Are gay guys hooking up with randos on Grindr this Pride? Depends on who you ask.
"Luckily I really like jerking off and doing it with other people. While I haven't been doing it a lot, I have done it some," says Luke, a 40-year-old former engineer living in the suburbs of Seattle.
Luke lives in a house that has a kitchen/living room wall that's all windows, with a sliding glass door. "Early on in the COVID crisis I had a friend come over and did not even go outside. He was under the awning on my patio and we just jerked off for each other, and came all over both sides of the window. And then he went home and I had a lot of come to clean up. It was super hot. It was crazy hot."
But Luke says he's not hooking up with randos. "Not a lot of new people in the sex realm," he says.
And he's not doing any butt sex.
"The hookups I've had are with friends, hookups I've had before, and we will enjoy jerking off together, or on each other." As he's gotten more comfortable with the idea of the low risk of transmission outdoors, he's gotten bolder about jacking off without the glass door between him and his jack-off partners. But he still does all this jacking off in his backyard, ideally six feet away from whichever buddy is with him.
He also says he's sexting more. "I send out way more explicit pictures and videos now. I give fewer fucks now." He adds that, at least among people he knows, all of whom are working at home right now, "Everybody's jerking off all day. And that's interesting."
Other gay guys I interviewed are doing butt stuff.
"In the beginning—back in March and April—I felt like there were a lot of people with profile names like 'Stay Home' or 'Mask for Mask' with the little emoji with the mask. People were being very careful. So it was a bit different there in the beginning. But I think now I've seen a lot of that disappear," says Kevin, 32, an executive assistant. (I've changed all the names in this piece.)
"My perception is that now people are taking a few more risks, now that they know this is going to last a long time."
Kevin adds, "But also there were people back in the beginning that were taking risks. On that line, I did have one person over right before lockdown happened, and it turned out to be a bad idea. That person actually ended up stealing a new jar of weed I had just bought that day. And I was like: 'Wow, guess the world has changed. That's never happened to me before.' I don't know what this person's financial situation was, but that was what I thought of: 'Wow, we're in a different economic situation now.' That crossed my mind. I have to be mindful of this now. There are a lot of people that don't have jobs."
After that experience, "I stopped for like six weeks having any kind of hookups. I was still fucking my boyfriend at the time, but we've since broken up."
And what about Kevin's behavior more recently? "My approach to this has changed a little bit. I was a lot more scared in the beginning. I let the fear determine my activities. But as we've gone on, it has become apparent this is going to go on a long time. Maybe as long as two years. And I'm not willing to give up all human interactions for two years. So I am having some hookups and seeing people. While also trying to avoid crowds. No orgies."
Since Kevin is on PREP, I asked if he's been barebacking with his hookups.
"Protected or not doesn't really impact the COVID piece. The risk of getting it isn't impacted by having protected sex or not. If you're deciding to have sex, you're already putting yourself at risk for COVID, even if you're using a condom"—because you can't fuck someone from six feet away.
Dr. Hunter Handsfield, professor emeritus at UW Center for AIDS and STDs and former director of the Seattle-King County public health STD program, agrees: "Sex is the polar opposite of social distancing."
Dr. Handsfield goes on: "There have been reports of coronavirus identification in semen, raising questions about sexual transmission of the virus. Most people in my field would agree if you’re close enough to have sex, you’ll be exchanging saliva and respiratory excretions and so on. New York City news reports talk about people having sex through portals and walls. Basically glorifying the gloryhole, I think, because it would reduce the chance of respiratory secretion exchange. But 90 percent of sexual acts are going to risk coronavirus infection."
I press a little further, half facetiously: "So you're saying this is the summer everyone should be having outdoor gloryhole sex?" I ask.
The doctor responds: "I've always thought that sex should be more than totally anonymous. You should have a certain level of personal emotional contact to be rewarding, and the notion of not even knowing who you’re having sex with and only seeing a butt in a hole and poking it with a prod doesn’t sound to me very romantic or enjoyable."
It should be noted that Dr. Handsfield is a happily married straight man.
When I mention what Luke has been doing with his sliding glass door, Dr. Handsfield says, "I had not thought about the business of masturbating while apart—either several feet apart or with a plastic or glass shield."
He adds, regarding sexting, phone sex, and mutual masturbation while in contact electronically: "When it became obvious 20 years or so ago that this was frequent and becoming more so, when those things first evolved in terms of sexual expression, I was taken aback because it was not part of my personal experience or upbringing. But it is so common now—and I hadn't even thought of it until now, so thank you for mentioning it—it does make sense to me that this pandemic is an opportunity for people to try out sexual expression with physically distant but perhaps romantically and sexually satisfying approaches. Why not? Seems like a good time for people to be experimenting like that."
No matter what the doctor personally thinks about the appeal of anonymous gloryhole sex, some gay guys do like that stuff—gay guys like Thaddeus, 27, whom I interviewed last week.
"That's something that really turns me on," Thaddeus admits.
"Especially the anonymous aspect. That definitely can be really hot." He says he thinks a lot of the guys who have fucked him anonymously through gloryholes are straight guys who want to fuck but also want to be distant from it.
So what have Thaddeus's sexual behaviors been like recently?
"Last night was my first random person I've never met before hooking up," Thaddeus says. "It was kinda weird because everyone's been so locked down. Like, was that okay? Things are opening up and you do have I think it's five or ten people allowed in groups now. But it's never been clarified in terms of sexually, because the government's not going to be like: 'Orgies of less than ____' or anything like that, so you just base it on what others are doing."
So what have his friends been doing? "A lot of people I know are still not hooking up. They're still isolating. And I'm like 'Oh come on, let's hook up.' And then other people are super relaxed. It's a personal decision. Younger guys are doing it more than older guys. I feel like the daddies are being a bit more cautious... But it's been pretty weird. Mixed emotions. But I needed it, so..." He laughs.
Was his recent hookup on Grindr or Scruff, and does he think there's a difference between how guys behave on each? "It was on Grindr. Scruff tends to be more guys who are active in the community—like it's much more everyone knows each other. Whereas Grindr is more anonymous people and more people who are not necessarily connected in the gay community, like closeted guys. But it changes all the time."
Thaddeus adds, "But now it's going to be Sniffies to find guys for gloryhole stuff." Thaddeus also has a gloryhole built into the laundry room of his house, but he's not letting total randos come over right now. "At my house I wouldn't have anybody that I don't have a little bit of an understanding of who they were—so technically it wouldn't be anonymous."
Dr. Handsfield cautions, "Hooking up with multiple partners with or without barebacking or PREP is going to be taking some risk of contributing to the epidemic, including a small risk of dying, even for a young person."
He goes on, "That’s not a blanket condemnation for all people, but I do believe that people have a responsibility to make these decisions thoughtfully. I think it’s a mistake and for many people irresponsible of them to take the attitude that 'I’m willing to take the risk because I’m younger, I won’t get badly ill.' The problem is that every new infected person is a potential source for someone else to be infected. You have a societal responsibility to reduce the risk so you don’t potentially infect others"—like your grandparents.
"It's not just to protect your own health. It’s to protect everyone else’s health. People who don’t take that perspective are behaving irresponsibly," the doctor says.
But Kevin points out, "I think that in general there are a number of gay guys that use sex as a way of dealing with their underlying shame, maybe even subconscious shame, about being gay. And that's true before COVID, and in that way having sex can be a boost. It's part of your mental-health makeup. Also it can be kind of like a drug. So there are perhaps withdrawals if someone can't have that human interaction. And when you're dealing with underlying shame about being gay in the world, and you've been leaning on sex to help you deal with that, you might see it as worth taking a risk."
Dr. Handsfield, who is still very active in consulting with CDC in STD prevention and HIV, may not agree with Kevin's thinking entirely, but he does believe that "life is full of risks, and the thoughtful individual, whether it’s how they behave on the road, or whether they smoke, or how they have sex—people make balances between some level of risk that is acceptable to them in the context of what they’re doing. People have to make a choice about what’s important to them."