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.
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.
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:
…, 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
…, because sexual desire, renunciation and prohibition are genuinely psychodynamic concepts. Psychoanalysis and related dynamic-therapeutic approaches offer a complex theory of sexuality, most specifically a theory able to reconstruct the many-layered, conflict-laden connections between desire and prohibition in their simultaneously subjective and societal dimensions. The ambivalence of “the sexual,” the intimate links between wanting and forbidding, provoke feelings of guilt and aggression. Indeed, the ambivalence is especially relevant in the relationship between the generations: The aged are deemed to need special protection; yet these happen to be precisely the ones from whom, in the parent-child relationship, the original interdictions came, and superficial compliance with the prohibitions may well be underlain with latent rage and resentment.
Prof. Dr. Katinka Schweizer
MSH Medical School Hamburg
Prof. Dr. Ilka Quindeau
Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences
…, because public opinion is developed, expressed and conveyed both in journalism and, with individual idiosyncrasy and enormous variety, in social media. Although in the digital age, other forms of public communication have emerged, journalism through mass media remains the main source for agenda setting and agenda perception in a society, as well as the discernment of relevance and irrelevance of certain topics. Journalism also adds significantly to the framing of topics and dynamics of opinion formation. Computer-mediated communication between individuals and groups, as it is an inherent component of social networking sites, has been found to have both disinhibitory and hyperpersonal functions: It facilitates and accelerates the expression of opinions and affects that tend to be hidden in other forms of communication. Therefore, the dynamics of computer-mediated communication lead to a higher visibility of intimate and nonconformist thoughts, but also of hate, deindividuation and calls for moral sanctions.
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.