It is early May 2022. Among news of a looming recession and ongoing reporting about Ukraine, news outlets start to pick up rumours of a new disease spreading among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (GBMSM). Monkeypox would capture the news for a few weeks. The rising number of cases across the world, the images of thighs covered in blisters, the exotic tales of a virus jumping from animals to humans would capture audiences across mainstream and social media. The main morbid element of monkeypox, however, seemed to be its close association with sex between men: journalists focused on how gay saunas and sex events were linked to outbreaks in Madrid. Forty years from the first reports of what would eventually be termed HIV, monkeypox was becoming framed as a new gay virus.
Before moving forward, I want to shout this loud and clear for those in the back: monkeypox (or, for that matter, HIV) is not a gay virus. Viruses, unlike people, do not discriminate. Monkeypox spreads through close contacts, such as sharing clothing or bedding, skin-on-skin contact with blisters, or through sneezing and coughing. It is clear, then, that sex between men is just as likely as any other kind to pose a risk of transmission. Once monkeypox entered the sexual networks of GBMSM, it spread among them. In a way, monkeypox has felt like a short-lived pandemic, especially compared with HIV and COVID-19. In just a few weeks, we went from a daily panic about blistering groins to a total silence in the news. Despite this, by the 8th of June, more than 330 people had monkeypox in the UK – and vaccines are not yet being widely offered to those at most risk. This silence itself speaks volumes about whose lives and health matter: had monkeypox spread as widely among heterosexual communities, it would remain at the forefront of our news agenda.
I have spent the last five years researching the cultural, social, and sexual implications of HIV for sexual desire and fantasies. Monkeypox reminds many of HIV – or, rather, it stinks with the racism and homophobia that rendered HIV a crisis: its racist and colonial associations with Africa and, although wrongly, with monkeys, and the ways in which discussions about both viruses almost always turned a judgmental eye to the sexual practices of GBMSM. Just as scholars, including Douglas Crimp or Susan Sontag, had shown how HIV served to justify and strengthen pre-existing homophobic and racist agendas, so monkeypox poses a real risk of undoing the de-stigmatizing work around sex and sexuality that has taken place over the past forty years. What is the role of sociology in all this? What kind of sociology do we need?
Those who know me well may not be surprised by this, but in starting to address these questions I want to focus on gay saunas. These became a hot topic during public discussions about HIV crisis and monkeypox and, I think, reveal the role of sociology in a pandemic. Today, gay saunas are venues where men go to have sex with other men: they frequently include some spa-like features, such as steam rooms, jacuzzis, showers, locker rooms and ‘private’ rooms or stalls, etc. It is the norm for patrons to wear a short towel or nothing. Some regard them as erotic oases, while others have pointed out that they are the location of power relations linked to body (un)desirability, racism and ageism.
Because of their imagined role as spaces of liberated, unbridled sex, saunas have always been the target of conservative attacks: just as with the AIDS epidemic, monkeypox has emboldened homophobic elements in UK society, to demand that saunas be shut.
Saunas are not only venues where men have sex, but also profoundly important spaces for sociality and pleasure. They are an essential element in the history of sex between men, past and present. These demands for closure, then and now, rely on feeble public health reasoning that masks the mainstream social desire to disallow the social and sexual public spaces of LGBT+ communities.
Beyond their historical importance, saunas are a way of understanding how people’s decision-making around sexual health is complex and, often contradictory. Just this year, in a paper with my colleague Chase Ledin, we evidenced how some gay men understood the real-life risks of COVID-19 but also wished to continue engaging in sexual encounters in saunas. They combined memories from the AIDS crisis and experiences of HIV, their desires for sauna-based sociality is a proactive process of generating new practices of risk-reduction. Far from misguided or ignorant, these men’s discussions reveal the key role that desires (for sex, for intimacy, and so on) play a part in people’s decision-making during a pandemic.
If that was the case during COVID-19, so it is with monkeypox. In a fantastic Twitter thread published during the height of the monkeypox media frenzy, activist Will Nutland explained that there was a need to balance “caution vs pleasure.” What distils from Will’s thread, and is backed by extensive research, is a simple fact: people will have sex even when doing so could pose a significant risk. Chastising those decisions as reckless or ignorant misses a key element: for many men, these encounters in saunas or elsewhere, are social spaces; their desires for them are highly contextual, and their decision-making is relational.
Sociology can contribute to discussions around monkeypox by considering both the desiring subject and their desires as grounded in a social and relational context. Our work can, and should, highlight how seemingly personal choices around risk, health, sex, and sociality are, in fact, profoundly contextual; how desires are influenced by and influence sexual realities and choices. Monkeypox, like the AIDS/HIV crisis, demand a sociology that is messy, that does not shy away from the complex, fluid, sticky—as Juana María Rodriguez puts it—dynamics of sex, desire, and health. It demands a sociology that does not abandon desires and fantasy to the psysciences, but considers them as relevant as and intersecting with race, ethnicity and more. Such a sociology could evidence how important and how social desires are in contexts such as monkeypox for understanding people’s sexual decision making.
Jaime Garcia Iglesias is Mildred Baxter Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society at the University of Edinburgh. His first book HIV, Internet and Sex: Viral Fantasies will be out with Palgrave’s “Health, Technology, and Society” series in 2022. He holds a PhD in Sociology and has a background in literature and cultural studies. He specializes in the intersections of sexuality, internet and health, with previous work focused on PrEP use, intimacy online, and HIV prevention. He has also worked on the role that literature and fiction play in negotiating health and sexuality, with a focus on contemporary literature from the United States. Twitter: JGarciaIglesias