Aditi* and her boyfriend are both in “dead-end marriages”. She’s in her forties, he’s in his fifties, and they’ve been together for nearly eight years. Their kids, friends and ex-ish spouses all know about the relationship, and what sounds pretty complicated is, in fact, fairly amicable. Enter coronavirus.
Aditi says, “Due to a bizarre set of circumstances, I am quarantining with my daughter and my ex-husband, and my boyfriend is at home with his kids and wife. Sex under the circumstances is… difficult.”
As India teeters between Unlock 2.0 and a return to lockdowns in different parts of the country, people are left to their own devices. And in the absence of clear, non-judgmental guidelines, individuals are weighing up desire, privacy, need and fear—a heady cocktail on the best of days.
Aditi explains that ever since the lockdown in Delhi was partially lifted, she and her boyfriend “have been making out in the car like a couple of teenagers—although our respective children are actual teenagers.”
Options, in these times, are hard to come by.
A room of one’s own
One of the biggest constraints around meeting sexual needs in India is privacy. Spaces for sexual intimacy were always hard to come by, and now, with families at home together for most of the day, and hotels either closed or unsafe, the question of where to have sex—for those with homes in the first place—is often as pertinent as the risk of transmission.
Tara, a 34-year-old woman living with her family in Pune, used to have an active sex life. She says, “In the past, I have been to OYOs or hotels, but now that the virus is at large, I don’t feel comfortable.” There’s a man in the picture who Tara is “meeting regularly—mostly on the streets, next to my building or his. It’s hard to get privacy; we haven’t figured it out yet.”
Pooja, a 26-year-old woman living in Delhi, describes the lockdown as “house arrest”—she’s not referring to the government though; she’s talking about her parents. She says: “I’m working from home and only go for a walk in the colony and meet friends here. So now if I do go out, [my parents] would want to know where am I going, who am I meeting…” There’s a man Pooja’s been seeing for the past year who lives alone, but she needs a “convincing excuse” to leave the house—she’s already waxed her legs in preparation, though.
Requiring a “legitimate” reason to venture outside has been a critical public health response to the pandemic, but determining what exactly counts as legit is a constraint that women have lived with for centuries. Loitering, night-time excursions and other forms of pleasure have long been seen as gendered risks whose rewards are either invisible or morally questionable. In this context, desire is rarely seen as a justification for risk (as opposed to, say, returning to work).
Tara hasn’t told her friends about the person she’s seeing, because she’s certain “they’ll try and discourage me. But it’s been over three months, and I really, really want to have sex with this boy.”
In my school, we had a “six-inch rule”: the distance at which couples were required to sit or dance to prevent things from going too far. Today, we’re living with the six-foot rule—try going anywhere at all like that. Sexual interactions, with kissing, heavy breathing and fluid exchanges are the opposite of social distancing. But they make up an integral part of people’s lives: a need that not everyone can write off.
Nidhi is a polyamorous woman from Bengaluru, and 35 days into lockdown, one of her partners was struggling badly with his mental health. Neither of them had transport, the walk was three hours long (she attempted it), and there were police barricades everywhere. So finally, Nidhi packed soap and water, wore gloves, and took a taxi to the hospital closest to his building (the only permitted use of taxis at the time). She then walked another forty minutes to see him. She says, “I know it sounds shady, but I was super worried.”
A few days later, he did the same thing. He came over, got straight in the shower, and they spent a lovely weekend together. As lockdown restrictions began to ease, Nidhi’s girlfriend—who she used to see several times a week—visited her too. Nidhi recalls: “At that point, she had literally not seen another human being in 50 days. We had a very regular day, as we would have in a past life, and didn’t even sleep together till the evening.”
Psychologist Maslow’s popular “hierarchy of needs” states that certain aspects of life take precedence over others: safety and rest before friends and sex, for example. But what we believe “should” matter to someone else is often false—something disabled people frequently draw attention to. Over the years, initiatives for people with disabilities have focussed on what others believe to be “essential”. This usually includes access and safety, but leaves little room for agency, pleasure and joy: all of which make up a full life.
Kunal, a bisexual man from Bengaluru, has been “obsessively following” COVID-19 since December. At the first rumblings of cases in the city, he stopped meeting people, started working from home, and deleted all his dating apps so he “wouldn’t be tempted”. He says: “I have asthma, so in general I suffer from breathlessness. I think that piqued my paranoia.”
Global health directives ask people who are in at-risk groups to take precautions, but what these measures look like depend on how each individual chooses to navigate risk.
During the AIDS epidemic, the only advice gay men received was to stop having sex—entirely. Over time, it became clear that this approach wasn’t working. Epidemiologist Julia Marcus writes: “Risk is not binary, [and] abstinence-only education… deprives people of an understanding of how to reduce their risk if they do choose to have sex.”
Kunal closely followed the Bengaluru coronavirus data, including daily bulletins and maps of affected areas. And as the figures started declining, he cautiously re-downloaded Grindr, Tinder and Bumble. He recalls, though, “It felt less free. People would ask, ‘Have you been isolating?’ but obviously you don’t know if they’re lying to you.”
Regardless, Kunal met a girl online who he’s now in “an intense courtship” with. They both live with flatmates and visit each other regularly. On transmission concerns he says: “the highest risk person in that situation is me.”
Human connection sustains us
Recently, an old lover of 34-year-old author Sharanya Manivannan re-entered her life, and despite the extreme pandemic-related risks in Chennai, she’s considering meeting him. She says: “Here’s the thing: I am desperate to be hugged. Really held properly. That’s all. [And] he’s the only person who’s offered that to me.”
I spoke to nearly 30 people for this piece. They are all extremely aware of transmission risks. They are also, like all of us, living through unprecedented, uncertain and frightening times. Several people have begun sustaining online relationships during lockdown; now, they’re desperate to meet. In a terrible irony, human contact carries within it both balm and illness.
Total risk-elimination is a myth. What if we focussed, instead, on risk-mitigation—safer ways of meeting our human need for connection, which often exists in a tangled space with sexual connection?
As Sharanya says: “It’s not as straightforward as ‘I [do or] don’t want to sleep with this person’. But to be hugged—oh, to be hugged!”
Who, among us, can’t understand that?
*names changed to protect identities