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Coronavirus-themed porn made me feel weirdly hopeful about life

At this point in the pandemic, a lot of us will do basically anything to relieve the soul-sucking sense of skin hunger and sadness. COVID porn is, perhaps, an unlikely white knight, but it happens to be a readily available and easily digestible resource. After watching a lot of coronavirus-themed porn, I found myself feeling horny — no surprise there — and also weirdly hopeful about life.

My newfound sense that the world might be okay made me wonder whether COVID porn might be doing something deeper than just turning us on. Can pandemic porn help us emotionally cope with the lockdown rollercoaster? Could masked gang bangs be teaching us that safety can be sexy? I asked sex researchers to help me investigate what this genre of contemporary erotica might be doing to our brains — if my pro-COVID-porn stance is warranted.

First of all, in case you aren’t aware, a lot of people end up turning to porn to find out about sex because our puritanical and incompetent American sexual education system doesn’t actually do its job. Basically, porn becomes sort of an accidental sex ed teacher. Like anyone forced to do an important job that isn’t actually theirs, some porn makers balk at this unwanted responsibility. But others heroically adopt educating the public as part of their mission statement. For context, here’s a little porn as sex ed history lesson. You’re welcome.

During the AIDS epidemic that began in the early 80s, homophobic U.S. officials and the mainstream media completely botched the job of keeping people safe by perpetuating the absurdly unscientific rumor that AIDS was a gay disorder. It wasn’t until 1983 that politicians started to think that maybe Americans should receive better sex ed earlier in order to curb the spread of the virus, and it wasn’t until 1993 that sex ed was actually required in schools — 48 of them, at least.

You probably know that sex ed in the AIDS era basically taught students that condoms were suspect and that abstinence was the only way to prevent pregnany and disease. You may not know that this did not get better as the AIDS epidemic went on, and in fact, isn’t much better today. According to studies, in 1998, 2% of sex ed teachers in the U.S. taught that abstinence was the only way to stay safe, and by 1993 that number had increased to 23%. Today, 24 states still require Sexual Risk Avoidance — aka abstinence-based — sex ed.

From day one, folks in the porn industry watched AIDS spread and kill, and they knew better than to think that anyone was safe from the disease or that abstinence was the answer. So some queer pornmakers stepped in and showed people having super hot queer sex with condoms. In case you don’t know, condoms were then — and still are — rare in porn. “At the height of the AIDS epidemic, it was very interesting to us sexologists-in-training that gay and bi porn would adopt condoms but that hetero porn largely didn't,” says Carol Queen, co-founder of the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco and staff sexologist at Good Vibrations, an education-oriented sex shop chain in California.

Queen was in graduate school studying human sexuality in 1987, and she and her academic colleagues saw firsthand the difference that condom use in porn made. “For us it was relevant to the well-being of these performers, but also very much about modeling--the idea that showing condoms in erotic movies could help to normalize them,” Queen says. Porn companies also started using testing and contact tracing to reduce the spread of HIV on porn sets, and — unlike the U.S. government during this or any other health crisis — they were largely successful, Queen says.

What then, you might be wondering, is porn doing for us in this pandemic? Well, for one thing, COVID porn could help make masks more palatable akin to the way queer porn made condoms more palatable during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. Making masks hot may not be the point of COVID porn, but it could work on us anyways. “Even if you’re not going to porn to get educated, you still learn things from it,” says Justin Lehmiller, author of the blog Sex and Psychology and two books on human sexuality, fellow at The Kinsey Institute, and sex researcher at Astroglide. “You always take something away from whatever porn you’re watching,” Lehmiller says.

So, even if you’re not specifically seeking out masked up porn, there’s such a preponderance of it right now that you may happen upon it anyways, and if you watch it, it could work on your brain. “COVID porn can help to normalize mask wearing by putting it in this other context,” Lehmiller explains. When you take a neutral stimulus — like a mask — and pair it with sexual arousal, you learn to associate those things, Lehmiller says. This could mean that masks become eroticized for you — meaning that you get turned on when you see them — or it could mean that you just start to see masks a bit more positively, Lehmiller says.

COVID porn may also be able to help us cope with this terribly lonely pandemic. “There are risks associated with dating and hooking up right now in terms of health and because the safest sex people can have is with themselves, porn can provide a healthy outlet for people to express their sexuality,” says Lehmiller.

He also believes that this moment invites us all to reconsider our position on porn. “There are so many people who demonize porn,” he says. “At this unique point in history, maybe it’s worth stepping back and looking at porn through a different lens.” In other words, porn can be a safe way to feel good during a time in which it seems really hard to feel good and maybe the contribution it’s making will win some haters over.

Pandemic-inspired porn can also help us work out some of our fears and anxieties, not just by helping us get off, but by helping us remember that intimacy is possible. “A lot of the fear people are having right now is around sex, dating, and intimacy,” Lehmiller notes. “This genre of porn is another example of the inherent flexibility of human sexuality and our ability to eroticize almost anything.” His theory gets at the root of the hopeful feeling I got after watching COVID porn.

“People are endlessly creative about how they meet their sexual needs,” Lehmiller says. “There is so much diversity in our desires and porn reflects that by making sure that there’s something for just about everyone. Our desires, and thus how we see them played out in pornography, can change depending on our needs," Lehmiller says. But watching COVID porn didn’t just make me feel hopeful about sex, it made me feel hopeful about humanity. At this, Lehmiller laughs a bit and says, “Well, porn does show that we’re a very flexible, very creative, very adaptable species.”