‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’: Why Banning Sex Is Bad Public Health Policy

by Sophie K Rosa

13 February 2021

“It’s the least sexy thing, having to go straight to the bedroom because of a pandemic,” says Cara* of her and her girlfriend’s strategy to minimise risk whilst still seeing each other during lockdown. 

Having agonised over the risks of Covid-19 transmission, the broader public health situation and their own mental health, the couple decided they were willing to break the law to see each other. Despite this, they are still extremely concerned about reducing Covid-19 transmission and are taking lots of precautions to prevent it. This means only going into the bedroom and bathroom of each other’s houses, staying away from each other’s housemates and ‘socially distancing’ from everyone outside of their households apart from each other.  

“Everything I’m doing, I’m thinking what’s the risk, and what’s the feeling I’m going to get back from it,” says Cara. “I’m desperate, like everyone else, for joy at this time.”   

For almost a year now, it has been illegal, or against UK government regulations, to have sex with another person unless you live with them. In March 2020, the government’s latest pandemic guidelines indirectly outlawed all but cohabiting sex in a bid to reduce the spread of the virus – a move that lawyers have speculated could even be non-compliant with human rights law. Indeed, this total disregard for the public’s needs and desires for sex – and for all other types of physical intimacy – has inevitably led to people breaking the rules and, in place of any meaningful guidance, working out for themselves what feels safe in relation to the ever-changing context of the pandemic. 

“When we repeat it back to ourselves… it’s wild,” says Justin Hancock, a sex and relationships educator who wrote some of the first and only Covid-19 safer sex resources. Though limitations around our sex lives “might have been necessary,” he explains, the extremity of the rules around sex reflect how “poorly managed” this “public health crisis” has been. 

Sophie G Collins, a sexual ethics educator, agrees. “The fact that we haven’t heard any government minister say [the word] ‘sex’ at any point during this entire pandemic – a pandemic spread by close human contact – is absurd.”

During the first lockdown, Cara and her girlfriend didn’t see each other at all. “We didn’t even discuss it,” she says. “I think that was a lot of people’s response… you just accepted it.” But their attitudes changed at the start of last summer, when, “based on the fact cases had dropped a lot,” the pair started seeing each other again. “It became about looking at what the rules are… and deciding how that works in your life,” explains Cara.

Alex’s* attempts to follow the rules during the first lockdown came at great personal cost. Heeding the advice of deputy medical officer Dr Jenny Harries, who suggested people “test” their relationships by moving in together, Alex moved in with her then-boyfriend – something she says she never would have done outside of the context of the pandemic – a decision which ultimately led to the breakdown of her long-term relationship. 

Alex has since moved on, and during the summer met the man she is currently with in a bar. Despite the challenges of dating during numerous national lockdowns, the pair have decided to keep seeing each other. “He’s the one constant thing in my life,” she says, “and if that was to end my mental health would be suffering”.

Maya* is similarly motivated by concerns for her emotional wellbeing in continuing to date during the pandemic. She says that the government’s approach has been “blind to the fact that people need a certain amount of physical contact and that [sexual] relationships [can be] very important for mental health reasons.” With many of her friends avoiding all contact for family reasons or because of their jobs, Maya has been using dating apps to combat feelings of loneliness. 

‘Married couples seem to be the priority.’

For many, the government’s consistent prioritisation of the economy over people’s mental and emotional wellbeing has felt callous and dehumanising. 

“I love going to the pub,” explains Hancock, “but… I’d rather hug my friends… I’d rather have been able to have a small bubble.” Intimacy has taken a backseat to “business and property and commercial landlords”, he continues, arguing that the decision to open pubs and restaurants whilst still forbidding physical closeness in non-commercial spaces is ultimately an ideological one. The government’s “priorities for human interaction have always been around that which can be monetised,” he says.

Alex is a teacher and says it has been really hard to accept having to work in a school full of adults and children, yet “not being allowed a romantic partner in my bedroom with me.” This double standard was one of the main reasons Cara and her girlfriend ultimately decided to start seeing each other again. With pubs – “enclosed spaces [filled] with a load of strangers” – open, in Cara’s eyes, allowing just one person she really cared into her space felt like “common sense” – and something she ultimately “got a lot more from”. 

The government’s refusal to even acknowledge sex relates to “the hegemonic idea of what sex is for,” says Hancock. By the government’s logic, sex remains primarily about heterosexual reproductivity – something which is assumed to happen in monogamous couples, most of whom cohabit. As a result, “the idea that sex might be pleasurable or joyful or important [goes] completely out the window,” says Hancock. 

By refusing to engage with the issue of sex during the pandemic, “we’ve seen the most intense refocus on nuclear family structures, or pre-nuclear family structures, in the ‘established relationships’ rhetoric,” says Collins. “I almost feel like the government delights in it  – it’s a way of making only a very specific group of people feel recognised, celebrated and seen.”

Of course, this normative and extremely narrow understanding of sex fails to reflect the reality of people’s lives. This can be seen in the fact that many couples do not live together but in shared houses – a fact which makes the ‘bubble’ allowances for social contact impossible. 

“It’s all been from a very traditional, monogamous relationship standpoint – married couples seem to be the priority of who is valued in our society,” says Alex, whose current partner is in a non-monogamous marriage. “I couldn’t find information [on how to minimise risk] if you have multiple partners, or if your partner doesn’t live with you.” The frustration of her situation was further compounded when a government advisor was forced to resign after breaking lockdown rules to meet his married partner. Alex hoped the incident might bring a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of navigating sex during a pandemic. Instead, she says the media coverage has only intensified the moralising over non-traditional relationships.

By adopting a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to sex, the government has failed to allow for any kind of harm minimisation approaches. “This is devastatingly bad public health messaging,” says Collins.  

Hancock agrees, pointing out that the government’s failure to accept that there will always be people who – for whatever reason – won’t follow the rules to the letter (its own ministers included) meant they missed a vital opportunity to reduce transmission rates from the outset by considering harm minimisation approaches. “There’s no allowance for people to do things safely,” he says, suggesting that the government “could have just released some guidelines saying, ‘look we don’t want you doing this, but if you’re going to do it, keep your bubble as small as possible, talk to everyone else in other people’s bubbles.” 

Hancock wonders if there is an assumption on the government’s part that the general public is incapable of acting ethically and responsibly because “[it] thinks that we’re all scum.” With sexually transmitted infections, he points out, there is a common assumption that they are spread by people with lots of partners – but it’s actually cheating (that is to say, non-monogamy without communication and consent) that drives infection rates up. As with STIs, actually talking about Covid-19 sex would also make it safer, he says. 

Of the limited coronavirus safer sex advice that does exist, most of it comes from the grassroots – as has historically been the case with the dissemination of sexual health guidance. Individual activists like Hancock, the sexual health charity Terrance Higgins Trust and various sex worker organisations have all contributed to the UK’s scant pandemic sex-ed knowledge pool.  

Indeed, it should come as no surprise that much of the coronavirus-related sexual health advice that exists comes from queer and sex working communities, for whom continuing to have sex may be a matter of survival. Queer people and sex workers have always developed community-led sexual health approaches – and as a result, often practise safer sex more effectively than society at large. As Douglas Crimp wrote during the AIDS crisis: “Gay people invented safe sex. We knew that the alternatives – monogamy and abstinence – were unsafe, unsafe in the latter case because people do not abstain from sex, and if you only tell them “just say no,” they will have unsafe sex.”

“The sexual health community’s skills and knowledge haven’t been utilised at all,” says Collins. “Given that all of our practise and knowledge is heavily influenced by the last pandemic this country faced [HIV/AIDS] – that’s such a waste.” Notably, despite sexual health professionals being skilled in contact tracing – “it’s called partner tracing, and it’s a whole job,” says Collins – the country’s failed track-and-trace system was outsourced to inept companies like Serco. 

Amid the mainstream silence on pandemic sex, people have instead taken to devising their own approaches to minimising risk. Cara and her girlfriend “rely on an honesty policy” with each other’s housemates, so they can keep their “sphere of interaction” as small as possible. Alex gets tested regularly on account of being a teacher. While, both Maya and Alex use video calls with potential partners as a way to discern whether it feels ‘worth it’ before meeting them in real life. In the event that they do actually meet up with someone, first dates are always outside – mostly walks in parks. And in every case, communication and consent amongst everyone involved is of the utmost importance.

But even if a person is diligent about minimising risk, breaking Covid-19 rules to have sex can still ignite shame. “I feel bad about it all the time,” says Maya. “I’ve decided to stop because of how much guilt I feel around it.” For Cara, this shame is linked to her queer identity. “I think for both [me and my girlfriend] it’s brought out quite a lot of internalised homophobia,” she explains. “The fact that we need human contact has not been seen as a valid feeling or need… and that so obviously taps into a sense of ‘your relationship isn’t valid’, your feelings aren’t valid, the sex between you is wrong – all of those things are coming out.” 

The government is pretending that people who have relationships outside of the bounds of heteronormativity simply don’t exist, says Collins. Not only is shaming people proven to be ineffective in getting them to change their behaviour – as was most poignantly illustrated during the AIDS crisis – what is happening is also a “moral issue”, explains Collins. “People [who live non-heteronormative] lives deserve recognition.”

‘Sex is good. Sex is healthy.’

Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. Even hearing the government “recognising the importance of intimate relationships,” would have helped ease the pain of the past year, says Cara. More concretely, she wishes the government would have “prioritised letting people into each other’s homes before letting them into economic spaces.” 

In Denmark – which has a much lower Covid-19 death rate than the UK – the government has actively endorsed sex, with Søren Brostøm, director of the National Board of Health, announcing: “Sex is good. Sex is healthy. The National Board of Health is in favour of sex. We are sexual beings, and of course, you can have sex if you are single in a time with corona. As with any other human contact, there is a risk of infection. But of course, you have to be able to have sex.” 

Collins agrees and says that the government needs to learn from countries like Denmark and finally start treating sex with the seriousness it deserves. “[It has to] put touch at the front of our thinking,” she says, “and [make] sure everyone [has] people to hold hands with or hug or fuck.”

“Maybe that would have meant fewer shops being open,” at the start of lockdown, she concedes. “[But] I think people…really would have been OK with that.”

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.

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