bigger hopes for our future.

Because I’m hoping that soon everyone will realise the importance of these discussions. When going on dates with new people, we risk looking standoffish if we unexpectedly maintain a two metre distance or overly familiar if we tuck ourselves in next to them on a bench seat. And these feelings of uncertainty at someone’s level of interest or creepiness at their unwanted closeness are not new; we’ve just not had the language to talk about them easily before. Maybe it’s also time for this to change.

Among the myriad ways that the world is different now, the ways that we communicate our wishes, desires and, most importantly, boundaries is going to have to change. I have grand hopes that the wider world learn from how we sex nerds talk about sex and also that this will improve the way that that wider world talks about sex too! When explaining that you prefer not to hug right now, maybe also tell them that you do like having your back rubbed, when you’re ready for that kind of closeness. When disclosing your antibody status or when you last had a negative COVID test, also tell them when your last STI test was. And if someone oversteps and gets too close, feel more empowered to tell them to back off.

We’re living in a whole new world – let’s try to make it a better one!

9 thoughts on “Can I touch you like that? – On communication in a pandemic…

  1. Here in Melbourne Australia, we managed to flatten the curve of the 1st wave, quite quickly. All international arrivals were put up in hotels for 14 days isolation. Then some penny pinching bureaucrat hired el cheapo private security guards to run quarantine hotels – no training, no supervision, byo masks. Well one stupid prick couldn’t keep it in his pants and with one horny, single returned traveller, broke quarantine for a quick roll in the hay.
    Well she infected him, who took it home to family, who spread it to another work-place and school, and on and on and on. So 5 weeks later and some 5-6000 covid cases later, genomic analysis has shown that almost all these cases are descended from that one break of quarantine. Unfortunately this chain of infections reached some aged-care attendants who infected elderly sick in nursing homes leading to more than half a dozen deaths.
    Yes, less than 1% of cases will die, 3% required ICU, 10% need hospitalization, and somewhere between 50% and 70% have none to mild symptoms. But it just needs one ‘super spreader’ among the asymptomatic to infect 50-100 directly (as we have seen at weddings, family gatherings, parties and night-clubs).

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