Last year, Barrett, a fortysomething architect in North Carolina who traded candor here for anonymity, had sex with a little more than 200 men. This year, since the start of pandemic protocols in March, he’s done nothing more than a mutual masturbation session in June.
“I was ordering sex like pizza. In 20 minutes, I’d have whatever topping I want,” he said of his pre-pandemic life. “I felt like I was dipping my pen in a poisoned well—physically, emotionally, spiritually poisoned. I had to say no more. Thank God the pandemic intervened. I wouldn’t have done it myself.”
In their lifetime, gay men aged 35 to 39 on average reported 67 sexual partners, according to one study, far more than the 12 lifetime partners of their straight counterparts. Broadly, nearly half of gay Americans are single, compared to 29 percent of straight American adults. Gay life has always been rooted in active sex, but the pandemic upended that, compelling a kind of self-consciousness for untold swaths of gay men, especially single gay men. Sexually sequestered with empty beds, the men I spoke with have been forced to reckon with who they are without active sex lives—some for the first time since coming out.
Courtney Harvier, 33, a photographer in Brooklyn, rebelled hard against the isolation: “I had this super-averse reaction to not having sex: If I can’t do this, I’m just going to be a camboy and start taking all these videos and sending them to people—ass pics and dick pics, sending them out to all the people I’ve ever found attractive on Instagram,” he told me. “There was a really immediate, visceral resistance to not being sexual.” Danny Wein, 28, a communications strategist in San Francisco, felt disoriented: “My sex drive, which was very high, fell off a cliff, and it was a very unsettling feeling in a city where cruising is par for the course in my daily routine—or was. The gym, the bars, everything.” Sean, 39, who requested anonymity because his parents aren’t privy to his setup, enjoyed a gilded coterie of paramours in his open relationship with his fiancé in Boston; not so in lockdown: “So much of gay coming of age is moving to New York or San Francisco or L.A. and sharing physical space with the community—the catharsis of that, the political project of gayborhoods. Without that, everything is compromised. I miss jerking off in the steam room, just as something to do to break up my day.”
A National Institutes of Health study of 1,051 gay men, published in April, found 69 percent reported decreased quality of life in the pandemic, with 73 percent reporting increased anxiety. Duh, look around: historic unemployment, lockdowns and travel restrictions, industries shuttered or limping along, bailout apathy from Congress and the White House, a Supreme Court that may nix healthcare for millions, and a nationwide nightmare of new COVID-19 infections. Perhaps there was another, more primal culprit too, as 68 percent of those gay men also reported decreased opportunity to have sex.
Radical shifts began in the lives of the men I spoke with, as well-worn habits gave way to novelties. For the first time in seven years, Barrett began masturbating (“I hadn’t needed to before”). Chasing what he called “optimal hedonism,” Harvier began mixing ecstasy into his orgasms. Wein, who had a date with a Tinder match—and three-year crush—on the first day of lockdown, turned it into a two-month staycation in a self-ascribed “marriage of convenience.” And writhing in the longest sexual drought of his life, Ari, 43, a New York-area doctor who began sleeping in a room separate from his husband to avoid contagion, started masturbating in the shower at least twice a day, bought three vibrators (a first for him), began a hentai fetish, and learned hands-free orgasms. (He requested anonymity due to his job.)
The surprises continued as the pandemic lengthened. “My fuckbuddies got their buddy moment. They reached out to see that I was okay. It was weirdly sweet. I have a big, burly daddy and he was checking in with me all the time—more than half of the people checking in on me were fuckbuddies,” Ari said. “With my husband, I have a relationship that’s much more involved than just sex. I didn’t expect with these people I had met on Grindr or Scruff or Jack’d that I’d have these conversations about the situation. I didn’t realize that these relationships had formed over time.”
Wein eventually tired of his two-month-long first date and realized, with his diminished sex drive, that all he really craved was cuddling. So the boyfriend ended and Wein adopted Billy, a rescue terrier. Robert Laverne, 32, an operations specialist in Chicago, was one step ahead: He had bought Ollie, a French bulldog, in March just as an around-the-world vacation was scrapped. Two-and-a-half hookups into the pandemic (he was stood up the third time) something switched and he channeled his libido into a fledgling OnlyFans account, earning $ 225 in his first 24 hours, he said. “When I made the videos and pressed OK to get out there on the Internet, I felt like a new, dormant side of me suddenly awakened and had come out,” he said. “In a year where so much had been taken away, I would say I definitely added to the world—and in a way that was keeping me safe.”
Chastity is not for everyone. And there has been some blatant disregard for safety, including clusterfucks in Atlanta, Miami, New York, and elsewhere. Public health officials expected as much. New York City’s Department of Health made what amounted to gloryhole recommendations that seemed pretty much just for gay men—who else, really?—even as they suggested “as few partners as possible” by reminding people, “You are your safest sex partner.” The Dutch government recommended a dedicated quarantine “sex buddy.” Easier said than done, Wein’s extended Tinder date notwithstanding.
After three months of celibacy, Harvier found himself altering the way he “re-engaged” with sex. “I wanted guarantees of pleasure. It was a very intentional, narrow list of people,” he said. “I don’t think I ever thought so critically about potential lovers I’ve had previously, before COVID—not even with my first time, not nearly as critically.”
Barrett’s sexuality mellowed, too. “Now I’ve enjoyed peace that I don’t think I’ve felt in 20 years,” he said. “I’m living at the pace of my libido, not at the pace of Grindr’s tempo and volume. I mean, Grindr was so predatory and casually transactional when I left it that people had their Venmo accounts in their profiles. It wasn’t what I wanted. It’s not what closeted Barrett at 16 wanted for himself.”
Akin to the empty nest phenomenon parents go through after their kids grow up, these men with their empty beds described their different journeys as refinements in their self-awareness. What could be gayer than proving, amid this year’s awfulness, that it gets better? Maybe Ari, the doctor who has sworn to first do no harm, and his enduring new priorities: “When this is over, I’m not giving up my vibrators.”
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