In a pandemic world where we are kept from human interaction, one can call back to another time where something similar occurred: the AIDs epidemic. Of course, AIDs and COVID are not the same but in both cases, there was, or still is, a responsibility to inform people in order to keep them safe/healthy. However, the question remains: who actually does that, and do people listen to the warnings/concerns when they’re presented?
In their article “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic,” Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen look at how sex has changed due to the AIDs epidemic. They “believe that AIDs patients have an ethical obligation to advise potential partners of their health status [… and they] believe that AIDS patients must allow their partners to make their own choice” (572). This is all well and good, and people should and did do that. But patients, and their partners, are human beings who have desires and don’t always want to go into their sexual histories, especially if it is the first time with a person.
An interesting example of this is in Angels in America by Tony Kushner. The play deals with many topics, one of which being AIDs and how it affects people. To Berkowitz and Callen’s point, there is an interaction between Joe and Louis (Part 2, Act 1 Scene 2) where they sort of discuss the potential dangers of them having sex. Joe knows that Louis’s boyfriend/ex-boyfriend has AIDs and that makes him nervous. There are multiple times where Joe states his discomfort and yet, Louis continues to “persuade” him to go further than he may be comfortable. In fact, Louis barely addresses the fact that he himself has had a sexual relationship with someone with AIDs. He has made his choice (to leave Prior and find new people to have sex with) but he doesn’t give Louis as much of a choice to decide what he’s comfortable with. By not having that conversation, and considering both of their comfort levels, both Louis and Joe are putting each other in danger.
Similarly, in the comic Dykes to Watch Out For, the characters Lois, Mo, and Ginger discuss how much sexual history you should go into with a new partner, even if it is just a one-night stand. It is hard to know, they decide, how much to disclose but it is a conversation that should happen. Unlike the scene between Joe and Louis, later scenes in the comic show Mo and her partner, Harriet, taking the time to have that discussion, ensuring that both feel safe and comfortable to continue.
Sexual histories are something no one wants to go into. But in an epidemic, it is important to consider it, especially when having sex with someone new. Perhaps, the important part of the conversation isn’t merely “Who have you f*cked” but “What are you comfortable with so that this can be a safe and pleasant experience.” Our current lives in a pandemic have reopened that conversation of people’s comfort levels in order to feel safe. Yes, we are human beings with needs, and we shouldn’t ignore them. But one’s own safety and the safety of others should not be ignored. If that happens, one moment of joy can have catastrophic consequences.