Sex, Jobs & COVID-19: Reflections on the Interrelationships
Estimates of the death toll from the "Spanish" H1N1 flu of 1918-1920 range as high as 100 million (History.com, 2020). The current COVID-19 pandemic, however, is likely to have much more far-reaching and lasting effects, even if it doesn't take as many lives. That's in part because the current pandemic is occurring during the digital era.
Consider as an example the fact that after the Spanish flu ended in late 1920, classrooms returned to the way they had been previously and continued along largely similar lines for the next century. But when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, classrooms will almost certainly NOT be the same as they were previously. The trend toward more online learning, with less in-class instruction, will accelerate. More programs will be online. Fewer students will live in dorms on campus. The world will become even more "virtual" than it was before COVID-19, which is rapidly accelerating ongoing trends, apart from initiating new ones.
David Nabarro, a special envoy to the World Health Organization (WHO) on COVID-19, warned recently that this will be "a virus that stalks the human race for quite a long time." Real relief will only come only after a vaccine is developed, Nabarro said, which most experts are predicting is at least 12-18 months away. Even after there is a true vaccine, mutations of the virus may continue to bedevil humankind for a long time to come. In terms of the more immediate future, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is now saying that the global economy will this year likely suffer the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, far worse than the global crisis a decade ago.
The profound changes to life on earth that are occurring and will continue to occur merit reflection on all major aspects of our existence and how they will influence the course of human development. Sex and sexuality, as one of the major facets of our existence—indeed, the one upon which perpetuation of the species depends—therefore calls for serious contemplation as to how this aspect figures into the grand equation.
The profound changes to life on earth that are occurring and will continue to occur merit reflection on all major aspects of our existence and how they will influence the course of human development. Sex and sexuality, as one of the major facets of our existence—indeed, the one upon which perpetuation of the species depends—therefore calls for serious contemplation as to how this aspect figures into the grand equation. One of the phenomena in this category that comes most readily to mind, however, is now widely believed to be the stuff of urban legend. It was originally believed that the New York City blackout of November 1965 led to a baby boom nine months later. Likewise, the mini baby booms believed to have been precipitated by blizzards and other extreme conditions that caused couples to unexpectedly be confined together in close quarters for extended periods of time are now discounted as imagined. To the contrary, the prevailing school of thought seems to be that the kind of anxiety engendered by the pandemic is not conducive to sexual intimacy among cooped-up couples. This anxiety, reinforced by the steadily increasing financial predicament in which most people find themselves, may in fact engender a "baby bust," which will have significant repercussions for decades to come.
Apart from that, at least five additional dynamics in the realm of sex, jobs and COVID-19 that are worthy of our attention come readily to mind:
1. The potential rise of adverse pregnancy outcomes. Medical experts tell us that previous coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, are known to have caused adverse pregnancy outcomes including miscarriage, prematurity, fetal growth restriction and even maternal death. Less is known about the effects of COVID-19 on pregnancy but in at least one reported case, a pregnant woman required mechanical ventilation and a caesarean section at 30 weeks' gestation. In some other cases in which infection occurred in the third trimester, fetal distress and preterm delivery were reported (Hussein, 2020). In other words, it is quite possible that COVID-19 will have dramatic negative effects on millions of pregnancies the world over once they come to term. That is a potential development of major consequences, with multiple possible effects in numerous areas, including jobs (for one thing, many mothers may not be able to return to the work force).
2. Reduced access globally to contraceptives. For a multitude of reasons, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing a drastic reduction in the availability of condoms and other contraceptives worldwide. Many condoms and contraceptives are manufactured in Asia, especially China, where factories have been shuttered, with workers asked to either reduce their hours or stay home completely. In addition, many Asian factories provide the critical raw materials to other manufacturers (e.g., pharmaceutical manufacturers in India whose supplies of the requisite active pharmaceutical ingredients from their Chinese suppliers have been dramatically curtailed). Other ramifications and ripple effects are combining, to threaten a serious shortage of condoms and other contraceptives in the near future (Purdy, 2020). Whether this will play a mitigating or exacerbating role relative to the possible baby bust mentioned above is at this point anybody's guess.
3. Adverse effects on sex workers globally. Sex workers are in many ways a largely invisible population but there are millions of them worldwide, many of whom are single mothers supporting extended families. When they are not able to pay for food and rent, as multiple reports from diverse places (such as Mexico, Thailand and the US) attest, their survival—and that of many family members, including young children—is threatened. The threat to survival understandably takes precedence over the need to exercise best practices with regard to containing the virus, meaning that not just sex workers and the family members they support are affected by their lack of work in the time of COVID-19. In the words of one Thai sex worker, "We’re more afraid of having nothing to eat than we are of the virus." This enhances the spread of transmission throughout society. Sex workers don't just interact with customers and family members. They go out to buy groceries, too.
As Bruce Lee ... writing in Forbes, tells us: "The six-foot radius thing presents a bit of a problem. You probably don't need a picture drawn to realize that having sex while maintaining at least a six-foot distance apart could be quite challenging. And, guys, this is not the time for you to explain how well-endowed you may be."
4. The transformation of sexual mores. The reality that mores, the social norms that are widely observed within a particular society or culture, are being rapidly transformed by COVID-19 is illustrated in a recent comment by noted National Institutes of Health (NIH) physician Dr. Anthony Fauci's prediction that handshaking will become a thing of the past. (Along similar lines, it's hard to discount the possibility that the predilection for widespread embracing and kissing accounts at least partially for the rapid spread of COVID-19 in European countries like Belgium, France, Italy and Spain). Specifically, sexual mores are also taking a big hit, as physical contact now has the potential for fatal consequences not seen since the height of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s. As Bruce Lee (well, no, not that Bruce Lee) writing in Forbes, tells us: "The six-foot radius thing presents a bit of a problem. You probably don't need a picture drawn to realize that having sex while maintaining at least a six-foot distance apart could be quite challenging. And, guys, this is not the time for you to explain how well-endowed you may be" (Lee, 2020). Solitary—or at least separated (virtual, fantasy)—sex is and will probably become more the accepted standard than it has ever been. In the words of the guidelines published by the New York City Department of Health, "you are your safest sex partner." With the rise in remote work, we might also wonder, will office romances go the way of the dodo bird?
5. The increasing popularity and mainstreaming of Internet porn (pornography, otherwise known as adult video) and related phenomena. With "traditional" casual sex now prohibitively dangerous, new employment trends are being witnessed among members of the world's oldest profession. Nature abhors a vacuum, it's been observed—and true to that principle, sex workers who previously pressed the flesh have been migrating en masse to virtual (notice I did not say "digital") venues such as cam shows, custom clips or premium Snapchat subscriptions. According to Evan Seinfeld (probably no relation to Jerry), owner of the subscription service IsMyGirl, new model signups have increased a whopping 300 percent during just the past couple of weeks. Seinfeld estimates that two-thirds of those represent people completely new to the industry, many of whom have been laid off or furloughed. Veteran performers are understandably resentful of the newcomers who are bringing prices down, pointing out that it's not the kind of easy money that many wishfully think it is. As one veteran phone sex operator and cam performer known as "Hey Heidi" put it, "It's hard … work. You have to market yourself, advertise, make clips, have a set schedule. [People mistakenly] think, 'I'm gonna bang myself on cam and that'll be it'" (Dickson, 2020).
Having considered the conclusions of various experts—including Bruce Lee and Seinfeld—what, then, are we to make of all this? At first blush, so to speak, we could say that the subject of sex may seem light-hearted and diversionary, nothing more than a superficial distraction from the stuff that really matters. But as the above discussion indicates, the implications of the interrelationships between sex, jobs and COVID-19 at the very least provide serious food for thought, with important implications for the course of human development.