I want your ugly, I want your disease
I want your everything…
I want your love
Love, love, love…
~ from Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance
Last week two news reports circulated in the media which made many roll their eyes in annoyance, while a few marvelled at the absurdity of it all: one of the reports announced that a new category of porn, variously called as ‘Coronavirus Porn’ and ‘Quarantine Porn’, has made its appearance on Pornhub and Xvideos with nearly 250 search results. In some of these videos, people are seen having sex wearing face masks, while in a few others, they are going down on their partner wearing yellow and green protective gear, attired like a healthcare worker. Some of these videos flash brazen and saucy titles such as
The above developments have raised quite a few brows and are not settling well with the puritans. There have been various responses coming from two ends of the moral spectrum: the first, which is perhaps the more expected one, stems from notions of guilt, sin, and shame. This self-righteous strain of belief believes in shaming those who are seemingly trivializing a pandemic of this magnitude by reducing it down to the business of the flesh, and for seeking pleasure from something that is killing thousands of people across nations. The pornification of Covid-19, as per these condemners, takes away the seriousness that this pandemic deserves. The second strain of criticism comes from a more politically correct and sophisticated vantage, or as I like to call it, a woke position. These critics, mostly conservatives of a refined kind, have started to use these instances to leverage their reservations against pornography in general. They suggest that Pornhub still retains videos of child pornography, non-consensual or rape porns, and these are enough to discount its philanthropic posturing. Both these positions complement one another in their inability to recognize the single most important thing that drives the various genres of pornography, as well as human desires in general: fantasy!
Many decades ago, Gayle Rubin, an American anthropologist, famously wrote:
The history of desire’s interaction with disease has not been straight and simple. In the heightened years of the AIDS epidemic crisis, when the virus did not have any name and was variously called “a strange pneumonia” or a “gay cancer”, a proposed solution to combat the spread of the virus was to encourage gay men to stop having sex. This is beautifully captured in Ryan Murphy’s film, The Normal Heart (2014) where Dr. Emma Brookner urges Alexander “Ned” Weeks, “tell gay men to stop having sex” since the disease is sexually transmitted. Weeks, baffled, responds back:
I want to suggest, therefore, how the vocabulary of health inadvertently colludes with the moral brigade in dissuading people from forging intimate bonds with one another. In times of enforced quarantine, isolation, and solitude, when people are separated and partitioned from each other, it is radical to witness sex and other visual registers of romantic and sexual intimacies. The gay community had realized the political possibilities of such intimacies in the face of the AIDS epidemic crisis; Douglas Crimp had emphatically remarked,
The years of the AIDS epidemic can be used to think about this dangerous knotting and twinning of desire and disease. Not only is gayness haunted by the specter of a virus infection, but the disease seemed to be the breeding ground for desire and fomented political action of building solidarity, resistance, and community. Not all of these political formations were affirmative, some were built around the fearful lure of hedonism, the ravaging impulse of the libidinal drives, and the violent excesses of the jouissance. One of them was/is the gay subcultural practice of barebacking/bug-chasing/gift-giving wherein unsafe anal sex is performed with consent between HIV positive and HIV negative persons. This practice of “unlimited intimacy”, as Tim Dean calls it, is directed towards exploding the exceptional state of the virus infection and expanding the community of those infected by AIDS. The virus is seen as a “gift” transmitted from person to person through sex. It is easy, and perhaps convenient to pathologize this self-destructive expression of desire, but psychoanalysis would read this as an embodiment of the “death-drive”, the risky and risque violence of pleasure that defeats all blueprints of rationality and stability. For this underground sexual subculture, it is not enough to just think about the lethal virus and take precautions for sex, one needs to think through and with the virus to undo its power and turn it around to experience pleasure.
Psychoanalysis, especially the Freudian school and some others, have always maintained the importance and relevance of the ‘death instinct’ to explain complex social, sexual, and political phenomena. The constant opposition between the ‘pleasure principle’ (eros) which is the life-affirming, survival instinct and the ‘death drive’ (thanatos) which is the self-destructive, life-negating instinct has animated much of Freud’s works. This explains the psychic machinations behind the sexual practice of barebacking as well as the soaring popularity of the Coronavirus porn videos. While on one hand it illuminates the dark, masochistic, and kinky tendencies of our desires, it also comments on the choice of the ‘virus’ as an object of sexual fetish and fantasy. Let me share an intimate detail here to substantiate my claim: a few months ago, I was sitting on a slanting chair facing my psychoanalyst on the other side, letting out a very personal detail for analysis. “I have some very bizarre erotic fantasies. I oftentimes fantasize and desire the annihilation of my sexual partner during an act of sex”, I said. “Can you think of anything specific?”, my analyst nonchalantly interrogated. I continued, “I sometimes fantasize having sex with someone who has very high fever, almost with a burning skin that I can feel against my own.” After a few seconds of pause, I added, “the person should be so ill that they won’t be able to perform in bed. That prospect of erasure is somewhat exciting to me.” Many questions followed and a lot of other similar fantasies came up in my narration.
In one of his early essays, Freud writes:
To conclude, I would like to draw a literary example to comment on the indeterminacy of desire and disease. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), maps the romantic calamity between an older man and a younger boy in the backdrop of a plague that haunts the city. Aschenbach, an author in his early fifties, hopelessly and obsessively falls in love with Tadzio, a polish boy of about fifteen who matches Narcissus in his beauty and charm. Although they exchange several glances, reciprocate facial gestures, smirks, and smiles, neither of them ever interact with one another and Aschenbach fails to muster the courage to chase his object of desire. One fine day, the health department starts posting notices in Venice, warning its netizens of a serious cholera epidemic and asking the tourists to vacate the place. Aschenbach thinks of warning Tadzio’s mother but holds himself back, lest the polish family leaves and his romantic interest goes off sight. A few days later, when Aschenbach is lying on the beach, Tadzio reaches there and from afar makes a gesture to call him. The author tries to get up and follow his romantic interest who is “such stuff as dreams are made on” but collapses and falls on his side into the chair. What killed Aschenbach? His desire for Tadzio? Or, the fatal plague that he was warned against? Was it the death drive, or fantasy? Maybe, none of these or all of these!
Crimp, Douglas. How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic. 1987.
Dean, Tim. Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking. U Chicago Press. 2009.
Freud, Sigmund. Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming. 1908.
Rubin, Gayle. Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. 1984.
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