Has the coro­na-cri­sis served as a cat­a­lyst for a new stage in the his­to­ry of sex­u­al desires and moral­i­ties? Our analy­ses of pub­lic dis­cours­es on sex­u­al­i­ty dur­ing a time of social dis­tanc­ing will both deep­en com­pre­hen­sion of the nature of human sex­u­al­i­ty and help to make sense of how talk about sex func­tions as a vehi­cle for man­ag­ing broad­er social con­flicts and anxieties.

Our find­ings with regard to the dynam­ics between desire and restric­tion will be impor­tant for under­stand­ing oth­er crises and the polit­i­cal deci­sions made in an effort to man­age these, as well as pro­vide knowl­edge which is high­ly rel­e­vant for psy­chother­a­peu­tic processes.

Project Description

While oth­er schol­ars have begun inves­ti­gat­ing how the coro­n­avirus cri­sis has affect­ed sex­u­al desires and behav­iors with­in com­mit­ted cou­ple rela­tion­ships – not least with a view to learn­ing how best to help cou­ples in poten­tial future crises – our inter­est lies else­where. We are curi­ous to exam­ine the ques­tion of how the gen­er­al pub­lic is tak­ing the occa­sion of the coro­n­avirus cri­sis to express and con­test evolv­ing opin­ions on sex­u­al­i­ty both with­in and out­side of com­mit­ted cou­ple­dom. Have we arrived at a new stage in the his­to­ry of sex­u­al desires and moral­i­ties? Based on the dynam­ics of ear­li­er crises sur­round­ing sex­u­al val­ues and behav­iors, it is to be expect­ed that the coro­n­avirus, and the at once ratio­nal and irra­tional fears its ongo­ing spread induces, not only direct­ly restricts the pos­si­bil­i­ties for indi­vid­u­als, irre­spec­tive of their sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, to pur­sue sex­u­al encoun­ters, but also pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty for the pub­lic to artic­u­late a shift in sensibilities. 

The pan­dem­ic and the demand for phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing appears to have encour­aged and advanced plea­sure-hos­tile affects and con­cepts of moral­i­ty – an adjust­ment in pub­lic val­ues that may well have been under­way for sev­er­al years already, yet is only now coher­ing into a vis­i­ble trend. Notable ten­den­cies include: dif­fer­en­ti­a­tions between appropriate/reasonable and inappropriate/unreasonable sex, readi­ness to renounce sex, and a new­ly height­ened wish to pun­ish or at least restrict non­con­form­ing behav­iours. Yet some com­men­ta­tors have also been moved to devel­op argu­ments on behalf of the ongo­ing impor­tance of sexuality.

The coro­na pan­dem­ic con­fronts us with new chal­lenges to sex­u­al­i­ty against a back­ground of demands for social dis­tanc­ing and in a con­text in which pros­ti­tu­tion has been – for the time being – offi­cial­ly pro­hib­it­ed. For peo­ple out­side of monog­a­mous cou­ple rela­tion­ships, what remains – if they are to be “sen­si­ble” – is a restric­tion to solo sex (mas­tur­ba­tion) as well as dig­i­tal or oth­er forms of “non-con­tact,” “touch-free” sex­u­al­i­ty medi­at­ed through the inter­net and social media.

Study procedure and material

Three ques­tions shall be answered:

  • How and in what ways is sex­u­al­i­ty a pub­lic top­ic in the con­text of the coro­na pan­dem­ic, reflect­ed in jour­nal­is­tic media con­tri­bu­tions and in state­ments on social media?
  • Which aspects of sex­u­al­i­ty are dis­cussed – both beyond and with­in the sex­u­al­i­ties of com­mit­ted cou­ples – and what opin­ions and affects towards sex­u­al­i­ty in gen­er­al are being articulated?
  • To what extent is sex­u­al moral­ism, as expressed in atti­tudes of renun­ci­a­tion and/or pun­ish­ment – reflect­ed in jour­nal­is­tic state­ments and user com­men­tary – and in what ways is such moral­ism being pre­emp­tive­ly or reac­tive­ly rebutted?

Background and transdisciplinary methodology

Seen from a his­tor­i­cal van­tage, this new phase not only rais­es the ques­tion about the human need for sex­u­al­i­ty, but also fits into a sequence of his­tor­i­cal­ly pre­ced­ing dis­cus­sions about nego­ti­at­ing touch and about the ten­sions between reasonable/rational/permitted and unreasonable/irrational/forbidden sex­u­al­i­ty – as expe­ri­enced, for exam­ple, in the con­text of the HIV cri­sis and, most recent­ly, the #metoo debate.

In our project, the aim is to inves­ti­gate how assump­tions about, and expe­ri­ences of, sex­u­al­i­ty are being chal­lenged dur­ing the coro­na pan­dem­ic, and to research which frame­works are evoked and which threads of dis­cus­sion are being used to debate sex­u­al desire as well as will­ing­ness to – or rec­om­men­da­tions to – forego sex. The project thus pri­mar­i­ly demands col­lab­o­ra­tion between his­tor­i­cal, psy­cho­dy­nam­ic-ther­a­peu­tic and com­mu­ni­ca­tion sci­ence exper­tise as three dis­ci­plines sig­nif­i­cant to the study of sex­u­al­i­ty. Com­bin­ing these three dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives in an inno­v­a­tive inte­grat­ed trans­dis­cip­linary crit­i­cal sex research approach, we aim to explore ques­tions of con­ti­nu­ity and nov­el­ty with regard to pub­licly expressed val­ues, as well as to chart chang­ing beliefs about the very nature of “the sex­u­al” as a dri­ve or resource or core aspect of the human condition.

We thus bring together: 

Historical perspectives

…, because the under­stand­ing of what is dis­tinc­tive about cur­rent views on sex­u­al moral­i­ty and the nature of sex can only be clar­i­fied against the back­ground of pri­or devel­op­ments and in the con­text of pre­ced­ing phas­es of con­flicts over sex­u­al desires and behav­iors; the coro­n­avirus has pro­duced a new “ban on touch­ing,” and in so doing accel­er­ates ongo­ing trends – and yet also (and no less impor­tant to our study) resis­tance to and ambiva­lence about those trends. The expe­ri­ences of this pan­dem­ic unques­tion­ably build on pri­or indi­vid­ual and soci­etal expe­ri­ences with HIV, but also with the #metoo move­ment and with con­flicts over the bal­ance of pow­er between men and women in pub­lic and inti­mate life alike.

Prof. Dr. Dagmar Herzog

Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York

Prof. Dr. Katinka Schweizer

MSH Med­ical School Hamburg

Prof. Dr. Ilka Quindeau

Clin­i­cal Psy­chol­o­gy
Frank­furt Uni­ver­si­ty of Applied Sciences

Prof. Dr. Friederike Herrmann

Jour­nal­ism & Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Stud­ies
Catholic Uni­ver­si­ty Eichstätt-Ingolstadt

Dr. Richard Lemke

Social Stud­ies & Lead­er­ship
Police Acad­e­my Niedersachsen

The dynam­ics of pub­lic dis­cours­es on sex­u­al­i­ty dur­ing a time of social dis­tanc­ing allow a deep­ened com­pre­hen­sion of the nature of human sex­u­al­i­ty, but they also help us to make sense of how talk about sex func­tions as a vehi­cle for man­ag­ing broad­er social con­flicts and anx­i­eties. Our find­ings with regard to expres­sions of desire, pro­hi­bi­tion and renun­ci­a­tion, as well as efforts either to dis­miss or to defend the impor­tance of sex­u­al­i­ty in human lives in the con­text of this social cri­sis, along with the nec­es­sary his­tor­i­cal con­tex­tu­al­iza­tion, will be impor­tant for under­stand­ing oth­er crises and the polit­i­cal deci­sions made in an effort to man­age these. In addi­tion, on a lev­el of applied results, the knowl­edge of pub­lic dis­cours­es on sex­u­al plea­sure will be of high rel­e­vance for psy­chother­a­peu­tic process­es in the near future.