When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Western world, many government health agencies came out with official advisory guidelines on how to engage in healthy sex during the pandemic. They thought it first important to state that having sex is good for one’s health: “Sex can be very important for mental, social, and physical well-being,” reads the government of British Columbia’s official CDC website. “Messages that discourage or shame people from sexual contact can be harmful and may discourage people from seeking essential sexual health services.” The advice from our most serious and well-respected medical professionals was to take precautions to insure healthy sex—“social distance” during sex; “wear a face covering or mask”; avoid “heavy breathing during sex” because it “can create more droplets that may transmit COVID-19. Avoid or limit kissing and saliva exchange. Choose sexual positions that limit face-to-face contact. Use barriers, like walls (e.g., glory holes), that allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact.” The expert intellects of our modern age have transformed shame from a moral problem into a medical one.
When seen through the lens of health, sex during the pandemic poses a clear problem, the solution to which only the linear thinking of a scientist could find. Human beings have sexual needs, the equation would read. We shouldn’t feel ashamed about this, because shame causes psychological and physical unhealthiness, and that is bad. Health is good, so we must establish guidelines so that individuals can maintain sexual health. In order to have both COVID health and sexual health, only a few adjustments need to be made. These can be easily accomplished since COVID is not readily transmitted through semen or vaginal fluids. By making small modifications to human behaviour, we are able to maximize public health by maintaining social distance during sex, preferably through a hole a wall. Problem solved.
It seems as though the physicians making the policies have a textbook understanding of sex, but have never actually done it themselves. In the effort to find a solution to the conflicting public health needs, experts in the field of public health have reduced sex to a medical procedure: nothing more than the physical act of inserting a penis into a vagina.
In our efforts to dispel the shame surrounding sex and make it an issue of health rather than one of moral complexity that is both dangerous and tender, dark and lighthearted, we have reduced the sexual act and our sexual nature to its lowest common denominator. This, writes psychologist Léon Wurmser, is what a culture does when it defends itself against its own brittleness and spiritual impoverishment. “The culture of shamelessness is also the culture of irreverence, of debunking and devaluing ideals,” he writes. There is more than a little irony to the fact that Wurmser’s book is titled The Mask of Shame. While health professionals admonish us to cover our faces in masks in order to have sex, the figurative mask of our rationalist, amoral reduction of sex to a physical health routine covers our society’s emotional disease. In reducing sex to a basic mechanical function in the service of health, we have covered the uniquely human parts of ourselves that should be engaged during sex and lost precisely what makes sex sexy—what transforms its mechanics into mystery. We have lost a sense of reverence for fucking, and for that loss we should feel shame—for this emotional pandemic there is no CDC approved mask.
The redeeming feature of the government’s pandemic sex policy came not from the health experts, but from the public, who laughed when given the directive to wear a mask during sex, to avoid heavy breathing, or have sex through a hole. The mockery of the medical instructions regarding sexual behaviours shows us that in a functioning liberal society, the public is aware that there are some behaviours that must always fall outside of official policy and expert advice, and that in a flourishing liberal society, we need discerning rule-breakers. What a thriving liberal society needs, perhaps more than protesters who work to reform official systems of public authority, are individuals who quietly and in an ordinary, everyday way put common sense to work as a homegrown corrective to officialdom in their private spheres. Individuals, that is, who are aware that most of life will occur outside of governing structures and who act accordingly, guided by their own intelligence and competence. If we legislate all human behaviours, we will lose what is irreducibly human about them, and unintentionally end up dehumanizing the very things we want to make more humane. When it comes to sex, I think, many of us can figure out best practices on our own. Or, at least there seems to be a silent, chuckling majority that feels this way.
In many ways, pandemic policies around sex have brought modern notions of sex and shame to the surface. Shame is unhealthy. Expressions of sexual desire that contribute to self-esteem are healthy. That we can achieve this from behind a mask—literal as well as figurative—is the very soul sickness of our age being packaged as moral and sexual progress. Sexual well-being, for us, is merely another chapter in our self-obsessed culture. We certainly don’t want to be restrictive or judgemental about sex; that would make us a prudish society. But what we have done is exchange prudery for self-serving pragmatism, to our loss. At least prudery retains something sacred and reverent about sex by upholding its forbidden nature. I’d rather spend my time savouring—or even simply being tantalized by—the forbidden fruit, than participating in some kind of optimized sexual health regimen, like a reluctant kid in phys-ed. In the same way that health experts give directives which, though well-intentioned, miss the point entirely about how sex is an act that should not be reduced to an exercise program, progressive teachings around sex do much the same thing: in making sex shameless and ethical, they rob it of its significance. If sex is to remain meaningful, it must always elude our moral codes surrounding it, while at the same time acknowledging the necessity of such codes. For sex to be something other than a mechanical act, it must continue to be a source both of shame and guilt. This saves sex from vulgarity, and gives us the opportunity to rebel rejoicingly.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell writes of the sexual relationship the protagonist Winston Smith had with his wife, a relationship that was mediated through the messages of The Party. Through and through, it is a cold, professional relationship, but would have been tolerable to him had it not been for the sex they had together, sex that was merely a political act. “By careful early conditioning,” Smith narrates, “by games and cold water, by the rubbish that was dinned into them at school and in the Spies and the Youth League, by lectures, parades, songs, slogans and martial music, the natural feeling had been driven out of them.” Orwell’s description of sex education in Oceana is uncomfortably similar to the kind of sexual ethics held by contemporary students. It does indeed seem that by the time students are in upper year university classes, their sexual values have been formed through “lectures, parades, songs, slogans” that deal with sexual ethics, but very few that deal with “natural feeling.” Nor have they had any conversations about what might make sex sexy.
In a recent class discussion of Romeo and Juliet, my students were adept at pointing out any slip in equitable language and any hint of an unfair power dynamic in the lovers’ relationship. Any suggestion of gender differences in the ways the lovers addressed each other were quickly identified, and corrected by the class. Their education has trained them to be highly sensitive readers of sexual relationships, and yet not one of them found anything beautiful, romantic, or sexy about Romeo and Juliet’s tenderness, playfulness, and electric desire. Assuredly, they didn’t acknowledge that “natural feeling” may be located precisely in the shifting power dynamics of the lovers or in their natural sexual differences. When I pointed out how erotic much of Romeo and Juliet’s language is, how beautiful, they all grew quiet and stared awkwardly at their copies of the play. It was like I was exposing an indecency.
Troubled by their silence, I asked, “Has no one ever told you that love can be sexy? That differences in gender can be hot? Power dynamics desirable? Have you never in all your years reading and studying poetry been told that this is good?” The students looked back at me in confusion, until one student simply and quietly said, “No.” It was one of those rare teaching moments where the students suddenly become aware of the narrow schooling they have received in progressive public institutions. Some students bristled to acknowledge there was a chink in their moral certainty, and then doubled-down on the inequities of the play. But most students, hearteningly, laughed at themselves, and at the rote thinking they have been trained to perform. The class itself, and our subsequent discussion, became more natural for many (but more intolerable for the few). The overriding atmosphere was one of relief—like unbuttoning one’s pants after a satisfying meal. To speak of sex and romance as things that are good gave the students an opportunity to think through sex as “natural” selves, rather than as “Party” members.
The puritanical evangelical Christian beliefs about shame, guilt, and purity that I was taught as a young child and teen had the unintended effect of making sex something imminently desirable. It was verboten because it was so tempting. The guilt surrounding it worked in direct proportion to its rumoured pleasures. Yet to speak of pleasure now seems childish, unsophisticated, and naïve. My students, evidently, have been trained to be beyond such vulgar delights, perhaps in large part because they believe themselves to be beyond sexual feelings of shame and guilt. What is shameful now are the social injustices of the patriarchy. What we should feel guilty for now is the use of gendered language, or sexual banter that can be interpreted as harassment, or assuming that there may be any natural sexual differences between men and women at all, to say nothing of the primal guilt of masculinity. The breathtaking judgmentalism of our modern era has made shame and guilt themselves into signs of virtue—but without any of their erotic appeal. In a perverse reversal, acknowledging one’s guilt has now become a source of moral pride.
On the one hand, then, young people are indoctrinated into sexual ethics that have nothing to do with sex but rather with self-identity and self-actualization. On the other hand, anything to do with sex is seen as a shameless expression of personal health achieved through mutual self-gratification. There is no forbidden fruit, since all is not only permissible, but encouraged as part of health maintenance—“people can, will, and should continue to have sex during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the health guidelines read. It is the should there that is most arresting; it would appear that health experts are giving us an injunction to have sex. Evidently, the professionals know best. In both instances, the sexual act itself is emptied of significance. The morality of the past hasn’t been rejected (that would serve to still hold the sexual act in a kind of satanic reverence, like the Marquis de Sade did by revelling in blasphemy), but rather we have diminished its potency by turning sex inwards, as selfdom. Now sex is an expression of individuality, self-identity, and an act of self-care. We have sublimated the natural impulses that draw us together into a modern individual. We have made moral progress, but towards what are we progressing, a Party individual or towards a more natural self?
The beauty of sex can never be incorporated into policy. The body, how it urges us to come together (pun intended) through high-quality fucking, allows us to experience benevolence in our animal nature. Sex is too natural to be regulated by policy, and too emotional. It is too uniquely human for a mandate—too feral, too spiritual, too universal, and too personal. It is embodiment and transcendence. Shame, guilt, honesty, and joy all bound up into one. Without shame, sex becomes animal banality. Without guilt, not very tempting. “The sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion,” wrote Orwell. He imagined a dystopia in which sex is all but forbidden. What he may not have imagined is a future in which sex is public policy, and desire self-identity.
Rebellion is breaking the rules. It is choosing to do something we know to be wrong. Shame is about wanting something private to be concealed, which is a source of erotic desire: we want to uncover that which is hidden and secret. Shame may make us feel guilt and embarrassment and even anguish, but in sex it is also the thing that draws us towards a co-conspirator and partner in crime. The opposite of shame isn’t pride. It is the redemption found in transforming shame into salvation, guilt into freedom. In my own, modest, natural way, I want to defend sex by saving shame, defend temptation by saving guilt, and rebel against policy by privately breaking the rules.
Dr. Marilyn Simon is a Shakespeare scholar and university instructor. She is currently working on a book entitled Lovers: A Humanist’s Ode to Sex.
Image: Detail of Adam and Eve in Paradise by David Teniers the Younger (wikicommons)