Virus Fetish, Viral Desire

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

MILF Gets Hardfucked in Quarantine Room
leaving those high on moral scruples cringed. If only this was all that the goody-two-shoes had to digest! Alongside this, the news of Pornhub handing out free subscriptions in Italy has been doing its rounds in the media. Italy, stricken with the pestilence of Covid-19, has been on a nationwide quarantine with people home-bound, isolated, and withdrawn from human contact to prevent the spread of the virus. To cope with such a restricted predicament, Pornhub claimed that the free subscription will keep people engaged and occupied, and will possibly ease their immobile condition. Pornhub further promised that its March revenues will be used towards supporting the health crisis in Italy.

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!

Corona Virus Porn – Pornhub Grab

Many decades ago, Gayle Rubin, an American anthropologist, famously wrote:

to some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine, or nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality
 Reading this in 2020, it does not seem ironical that Rubin invoked ‘disease’ as one of the metaphors to think about the craziness of sexuality. With the panic of Coronavirus overwhelming us from all sides, it becomes increasingly evident that the rhetoric of safety, hygiene, sanitation, and protection against this pandemic has brought about a crisis of intimacy and desire. Enforced and preventive isolation, and quarantine, have ensured that we do not touch or hug one another, hold each other, or even hang out, sit together, chill, gossip, chat over tea or coffee. Theatres have been shut down, sports complexes, gyms, spas, shopping malls, night clubs are closed. In short, leisure and pleasure are the two things that are worst hit by the preventive measures to check the pandemic. Experts argue that this is a necessary logistical step towards preventing the spread of the virus, given that we do not have vaccine or medicine to combat it; and I am by no means suggesting that we disobey the prohibition on mobility. However, I am interested in understanding the ways in which this prohibition and isolation alter sexual practices and pleasures, and the complicated ways in which desire and disease run into one another.

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:

do you realize that you are talking about millions of men who have singled out promiscuity to be their principal political agenda, the one they’d die before abandoning?
This was one of the foundational moments of gay political organization, to not let the rhetoric of disease and infection trump the more radical demands and seductions of desire, libido, and pleasures of the flesh. In this context, ‘disease’ was seen as a product of ‘desire’, emanating from the gay-male-desiring body and in turn, infecting other gay bodies. To my mind, therefore, the circulation of the Covid-19 porn videos and other quarantine porns are gesturing towards a radical imagination of desire – one that does not shy away from disease but maybe born because of it. In other words, it is impossible to cordon off desire from the dangers of disease, especially when desires are born out of infections and pestilence.

Still from Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart

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,

they insist that our promiscuity will destroy us when in fact it is our promiscuity that will save us.
It is important to realize that ‘promiscuity’ means several things in this context: to have multiple sexual partners, to draw and redraw the normative structures of monogamous kinship, to de-prioritize romantic coupledom over friendship ties and create networks of care, trust, and love against the onslaught of the hetero-reproductive state. Those who suffered from AIDS experienced the worst form of isolation and untouchability, the most inhuman and worst kinds of suffering meted out by family members, colleagues, and neighbours. There was no dignity even in death: people refused to bury and claim HIV infected bodies, often they would be wrapped in big plastic bags and left to rot. People not only lost lives but also homes and livelihood; those suffering from AIDS were sacked from jobs and the stigma reached terrains where imagination feared to tread. It is against this state-sponsored violence to exterminate those who were infected by HIV and those with the possibility of infecting others, that people started building communities around disease and infection. In the absence of doctors and medicines, homes became hospitals, strangers became friends, friends became caregivers, and lovers became nurses. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, one can witness a regurgitation of an almost similar impulse whereby doctors are evicted out of houses, racial attacks on people from the North East is mounting, and Corona infected persons are increasingly criminalized, stigmatized, and shamed.

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:

the motive force of phantasies are unsatisfied wishes, and every single phantasie is a fulfilment of a wish, a correlation of unsatisfying reality.
Such conscious fantasies offer keys to open into the unconscious. My analyst told me that he found my use of the word “bizarre” very crucial; it was as if even before I have narrated my fantasy, I wanted to convince him that this is abnormal or odd. He explained to me that bodily warmth is a sign of life, death is marked by coldness. My desire to have sex with someone who is burning with fever is a classic example of life militating against itself; unruly, uncontrolled warmth gone out of bounds and translating into high fever, to the extent that the other person goes dysfunctional on bed. In my analyst’s opinion, therefore, this sexual fantasy was an expression of my unconscious desire for control and monitoring over those aspects of life which I could not control in reality. In other words, this is another mechanism of negotiating with the many anxieties that we live with. It was not so much a fantasy of “annihilating” my partner, but controlling them, measuring and monitoring their performance in bed. It is highly possible, therefore, that both the proliferation of Coronavirus porn as well as the culture of barebacking/gift-giving is resultant of a fantasy to master the virus and render it slave in erotic play of domination and submission. Disease, in all these instances (fever, Covid-19, HIV/AIDS) are grounds on which desire expresses itself in unanticipated ways.

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!

References:

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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Rahul Sen Written by:

Rahul Sen teaches critical writing, queer theory, and literature at Ashoka University, Sonipat He works and dreams at the interface between literature and sexualities.

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