The end of intimacy

Sex on Tuesday

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It’s the end of summer, and I’m losing people I love. I live in a giant house that I can only assume will become more hospital than home as new residents arrive for the fall. This is both an inappropriate joke and the reality of continuing to live in a manner conceived pre-pandemic, without disease in mind. We’ve started sanitizing doorknobs, now acutely aware of how many traces we each leave behind over the course of a day.

Trust is more important than ever. The 90-odd residents of this co-op can’t all be in my germ pod; a bubble that big isn’t really a bubble. I can feel the house fracturing as everyone decides whom they can justify the risk of touching and who must be an acquaintance seen only from a masked distance. The people I touch are precious to me. I love their nearness, and the habit of it.

I’ve grown accustomed to this particular kind of nurturing, one in which I expect everything I need to be provided by a single group of people. I don’t have casual friends anymore, not really. And whatever Tinder conversations I was keeping up before shelter-in-place have more or less died out. All my intimacy is suddenly here, no more than a few flights of stairs away from my bedroom.

So yeah, it’s true. I’ve been hooking up with someone in my pod. It seems like the only ethical option from a public health perspective, though I suppose masturbation is the formal government recommendation. I know the fact of this isn’t all that interesting. I’ve heard a lot of similar stories this summer, especially in co-op-type situations. Even in a more typical epoch, sex with a housemate isn’t very novel. It’s convenient, perfect for attention-seeking lazy people (a community I consider myself a member of).

This summer, though, sleeping with a housemate has meant something else. It hasn’t been about romance as much as feeling out all the different things friendship can provide. I find living inside my body, or being represented by my body, generally burdensome except in a few key circumstances — sex and dancing, mainly. Dancing the way I like to (drunk, in a public place, with my friends) is more or less canceled. And touching, too, is at risk. I don’t want to bemoan this excessively, as I hold the belief that these sacrifices are a small price to pay for mutual safety during an international health crisis. And yet, sex is still a need. I don’t want to let go of my ability to say that.

Recently, a good friend of mine broke quarantine to sleep with a longtime crush. In talking with her about the decision, I was faced with how difficult it is to discuss our obligation to each other (and to reducing our points of contact) in a way that avoids shame. I need to trust the people who touch me, to know that they will think of me when they act. But I also need to communicate this wish in a way that doesn’t make intimacy the enemy. I don’t want to backslide into thinking about sex as something indulgent or selfish. We have enough guilt as is, and I’m tired of legitimizing punishment as a response to error. I’m sure this is something a lot of people are navigating, but even as I do so, I don’t know how.

My friend experienced what I hadn’t: the failure of our pod to provide everything she needed. Which is itself an impossible dream, right? The people we love can’t always give us what we require, especially a small group of friends who have never attempted this level of insular nearness. Waking up next to the subject of my minor summer tryst felt like having cracked a secret utopian code: I could kiss someone without risking illness and then walk downstairs to hug my other friends over eggs.

This network seemed complete to me in a special way: It wasn’t based on loving one person intensely, as many of my romantic relationships have been, but on the dispersal of care throughout a community. How liberated of me! I felt I had at last matched my personhood to my politics — a fantasy that, in looking at my little commune of friends, felt easy to believe.

I didn’t expect touch to happen for me this summer. For the obvious pandemic reasons, but also for the more sustained emotional ones. My year of abstinence is no secret, nor is my hatred of it. I had forgotten, during my time alone, how important making out is toward feeling hot and remaining stable. If I must live through this moment, I’d prefer to do so with hickeys. I wasn’t falling in love, which is rare for me, but I was becoming attached to this consistent form of sexual attention. Like mornings spent with my pod in our easy kind of collectivism, hooking up with my housemate felt safe. Here, I like the ambiguity of “hooking up.” We hardly had any sex at all, but what does that mean? I feel this question lurking in many of my intimacies, though I’ve come to care less about it in recent years. Sexuality (a capacity for sexual feelings) is more important to me than delineating between sex acts. Which my tryst did consist of — touching when wanted, being allowed pleasure. My social and sexual worlds had become small and seemed endless.

But things are ending. Many of my friends have moved out, and my tryst-mate’s girlfriend is returning to Berkeley. I’m pretty sure polyamory has been killed by COVID-19, so I guess we’ll no longer kiss. It makes sense that when faced with a choice between fucking a partner or a friend, one would choose the partner. My martyrdom complex, however, loves this a little too much: how easy it is to interpret myself as a victim of intimacy’s global decay.

The stakes of this schism feel higher to me than they might normally since I don’t know when I’ll next be touched. I know we’re all lonely, and at best, I’m just being uncreative. There are ways to have sex ethically, I think (testing, isolation, full-body latex?), but they feel hard to access. Maybe I’m dramatic, but so is the world. I stayed up through the recent lightning storm, which is too gauche a way to signal a life transition.

I know I’ll miss this. The regular systems of care I had this summer, and sex. Which is okay. We’re allowed to mourn intimacy, even while acknowledging that other problems are more worthy of our attention. And being left (by friends, by a romance) isn’t always a betrayal. It doesn’t have to be. I can figure out new ways to stay close to people I care about from a distance and to get what I need without expecting it all at once. I guess we’re all doing it now, which doesn’t make it easy but does mean it’s fathomable.

Scout Turkel writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]