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On Coronavirus, and the Commodity of Sex

People wearing masks

The current pandemic is my generation’s first. But thanks to technology, advancement in medicine and our will to survive in the face of death and adversity, coronavirus will leave the world with scars, as against the envisioned damage it would have left if it had visited a century ago. Some have said it will come and go, possibly as an epidemic. Some have spoken and have written about a shift in our cultures and our lives. Like the pain/death that has visited young and old people, another defining and sobering reality of the pandemic is how human interactions are now controlled by a call for distance and a cut in physical interactions. This, in what would have been termed a stolid and impracticable call before, is a teaser of the new normal.


Evident in the attention the spread gained and the depressing rate of infection and death in the first quarter of 2020, the global and regional efforts at containment and saving lives are yielding results. Now, seeing the opening act of the new normal, the worst hit nations and other societies that locked down or took other routes are opening up and planning how to live with the virus. The pain and fears that inhibited us earlier are slowly losing steam. We’re getting the template on how to live now, adapting to the shifts in culture and coping with the difficulties of a conscious life in simple things like hugs, handshakes, meet-ups, partying, vacations or sharing items. This has also affected a simple or not-so-simple (given the society or persons involved) subject like SEX.


Sex (oral sex, kissing/cuddling, penetrative sex in heterosexual and homosexual relationships, or masturbation and the use of sex toys) is a major feature of our universal existence. Its importance today is argued for by its banality in liberal societies and the pretentious retribution, choked with censorship, it gets in conservative societies. Religions have also given it life with a sacredness that puts it in a metaphysical realm; regulating it with conditions, punishments and blessings. For some it’s the body’s worship, for some it’s a casual sport.


Physical-contact sex is the most elevated practice in heterosexual and gay sex. It is prominent in marriages, relationships and sex work. The transmission of the coronavirus, infection through respiratory droplets that can survive on different surfaces, strips physical-contact sex of its elevated status. As infections across the globe increase, more people realize sex with intimate partners or sex workers needs moderation and caution. The worry of contracting the virus burdens adults with a fear that swarms their psychological space, causing a disinterest in physical-contact sex, or sex. The reported surge in the purchase of sex toys when different nations announced lockdowns is therefore not surprising.


Intriguing is the fatigue elicited by the worry of having sex with a partner one is not locked down with, or a sex worker who also places premium priority on their safety. As societies move past lockdowns and other measures restricting movements and travels, the fear of contracting the virus through contact, especially for the sexually active working class population, persists. Pornography, masturbation and sex toys may become fancied alternatives for some. Some contributors in the collection of essays Pop-porn: Pornography in American culture (edited by Ann C. Hall and Mardia J. Bishop) view masturbation, pornography and sex toys as valid means of expression, a form of liberation and a therapeutic self-care that ground individuality.


Though they – pornography, masturbation and sex toys – buoy confidence and help in the exploration of one’s body, their ability to drive addiction also underscores how they weaken intimacy in relationships that center commitment. Beyond relationships, the economic impact of zero or limited physical-contact sex on sex workers is a vital part that may only get a farcical attention. For the foreseeable future, this will bite harder in societies that pretentiously abhor sex work, where sex-workers are incapable of converging sex work and technology.


In an article for Elle magazine, Claire Downs examined the economics of sex work in the traffic nudes and raunchy videos drive on a platform like OnlyFans. The restriction in movement and a global cut in income have caused an increase in accounts signed up on OnlyFans. This has created income for the sex workers taking advantage of a platform better regulated than other online platforms that often profit from insensitivity, gross exploitation involving flouting the clear legal framework that condemns the commercialization of minors. However, the mainstreaming of online sex like the contents OnlyFans provides or other sites that enable webcam/video sex is still difficult in a society like Nigeria where sex is mostly understood through a linear perspective of physical-contact heterosexuality. While it is interesting to note that sex workers in Nigeria have never made maximum profit from sex work (no thanks to the society’s perception on sex work and the constant harassment from law enforcement), a paywall bridge that cuts out Nigeria makes it impossible for them to earn on OnlyFans.


Sex in marriages comes under the light too. A return to an active society guarded by medical guidelines will affect infidelity, intimacy and the future of sex-driven marriages. Though there is a scarcity of convincing literature on the nature of infidelity and its spread, studies have shown that sex is not its only impetus. It also survives on a search for intimacy, comfort and security. The fear of sex in a period overwhelmed by the changing face of coronavirus would likely tame licentiousness in sane quarters. It would also alter physical-contact sex if those involved do not overrun the science of the virus with their urges. The small win here is the revival of some dying unions and a temporary reduction in STI/STD related infections as sexting, pornography, masturbation, online sex become alternatives.


Nevertheless, the frustration of dissatisfied partners that have suddenly found it unsafe to engage in physical-contact sex with people whom they have no commitment with endanger mental health, leaving the helpless partners (read: women) exposed to domestic violence. The uncertainty with the shifting dynamics of sex in the face of coronavirus is how marriages predicated on the sexual energy of the partners involved would fare if their intimacy is no more nuanced by sex due to diminished sex drives. This uncertainty cannot be discarded in a society where the need to survive will expose people, infect some, and force some into isolation.


The temporary general irreverence and denudation of attention sex suffers at the moment is healthy. It is rightly driven by safety and fear till the arrival of a vaccine. As we settle into a different world grounded by the absence of a vaccine yet, sex will slowly find its usual place again. A shift in culture and lifestyle for the foreseeable future will introduce new models of safe sex or popularize the already-safe existing models. If a worry arises later, it would be about how positive, negative, controlling, satisfying or mind-numbing the introductions – woven with caution – are.



Lanre Apata is a full-time reader of literature, a part-time writer and an editor. He also works in Nigeria’s educational sector.


  • Ayebo Samuel A June 4, 2020

    No one is ready to die carelessly or carefully