Looking Back on Sex during the AIDS Epidemic

In the early era of AIDS, a community of men that prided itself on free love was suddenly forced to confront loss. Loss of friends and loved ones. Loss of security and safety. Loss of sex. Sex was a political act by which they explored their queerness. As AIDS ravaged the community, sex now came with consequences that served as a reminder of their new reality. Queer men had to adapt.

Phone sex was one growing alternative. It became a safe way to get off while remaining anonymous. With it came the ability to explore self pleasure, kinks and fantasy.

A while back I read an essay called “The Telephone and It’s Queerness” by Ellis Hans. “Phone sex,” he writes, “ certainly has its charms, though one would not know it from most of the accounts I have read. Indeed, I cannot imagine a safer form of safe sex. One can transmit a great many things by telephone, but HIV is not one of them. Phone sex allows for the promiscuity and anonymity often attributed to urban queer sexuality, though few have found it an adequate substitute for promiscuity in person. I would argue, rather, for phone sex as a peculiar mode of queer pleasure, one which has obliged me to rethink the very category of the erotic in my one experience.”

Phone sex may not have been the solution to sex during their time, and certainly not the answer during our pandemic, but it did create new avenues of sexual exploration while keeping those involved safe.

Personally, I don’t believe having sex with a random person is impossible during COVID. But as with the early years of the AIDS epidemic, we need to rethink how we explore our sexuality. So far, we have found ways to stay safe while going back to work, grocery shopping and other daily tasks. We know that this works when everyone plays their part. Why should’t sex follow new guidelines?

I asked a few men in our community what safe sex means to them today. Here’s what they had to share.


Vignesh believes sexuality is a natural part of our lives. To deny our urges means to deny ourselves. Having recently found a new appreciation for exploring his sexuality, being in lockdown left him wanting. During the early stages of COVID, he admits to meeting up with a few individuals for casual sex. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he thought. After a scare of feeling sick for a couple of days, he realized that he needed to re-think how he would go about satisfying his sexual needs. Thankfully, it wasn’t COVID related and he quickly recovered.

If he wanted to have sex, he was going to have to find a new way to go about it. He began talking to a guy on a dating app. Along with interests, they discussed their risks for exposure, living situation, and safety precautions extensively. It would be up to them to keep themselves safe for each other. This meant that they would agree to not have sex with anyone else. When they did meet up, it had to be planned. No longer could it be a spur of the moment thing as they needed to prepare in other ways. Vignesh saw it as a ritual. Showers must be had before and after they were finished. Home needed to be cleaned and sanitized. Hand washing was a must before they engaged with each other.

Over time, they began to trust each other enough to not wear masks around one another. It was a process, but Vignesh had found a guy he could trust to explore his sexuality during the pandemic.

It has been a few months now and they remain free of COVID. They are still finding new ways, and locations, to have sex. His advice to anyone who is looking to have sex during the pandemic is to, first and foremost, admit that they want it. Repressing our urges can lead us to make rash decisions that impact not only ourselves, but those around us. If you are going to meet up with another person, have trust in them and take precautions.


He believes that sex can be many things and is not limited to penetration or ejaculation but also pleasure, intimacy, fantasy. Since he began having sex at 19, he has explored the wide variety of pleasure sex has to offer. In return, he has learned what he does and doesn't enjoy. During lockdown, not much has changed for his sex life. Having extensively explored self pleasure, he knew he could take care of his needs without the help of anyone else, thus reducing his risk of contracting COVID.

When a friend with benefits of ten years reached out, they had the idea of getting together again. For four months they talked, discussing the logistics of their meet up. While in public, they would wear masks to reduce their risk. When together, they would continue to wear a mask.

After four months of planning, they met up. He wore a mask while the other guy gave him head. Once they finished, they went their separate ways. Although it does not go exactly as he would like, as he values intimacy over release, he knows that the extra touching and exploring could add potential risk.

Today, both men remain free of COVID and are continuing to meet. His advice for anyone who wants to meet up with another person is to do their research. It is important to learn about what people are doing to remain safe and take note of how they contract COVID. The pandemic could go on for some time. If you don’t learn to adapt, you could be left behind.

One thing the AIDS epidemic teaches us is adaptation. We must adapt to our current situation. Unlike the AIDS epidemic, sex has not been taken away from us. Rather, COVID has shown us that our daily tasks can go on, but new precautions must be taken. Whether or not you have been having sex with multiple partner in the past six months, now might be the time to stop and question. Do you understand what is at risk? Have you been as safe as you could? Does wearing a mask during sex feel too silly?

Having and building trust in a sex partner has never been more important. While it may take time, the result is pleasure with peace of mind. If you want to have sex, I believe you should be able to talk about it. For some, admitting to ourselves that we are sexual beings is the hard part making talking to another even more difficult. Do the hard work. Either talk about it with someone you trust or find someone to begin building trust in.

*Name changed out of respect to this individual who chooses to remain anonymous.