This article was written in May, there have since been updates to both UK and Dutch policies.
As if 2020 couldn’t feel more like a prolonged fever dream, the Dutch government has advised single people to find “sex buddies” as part of their “intelligent” lockdown. It feels like the plot of a quirky A24 film: a fusion between the rom-com Friends with Benefits and Steven Soderbergh’s terrifying Contagion, two strikingly different 2011 Hollywood hits. Girl meets boy, boy meets girl, they become each other’s strictly monogamous sex partners to flatten the curve and end up falling in love. The credits pan to the new couple enjoying a date in a recently reopened restaurant. Perhaps the only similarity between Contagion and Friends with Benefits was how unrealistic both plots felt at the time of release: a healthy relationship developing from ‘no strings attached’ and a global pandemic haemorrhaging normal life indefinitely. Yet both now fit into the genre of realism.
Although the Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and Environment eventually backtracked on their advice, favouring the coyer phrase “cuddle buddy”, their willingness to discuss how intimate relationships might function through COVID-19 is welcome. Compare this to the UK government’s response. In late March Jenny Harries said couples should “test really carefully” their relationships by either cohabiting or not seeing one another at all.
While understandable in line with the broader purpose of lockdown, these comments offer little help to young, long-distance or flat-sharing individuals in love. Not to mention LGBTQ+ folks whose relationships face the additional pressure of potentially unaccepting households and family members. Other governments alongside the Dutch have been more explicit with their advice. New York, LA and Oregon health officials have promoted self-pleasure, sexting and erotic reading as a means to combat touch starvation, social distancing’s grim side effect.
Of course, there is nothing new about the regulation of sex by central governments (see: the entirety of LGBTQ+ and women’s history). However, Dutch COVID-19 guidance seems to be the start of a more progressive relationship between sex and the state. Open discussions about the role the internet plays in modern relationships are long overdue. In 2015, 500 private images and videos of female celebrities were leaked, with the event crudely dubbed “The Fappening”. Worse, these women were subject to virulent slut shaming by mainstream media.
Likewise, when Bella Thorne leaked explicit images of herself after an anonymous blackmailer threatened to do so, Whoopi Goldberg responded, ‘I don’t care how old you are. You don’t take nude pictures of yourself… if you don’t know that in 2019, this is an issue.’ Goldberg completely misses the point herself: if you don’t know by 2019 that consensual and mutual nude sending is a highly common part of millennial dating and sex life, that is an issue. With the government being forced to validate these forms of sexual communication long overdue conversations about the benefits (alongside the obvious risks) of sexting are finally being addressed.
Similarly, limiting physical contact has triggered a boom in the sex toy industry. Sales tripled in New Zealand and doubled in Denmark, while Ann Summers in the UK has seen a 27% rise in purchases. Self-pleasure is completely natural and can be an empowering form of self-love, yet masturbation remains a taboo subject for many. It is a shame that a literal global catastrophe has been the driving force behind all of this, but New York’s government’s advice, “You are your safest sex partner”, will still ring true once we pass the peak of the pandemic. The clarity, honesty and non-judgmental tone behind much of this government advice is the result of years of HIV/AIDS activism, another example of the long-term benefits health crises can unexpectedly produce.
There are limitations to the approach of the Netherlands. As with all lockdown measures, there is a gaping chasm between theory and practice, and the “sex buddy” scheme is not immune to abuse. Encouraging only one sex partner reaffirms traditional assumptions about “healthy” relationships and in the long term will undermine the beneficial aspects of hook-up culture. People can no longer explore their sexual and romantic preferences safely, an important and rather fun part of “finding yourself”, as cliché as it sounds. These issues are unavoidable and trivial, but I still quietly mourn for the budding chirpses cut short by quarantine and unabashedly root for every crush confessed on Oxlove.
But, at least the Netherlands are willing to start a conversation about sex for singletons. Abstinence education has never succeeded – with or without the threat of COVID-19 – and I’m thankful some governments will admit this.