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Is Casual Sex an Essential Service?

In the midst of a pandemic, why do casual sex apps continue to operate?

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In 1990, as a newly minted social worker, I was invited to present at a San Francisco-based HIV/AIDS conference about what we now refer to as Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder and its relationship to the transmission of HIV. At that time, we had few solutions for people with HIV/AIDS. They mostly got sick and died. So this was a matter of life and death for the gay community.

Back then, I was a young, passionate, highly engaged therapist who sincerely wanted to combat HIV/AIDS. That’s why I was giving this talk – a talk that eventually became my first book, Cruise Control. But this was my first talk in front of a professional audience, and I was completely terrified. How would they receive me? Would they hear and accept my message about the need for sexual behavior change to curb the HIV/AIDS pandemic?

Well, it didn’t go well. The moment I began to express concern about having just walked in on some men having sex in one of the bathrooms in the hotel where this very conference was being held, the boos began: “You’re just like those jerks who closed the bathhouses,” and, “Go back to your effing conservative life, you homophobic jerk.” To my audience, individuals who were considerably more attuned to social bias and prejudice than medical science, my message was misperceived and unwelcome.

Here we are 30 years later, facing another deadly virus transmitted through close physical contact. And here I am again, voicing a professional message of concern about the possibly deadly impacts of casual sex. But this time I am prepared for, ready for, and even anticipating backlash. I fully expect that some readers will strongly disagree with what I’m saying in this blog post, and they will wonder how I can be so sexually conservative, judgmental, unsupportive, anti-sex, and all the rest.

If you are one of these folks, let me respond with the same answers I gave in 1990.

  1. Our health and survival are more important than what you think of me or my words.
  2. Your right to have in-person casual sex does not trump the greater needs of public health.
  3. Calling out sexual behavior that promotes potentially lethal virus transmission is not sexually conservative; it’s simply the right thing to do.

In 2020, instead of talking about men having sex in bathroom stalls, I am asking why, when we can’t walk down the street without wearing a facemask, hookup apps are still helping people geolocate partners for casual sex. Sure, some of these services have posted warnings – brightly colored, occasionally flashing statements that essentially say, “Don’t do what you came here to do, it’s not a good idea.” But after that, you are free to hook up with any interested person. So the real message is more like, “Have fun and try not to die.” Much like the warnings we put on cigarettes.

It is not now nor has it ever been my job to judge the sexual choices and behaviors of consenting adults. But today, as during the HIV/AIDS crisis, lives are on the line. In the midst of a lethal virus outbreak, some of our social and sexual freedoms must take a backseat to public health. When facing a disease for which we have no vaccine or cure, perhaps even the horniest among us should step away from casual sex for a while. And maybe the apps that help and even encourage people to engage in casual sex should suspend that service until the pandemic passes.

I don’t know if such change requires legal action or a public health message or companies just deciding to do the right thing. What I do know is that there are plenty of sexual alternatives. For example, hookup apps could suggest and facilitate sexting and webcam encounters rather than in-person sex. Of course, nobody can stop others from engaging in face-to-face casual hookups. That’s as true now as it was during the HIV/AIDS crisis. But can’t we at least suggest some less-dangerous alternatives?

In "normal times" I think these apps are a useful way for people to find one another. It’s also true that some of these services have evolved into more than hookup apps, becoming “adult friend finder” apps that help people connect for fun, friendship, and community. That said, these services are still primarily used to facilitate in-person casual sex, and they should do the right thing by either shutting down or pushing members toward alternative sexual behaviors. Helping people hook up for in-person sex is NOT an essential service. Not during a pandemic. And it needs to stop.

If you’re partnered, this is a great time for reconnecting with your spouse at home. If you’re single, it’s a great time for sexting, webcamming, and lots of other fun sexual behaviors. This is not, however, a great time for in-person casual sex.

For some, walking away from casual in-person sexual encounters, even for a short while, may be difficult, just as it was for certain people during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. For others, it’s no big deal. Either way, in the era of COVID-19, avoiding in-person hookups is not a discussion; it’s a public health imperative.

Once again, I don’t believe it is my or anyone else’s job to judge any adult’s consensual sexual choices. Now, however, like every other citizen of the world, I want to see this virus end. ASAP. I want all of us to live long enough to have all the sex we want with whomever we want. But let’s have all that fun later, when we’re in the clear.

Until then, let’s turn off the apps and stay away from in-person casual sex. If this sounds awful to you, I urge you not to worry. Try some of the fun alternatives suggested above as a stopgap, and know that all those hot in-person hookups will be there for you when COVID-19 has gone away.