Sexual surveillance in the Covid-19 era

Xinjiang preamble

Xinjiang Province, the world’s most advanced security state, provides a window onto what the future holds if the world takes a more dystopian turn. It wasn’t always like this. I’ve been visiting the Chinese province since the 1990s, when it was quite the freewheeling place, more so than the rest of the country.[1] My first visit, in 1995, took me and my then Chinese girlfriend to Urumqi, Turpan, Kashgar, and Kuqa, the latter three cities predominantly Uyghur. The capital Urumqi’s population at that time was split between the Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese—the latter increasing at the expense of the indigenous Uyghurs throughout the province. It was a strange and fascinating place. Apart from a few air travel routes, sleeper buses outfitted with narrow bunks and old repurposed school buses were the only means of transportation around the province, at times trudging along the desert floor when blowing sand obscured the roads, as we sat upright on the hard seats, sometimes for overnight hauls, and were served the same stir-fried udon-like noodles with mutton and green peppers in tomato sauce and disks of salty naan flatbread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at makeshift restaurant stops manned by quaint dusty-clothed folk looking right out of the nineteenth-century American West, many of them Caucasian-featured.

Kashgar is in the province’s far west and was then a major gateway to Central and South Asia. Buses took backpackers down to Karachi on the scenically spectacular Karakoram Highway and brought Pakistani merchants up to Kashgar. We met all types, including Tilmann Waldthaler, a published travel writer from Germany, who was biking across Asia all the way from Hong Kong. In those days few Western restaurants in China had palatable food, but the banana pancakes at the local backpacker hangout, the open-air John’s Cafe across the street from the Seman Hotel where everyone stayed, did the job.

In the decades since, I’ve made frequent business trips from Beijing to Urumqi. Over these years, Chinese-Uyghur relations went into a downward spiral in the face of police repression and campaigns to subjugate Uyghur culture, suppress their language, and flatten their ethnicity down to a few anodyne signifiers—costumed dance routines jostling among those of other “minority nationalities” for the amusement of Chinese TV audiences. In the 1990s, Beijing had two lively Uyghur streets, in the Ganjiakou and Weigongcun communities, each with scores of restaurants. They seemed to have brought over whole neighborhoods, baking naan loaves in medieval-looking streetside ovens, slaughtering sheep right out on the street (requiring bike riders to maneuver around the pools of blood), and shouting “Hashish! Hashish!”—a staple of Uyghur culture—at any foreigner passing by, since they knew we understood the universal Arabic word and the Chinese didn’t. Yet already at that time rumors swirled among the Han that the Uyghurs were poisoning their dishes with marijuana to addict them (the Chinese fearfully regard all illegal drugs as the same; cannabis is not distinguished from heroin or cocaine). If any dishes had been infused with cannabis I would have noticed, as I often ate at their restaurants. Uyghur males could be seen at street corners slicing off pieces of qiegao cake from a huge slab on their bicycle carts, made of golden raisins, dates, walnuts, sesame, and the Osmanthus flower, something like a granola bar but richer and thicker, requiring a cleaver to cut through. By the turn of the century, the thousands of Uyghurs in Beijing were booted out and sent back to Xinjiang. Today a few token Uyghur restaurants remain in the major cities, mostly run by the Hui, China’s other Muslim group, who have long been pacified by the Han and rendered politically harmless. The Hui have their mosques and strictly avoid pork, but that’s about it. Intermarriage with the Han is fairly common, and I’ve known Hui whom I never realized were Hui until they told me. That’s the outcome the Chinese Government intends for the Uyghurs.

Around the time of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, tensions exploded in a series of vicious terrorist attacks on Han civilians by Uyghurs affiliated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The Government’s “Strike Hard Campaign” managed to quell further attacks after 2015. In the years since, accounts in Xinjiang have trickled out to form a picture of extreme, North Korean-style repression, the wholesale punishment of an entire ethnic group: at least a million Uyghurs cycled through re-education camps, many kept there indefinitely and tortured, and throughout Xinjiang, males forbidden from growing beards, females forbidden from veiling their face and forcibly sterilized, praying in mosques curtailed, the Uyghur language banished from schools, and passports to travel abroad no longer issued.[2]

Another casualty of the Campaign has been the province-wide, seemingly permanent implementation of a security state with an unprecedented level of physical and electronic surveillance, affecting the entire population. Uyghurs are singled out for much more comprehensive scrutiny than the Han, but during the post-crackdown period, the internet in Xinjiang was cut off completely, as I discovered on one visit to Urumqi around five years ago. That was eventually lifted; it had to be if the Government wanted to keep encouraging Han migration to Xinjiang. International news and social media sites are blocked in China; it’s no longer a question of which sites are blocked but which sites are not blocked. Still, one easily gets around this by a VPN. In Xinjiang, VPNs don’t work as well, and stop working altogether during crackdowns. (This establishes that VPNs are only allowed to operate in China at the grace of the Government, which could stamp them out if they so choose but for the present has decided not to alienate domestics and foreigners dependent upon VPNs for international communications.)

On my most recent trip to Urumqi, in early December 2019, the coronavirus was coursing through Wuhan though no one knew it yet. My five-star hotel had airport-like security in the lobby that we had to pass through. After my first day of work to visit the downtown area to find a restaurant and back to my hotel, I encountered three startling sights. They illustrated the new security state so serendipitously it was as if I had been on a guided tour by boastful apparatchiks for my edification. First, to get from my workplace (a university) to the restaurant, I had to pass through six security checkpoints, starting with the entrance to a subway station (subway checks are already routine in Chinese cities). Most of the other checkpoints were in intersection underpasses. I couldn’t walk across the city unhindered but repeatedly had to open my backpack to a guard’s gaze or put it through an X-ray scanner; each checkpoint also required me to pull down my N95 face mask (for air pollution) so that the face-recognition camera could read me. It was the last two checkpoints, however, I found most confounding. The main downtown drag was sectioned off block by block, with tents set up at each intersection which pedestrians had to pass through in order to proceed to the next block, while every department store or shopping center had its own checkpoint upon entering. Nothing remotely like this had been in place on any of my previous trips to Xinjiang.

Next, I decided to walk all the way back to the hotel. It was a long walk, some ten kilometers, my main form of daily exercise. As I was passing through a nondescript residential neighborhood lined with small shops and eateries, a large white van screeched to a halt on the opposite side of the street and police or security guards poured out bearing truncheons. At the same moment, female Uyghur shopkeepers in traditional headscarves emerged bearing poles. It seemed someone was being subdued, but with the van blocking my view (not wanting to get any closer and drawing attention to myself), I couldn’t make out what was happening. The disturbance suddenly stopped. The guards lined up at attention and the shopkeepers stood in place still pointing their poles, as the head policeman gave them a speech. I had stumbled upon, I realized, an anti-terrorism drill. Presumably, the shopkeepers had been warned in advance so that they could perform on cue.

Finally, on a street not far from the hotel, I was passing by a small police substation, more of a police box, when a Uyghur officer emerged with an intent expression. Right outside the station stood one of the countless surveillance cameras you see on streets and buildings in China. In Urumqi, they appeared every fifty meters or so and many had multiple lenses for high-resolution facial recognition. The cop paid me no attention. He held a large, formal portrait-style photo of a man up in view of the camera, and thereupon disappeared back into the station. I tried to figure out what he was doing. They were looking for someone and the cameras weren’t turning up any matches, so the man’s portrait was fed to the camera to better sync the system, though the question remains why this needed to be done manually instead of digitally uploading the portrait into the database; perhaps the cop had just gotten his hands on this particular portrait and didn’t have a scanner.

The thought occurred to me, and could not fail to occur to anyone in my place, that this is the future. Don’t think it couldn’t happen in the West: in the U.S., face-recognition cameras have been installed on city streets for years, and all it would take is a major national disturbance or calamity to bump surveillance measures up to state-of-emergency mode. Thankfully, the rest of China at that moment was comparatively relaxed. If face-recognition surveillance was running in the background and the technology ever experimented with, upgraded, and perfected, you wouldn’t know it, as long as you stayed out of trouble. And there was an evident upside to the technology that was enjoying popular support: a reduction in street crime. Yet I wondered, was all the surveillance in Xinjiang not really, or not just, about the repression of the Uyghurs but rather something else? The unrest and terrorism provided the authorities with the occasion to turn the province into a giant laboratory for developing the ultimate security state. The population’s freedom may be curtailed a bit, but their sacrifice is for the benefit of the nation. It’s only a matter of time before this massive surveillance apparatus is rolled out across the country, inevitably so in the event of a national emergency.

Even without a national emergency, would any government really want to subject its people to the same treatment as Xinjiang? The Uyghurs have it bad enough, but more than half of the province’s 25 million consists of Han and other ethnicities, all of whom must put up with the daily hassles of increasingly omnipresent and omniscient surveillance, their cities partitioned into multiplying border checkpoints. Even after acclimatizing oneself to all of this in the interest of getting through the day, what kind of long-term psychological impact follows from having to repress the effects of living in an urban environment that feels like an airport, where you must repeatedly go through X-ray security to cross from one neighborhood or street to another? This is enforced neurosis on a massive, institutionalized scale, and a human rights aberration.

From technology’s standpoint, what happened next was a godsend, the green light to expand the surveillance laboratory nationwide: Covid-19. It is indeed happening, and as Chinese author Murong Xuecun (Deadly Quiet City) laments, much faster than anyone could have realized: “The pandemic did a huge favor to the Chinese Communist Party, which took the opportunity to expand its power infinitely” (Yuan).

The case of China

If there is such a thing as a politico-sexual Rubicon beyond which there is no turning back, it’s going to be when the state removes your right to privacy in the last redoubt: public restrooms, changing rooms, hotel rooms, and your own home—places where nakedness occurs and surveillance cameras are normally out of reach. Up until the Covid-19 outbreak, no state had ever dared breach this line. It existed only in the realm of fiction, most famously the 24-hour two-way “telescreen” installed inside every home in George Orwell’s novel 1984, enabling the government to peep into citizens’ private lives. Because the idea is so repugnant, even tyrannical dictatorships are loath to cross this line. To maintain its legitimacy, the state relies on a base of popular support, which risks being eroded altogether in the face of a measure so drastic that no plausible justification for it exists. That’s why Orwell’s classic dystopia is regarded as too exaggerated to ever come to pass in reality, as satire is designed to be.

Recently, a CNN news report revealed police in China’s Jiangsu Province to be engaging in this very measure, installing surveillance cameras inside people’s homes (Gan). They weren’t dissidents under house arrest (who are almost certainly surrounded with such cameras), but ordinary people, coronavirus-free workers returning to the city of Changzhou after months of lockdown in their hometowns. In-home cameras were necessary, the police argued, to monitor their two-week stay-at-home orders because placing them outside their front door, as some apartment complexes in Chinese cities were doing at the time, subjected them to vandalism.

Local authorities have long reached their tentacles into Chinese people’s private lives to an extent scarcely tolerated in the rest of the world. This is due to a traditional absence of privacy rights in China, particularly since 1949. Few older Chinese have experienced “privacy” as Westerners understand it, having only ever known narrow quarters crammed with extended families, members of multiple generations occupying the same bedroom and even the same bed, packed student and worker dormitories, and other sardine-tin communal arrangements. In recent decades nuclear families have achieved greater privacy as housing capacity has expanded, but people are otherwise accustomed to routine encroachments into their personal lives by nosy neighbors, neighborhood committees, and the police. Yet although the Chinese may have a higher tolerance for privacy intrusion, in-home video surveillance is clearly overreach. One resident interviewed in the CNN report was “furious.” The police had positioned the camera across his apartment toward his front door so that he was always in its view while in his living room. It “had a huge impact on me psychologically,” he said. “I tried not to make phone calls, fearing the camera would record my conversations by any chance. I couldn’t stop worrying even when I went to sleep, after I closed the bedroom door.” The Changzhou police were put on the defensive and deigned to apologize, promising the cameras would be removed as soon as the self-quarantine period was over (Gan). Apparently, it was only tried out in one Chinese city, or at least that was the only city reported on.

But other intrusive measures have since the Covid outbreak been instituted across the board and are now routine. An outbreak of cases in one’s residential complex or community forces it into a “hard” lockdown—residents aren’t permitted out of their apartments (Wuhan’s lockdown lasted almost three months).[3] A small outbreak in one’s district or city may result in a less stringent, partial lockdown, keeping residents inside their complex and working from home, with a different family member allowed out every other day to shop, and only essential workers allowed to go to work. When a lockdown is lifted but there are still local cases outside one’s district, people may come and go freely but have to present a pass card upon returning to their complex or scan a QR code; more and more complexes are now using face-recognition scanning to let in their residents. Shopping malls, public buildings, many food establishments, and in some cities, buses, and subways require the scanning of a QR code linked to one’s identification through a downloaded government app, confirming on the spot you’ve been in the city (but not to any outbreak district) for the requisite two weeks.

If the Chinese are putting up with these annoyances, it’s because they appreciate the importance of tracking down carriers of the virus. The more places you’ve shown your code, the more complete is the log of your movements and those you’ve intersected with. This is valuable information when it comes to determining the source of an outbreak and contact tracing all the people affected. There are indeed benefits to China’s zero-Covid approach. In no other country is the wearing of face masks in public a matter of etiquette alone; the masks and constant scanning of QR codes are a hassle, to be sure, but almost one-fifth of the world’s population can relax in the knowledge that their possibility of catching the virus is still statistically nil. It’s a load off their mind—in stark contrast to the rest of the world. China’s economy was only moderately affected before returning to normal activity a few months after the outbreak, and their medical system was only momentarily taxed, buying time to develop vaccines and medicines and spruce up the health infrastructure, as it prepares for the inevitable arrival of the virus when the nation reopens its borders, as it must eventually.

The dark side of this lockstep conformity, of course, is that top-down public health measures can easily shade into political and symbolic dictates merely aimed at testing the public’s obedience. Over the past two years of the pandemic in China, numerous reports have surfaced of horrendous behavior by local governments after instituting Wuhan-style hard lockdowns—locking people in their apartments with limited access to food and denying ambulance service for non-Covid-related emergencies. Complaints that people can’t even be let outside to walk their dogs might seem petty when lives are being saved, but the mass culling in some Chinese cities of people’s pets on alleged disease-prevention grounds is clearly shocking (Baker).

One doesn’t need to be an expert in surveillance to grasp that if the technology is available it will be used, and one doesn’t need to be a futurologist to know what’s coming down the line. The merging of GPS and face-recognition technologies means that, with the exception of hermits living in the remote wilderness, everyone’s exact location will be known to the state in real-time (Mozur & Krolik). Some of the more dystopian consequences of this are already a reality, as when jaywalkers in certain Chinese cities are seeing themselves, along with their name and identifying information, displayed on giant LED screens at busy intersections and automatically fined. The Chinese Government isn’t accustomed to allowing public debate on the ethics of hi-tech surveillance (much less on the cutting-edge, province-wide laboratory of Xinjiang), or very forthcoming about the intrusive technologies it’s implementing; it just implements them. One place with comparable developments to look to is South Korea, like China a homogeneous society with a largely conformist, obedient population but a more democratic press. To “reduce the strain on overworked tracing teams in a city with a population of more than 800,000 people, and help use the teams more efficiently and accurately,” authorities in Bucheon are using “AI algorithms and facial recognition technology to analyze footage gathered by more than 10,820 security cameras and track an infected person’s movements, anyone they had close contact with, and whether they were wearing a mask” (“South Korea”). If it’s happening in South Korea, it’s happening in China.

What’s on many people’s minds in China now is not the rapidly evolving omniscience of Covid-tracking. If anything, it will come as a relief when the technology reaches a level of accuracy and seamlessness that allows us to come and go without having to fiddle with our devices and QR codes every time we enter a shopping mall. The dystopian question, rather, is whether the Chinese authorities are planning on keeping all the Covid measures in place post-pandemic, in a perpetual state of vigilance, permanently on guard for the next pandemic. This won’t necessarily require the constant scanning of health codes as we’ll all be tracked in real-time anyway. Instead, the technologies will operate behind the scenes. As the population has now gotten used to the array of Covid measures, they can more easily acculturate to, internalize, and accept the next development: the knowledge that everyone is always already being watched. What happens when we get used to this state of affairs?

The Communists mastered social surveillance long before electronic technology. This surveillance has always been, at its core, not just the political surveillance one associates with totalitarian regimes, which actually involves only a handful of unruly agitators and dissidents, but sexual surveillance, which is designed for everyone. During the Cultural Revolution, many families were split apart and forced to stay in sex-segregated dormitories. In my close to three decades in China, I’ve been able to observe how hotels have served as morality enforcers and sexual gatekeepers of the state. In the 1990s, growing spending power allowed people greater mobility, and the private hotel industry developed along with domestic tourism. But only married couples were permitted to room together in hotels and had to prove their marital status upon checking in, a policy that remained in place until 2003. Curiously, the unmarried had long been allowed to sleep together in bathhouses, which had 24-hour private rooms (often with unlockable doors but police checks and busts were rare) and no registration requirement. This was freer even than in the U.S., where hotels require some identifying information such as your car’s license plate. The bathhouse industry flourished in the 1990s and they were the go-to places for illicit, that is, extramarital sex until the authorities put an end to it around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. All bathhouses thenceforth required identification upon entrance, though by that time unmarried couples could stay together in bathhouses and hotels as long as both registered with their national ID at the reception.

The 2003 milestone securing for the Chinese right to cohabit extramaritally in hotels has in the past few years begun to wobble—due to the little Big Brother in everyone’s mobile phone. It’s not just GPS that is to blame but GPS combined with the powerful WeChat (like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and every other app rolled into one), which along with the competing Alipay is used for buying things. China has been cashless since the mid-2010s. Cellphones are used for all monetary transactions, from buying a car to booking a hotel room to paying a prostitute or the migrant manning your favorite street-side snack stand; you need merely scan the seller’s QR code. This convenience, however, comes at the expense of the state’s knowledge of your every move.[4]

In the decade of opportunity between 2003 and 2013 or so, before WeChat became so powerful and ubiquitous, exercising your sexual freedom at a hotel was still an anonymous act. The government could easily pay the hotel a visit and find you out if they had reason to, but trysts could be carried out in reasonable confidence no one would ever know. Nowadays, the phone calls or WeChat messages of your conversations arranging the tryst, GPS tracking of your respective locations to the hotel, the record of your WeChat or Alipay payment used to book the room, and your respective ID numbers presented at reception all align to document incontrovertibly your liaison with a member of the opposite sex. The police are too busy to be much interested in people’s daily lives, including their sex lives. But although adultery is no longer a crime, it can easily be ferreted out and is of potential use to, say, HR departments, in a country where privacy protections are murkier and all medium to large-size companies, public and private, have a Communist Party office. The knowledge that the authorities have access to anything and everything is increasingly giving people pause before using a hotel to embark on an affair, at least those with reputations to lose.

Since the Covid pandemic, booking hotels has become a much more stressful affair for everyone, not just adulterers. Your booking is canceled if the city or city district your hotel is in goes into lockdown, which may involve just a single Covid case in the entire city; you are also canceled if the city you’re coming from has an outbreak. Bribery has long been a last resort in China; no longer, as far as coronavirus authorizations are concerned. Once arrived, you aren’t allowed past the hotel reception until you’ve electronically established your credentials with one or more health-tracking codes on your cellphone, filled out a police-mandated health form, and possibly required to present a negative antigen test within the past 48 hours. All these steps apply to any person accompanying you as well. They are interested not in adulterous affairs but in people infected with the virus. This means, however, that if someone in the same hotel is discovered to be Covid positive, or has been in contact with such a person, the hotel could go under lockdown without warning and no one allowed out for days or weeks. The same applies if the district your hotel is in goes into lockdown.[5] You and your partner will be questioned about your travel histories. While your adultery probably won’t be of immediate concern, the questions will be awkward, and being cooped up with your secret partner for days could end up exposing you in one way or another. What if you’re both from the same workplace?

If you feel it’s no longer worth the hassle going through with a hotel tryst, you’re not any safer from Big Brother’s roving eye sneaking your lover into your apartment while your live-in is out. Facial recognition cameras at your complex’s gate have you in their sights, and both your cellphones’ GPS tracks you right into your home.

One business you might assume to be off-limits under Covid is massage, given the close physical contact involved. At the start of the pandemic, all massage shops were shut down, as were bars and other entertainment venues. Then a few months later they opened back up (and shut down again after each new outbreak). The government has an obvious interest in keeping as much of the population employed as possible, and I doubt any country has more per-capita massage workers than China. Yet we are confronted with a paradox. In this most intrusive of surveillance states, the opportunities for intimate and sexual contact thrive even in the Covid era. Unless you’re a well-placed Party member or belong to the business or entertainment elite, with a reputation on the line, nothing is bound to happen. There are far too many people having sex for the authorities to bother about. The Chinese Government today is quite lenient, surprisingly lenient, about people’s sex lives. Like shopping, it’s been legitimized as a social safety valve. Things could always backslide, of course, to the spouses-only hotel laws of pre-2003, but even the nanny state of that era was light-years away from the grim circumstances that obtained up through the 1980s when people could be executed or imprisoned for extramarital sex, and university students expelled for sex as late as the 1990s.

The case of the USA

Unaccustomed to having their lives interfered with, Americans’ insistence on freedom from Covid restrictions is having, by contrast, a very bad effect on their sex lives. The nasty conundrum forced on us by the Covid pandemic is that the only way to effectively combat it, even with vaccines and medicines, is surveillance. Only surveillance provides the knowledge of who is infected, where they are located, and who they have been in contact with. This knowledge diminishes the burden on the medical system, while its absence escalates the medical burden since testing and contact tracing are scattershot and impotent without it. There has been much controversy in books and the media, well before Covid, over electronic surveillance and the resulting erosion of freedoms in democratic states, but the hard truth is that surveillance is the only weapon at our disposal for fighting disease outbreaks. China is not the only country to employ sophisticated tracking of its citizens. In the wake of Covid, most countries are ratcheting up their surveillance capabilities. (We are also seeing hints of another dystopian sci-fi Rubicon we hope won’t be crossed, but a logical and perhaps inevitable outcome of all of this, the implanting in people of microchips, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested doing to Israeli children (Sverdlov)).

South Korea, for example, held up as a model of national medical response, is revealing problems of overreach, when the state of the art collides with traditional prejudices, namely against homosexuality. In a coronavirus outbreak at a gay nightclub, hundreds who might have been exposed were reluctant to get tested for fear the medical authorities would inform their workplace and they’d be fired. In other words, further success in containing the virus hinges on how willingly this putative democracy’s leadership can let go of its dearly held homophobia (Kim). Singapore had similar issues with its discriminatory treatment of its million-plus migrant workers from India and Bangladesh (Yeung & Yee). On the other hand, sex-positive social attitudes can be turned to advantage, and people whose job involves extensive networking marshaled to assist the medical authorities, as sex workers in Zambia did, but this takes a rare degree of institutional imagination (“Coronavirus: Zambia”).

The American political system was no more structured to handle the Covid pandemic than the 1918 Spanish Flu. Two years into the pandemic, there has been no talk of reforming the healthcare system such that it would bring it in line with the rest of the civilized world. At the start of the pandemic, the U.S. Government couldn’t even administer the paltry $1,200 stimulus checks properly and fairly, sending them to people who didn’t qualify and denying them to those married to non-U.S. citizens; not to mention feed the hungry (Fadulu). Though the nightmare of the Trump Administration and its incompetence is over, its confused gesturing was symptomatic of a more profound problem: the inability of a cruel Victorian-style capitalist regime entrenched in a moribund imperialist ideology and run by cynical and blindered plutocrats to deal with something beyond its comprehension—a pandemic.

The U.S. has bifurcated more starkly than ever into Republican “red” and Democratic “blue” as it adapts to the pandemic. Conservative, religious, rural, and older, Covid Reds buy into conspiracy theories such as that the virus is a hoax and vaccines are poisonous, or simply chafe under any restrictions to their freedom. In their refusal to get vaccinated, they have, predictably, been losing their lives at a much higher rate than Covid Blues, who belong to a more educated demographic. But if the latter support public health measures and lockdowns, it’s not just because they understand science; they can afford to lock themselves down, having jobs that allow them to work from home rather than in factories, warehouses, or the service industry. The sad reality is that American society as a whole doesn’t care much for its most vulnerable, and this accounts for the highest Covid fatality rate in the world, over 800,000 deaths and counting: “Societies more known for valuing their elders, as is the case in many East Asian countries such as Singapore, South Korea, China, and Japan, have fared much better than the U.S. throughout the pandemic, with fewer cases and deaths from COVID and some of the highest COVID vaccination rates” (Gounder).

Meanwhile, the sight of young Americans blithely swarming bars and beaches despite urgent warnings has caused much consternation and outrage. Yet their nose-thumbing acts of freedom nevertheless convey something of symbolic importance: it’s a logical, appropriately sarcastic, middle-finger response by the hapless subjects of a failed state. Why try to protect themselves from the virus when the Trump White House did everything in its power to allow it to spread?[6] Why should they have to bear the burden of protecting the country when everyone is going to catch Covid anyway? These young people aren’t the complete idiots they are made out to be. They recognize what’s happening is a very bad flu season—well, ten times as bad—and despite their youth and health some of them will die. But their chances of surviving are pretty good, and many are asymptomatic. They are only carrying on as everyone will have to once the virus runs its course through the whole population, and they’ll be the first to gain immunity.

If the sight of bars and restaurants packed with maskless patrons young and old strikes you as disturbing or pathetic, they’d likely respond, quite reasonably, that they are trying to preserve the only reality they have ever known as it collapses around them. This often means continuing to support businesses they’ve been patronizing their whole lives that are on the verge of folding, either from enforced shuttering or high turnover of overworked staff. Rallying around local business and stepping in to help the community, when avoiding crowds is called for, could even be regarded as a well-meaning if misguided expression of Americans’ customary generosity, a generosity which, however, doesn’t always extend to people who can’t help themselves—the poor and elderly.

More pertinent to this discussion are the consequences to people’s mental health of extended social isolation, in a country where psychological services are already inadequate and unaffordable (“Coronavirus pandemic”). Several phenomena converge on this problem: the atomized nuclear family, with friends and family separated geographically by long distances common in the U.S.; the alienating effects of communicating with people online; and the Covid pandemic, which has exacerbated all of these factors. “There is little awareness,” writes Vinay Lal in The Fury of COVID-19: The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus,

of how digital technologies, which claim to foster relationships and produce a highly interconnected world, produce distancing….No one, in contrast, chooses to be lonely: it is the fate of those who must live in a society torn apart by anomie, estrangement, and distancing—from one’s self, community, and moral purpose. The gist of it is that, in the face of COVID-19, we have been asked to “only disconnect”—and this when isolation, self-absorption, narcissism, and social distancing have all been the bane of our modern existence.

Bound up with loneliness but seldom discussed in conjunction with it is sexual loneliness. You won’t find much in the way of advice, except to avoid sex altogether. The conscientious would stress that the act of lovemaking turns you into an efficient disease vector (if not quite as bad as choir singing; “Health authorities”). During AIDS this problem was solved with safe sex and condoms, but there is no safe sex under Covid. No form of physical interaction is possible without aiding the enemy, one that according to the medical consensus will be with us for good. Covid is changing America and you are never going to be able to party again, admonishes the superego. The only real way to contain the virus just happens to dovetail with—guess what?—good old “family values”: abstinence for teens and strict monogamy for adults.

This new normal means adapting to virtual relationships. That means dating is out, as it may introduce an asymptomatic person, or a super-spreader, into your circle. If you cannot prove you had a more legitimate reason for meeting this person, your intent must have been sexual and therefore gratuitous and reckless, as a result of which either one of you may have singlehandedly just started a new local outbreak. Simply going out and infecting, or being infected by a person with the intent of sleeping with them will make you guilty of abetting the pandemic. In China, the state assumes the burden of worrying about who’s infecting whom. It tells everyone to wear a face mask, and they obey; it tells everyone it’s okay to remove their mask, and they remove them. If restaurants and hotels are allowed to reopen, people flock to them guilt-free. If the virus is still lingering and some end up getting infected, they’ll shut the establishment down again. But no one is to blame and no one’s conscience is bothered. In the U.S., on the other hand, individuals are duty-bound not to cause others harm, even from something as impossible to control as an airborne virus.

If you were to ask younger people what they feel about the new sexual normal, they might assert, again quite sensibly, that they aren’t planning on curtailing their freedom one iota. To the contrary, the danger of catching the virus from sex might make it all the more exciting. The allure of sex is intensified by taboos against it, and defiance follows from an absence of moral exemplars. On the other hand, I can’t imagine all the terrible family dramas Covid has spawned when teenagers going out of their minds rebel and flee their miserable bedrooms for secret trysts, only to get infected and infect their household in turn.

Covid has thus reframed the debate around sexual freedom in a fresh way. Even without Covid, there is no shortage of such concerns in twenty-first-century America. This is of vital interest to everyone, as the question of freedom from sexual repression becomes intertwined and inextricable from the question of freedom from fascism.


[1] A colorful account of hashish running in the Xinjiang wild west of the 1980s is provided by Robert H. Davies’s Prisoner 13498: A True Story of Love, Drugs and Jail in Modern China.

[2] As bad as the Uyghur repression is, we might instructively compare it to the U.S. Government’s method for containing Native Americans. Both groups comprise about one percent of their national populations, thus small enough not to present a threat (particularly after past extermination drives). Corralling Native Americans into tiny reservations a fraction the size of their original land and pacifying them with a culture of addiction in the form of casinos, alcohol, and opiates does not, to my mind, constitute a substantial improvement over the Chinese approach.

[3] A colleague who happened merely to drive through one such community in Ningbo in late 2021 was contacted by the authorities after arriving home and forced to home-quarantine; they had scanned the license plate of every car passing through.

[4] Compared to the somewhat scattershot identity indicators the U.S. Government has of its citizens (social security number, state driver’s license, credit history, social media), the Chinese Government has a more centralized and orderly database, with the national ID number (passport in the case of foreign residents) being the sole indicator needed to call up every citizen’s complete digital history and profile. People are cautious about being inflammatory on social media; WeChat users can have their account permanently shut down without warning for political commentary or rumormongering. Private sexting isn’t interfered with.

[5] This happened to some colleagues of mine while staying at a five-star hotel in Shijiazhuang in 2021; they were stuck there for two weeks, free to wander but not exit the hotel.

[6] Trump actively undermined efforts to control the outbreak for political reasons (Weixel). The Biden White House reversed course but has been saddled with a patchwork national medical database, forcing it to rely on international data to track its own coronavirus outbreaks (Banco).

Works cited:

Baker, Sinéad. “Chinese city orders all indoor pets belonging to COVID-19 patients in one neighborhood to be killed.” Business Insider, 30 March 2022.

Banco, Erin. “‘It is embarrassing’: CDC struggles to track Covid cases as Omicron looms.” Politico, 19 Dec. 2021.

“Coronavirus pandemic prompts global mental health crisis as millions feel alone, anxious and depressed,” Democracy Now!, 14 May 2020.

“Coronavirus: Zambia sex workers praised for contact tracing,” BBC News, 10 May 2020.

Davies, Robert H. Prisoner 13498: A True Story of Love, Drugs and Jail in Modern China. Mainstream Publishing, 2002.

Fadulu, Lola. “As hunger spreads with pandemic, government takes timid steps.” The New York Times, 13 May 2020.

Gan, Nectar. “China is installing surveillance cameras outside people’s front doors and sometimes inside their homes,” CNN, 28 Apr. 2020.

Gounder, Celine. “The death toll says it all.” The Atlantic, 17 Dec. 2021.

“Health authorities explain how choir practice caused the ‘super-spread’ of 52 coronavirus cases in US town.” ABC, 13 May 2020.

Kim, Nemo. “South Korea struggles to contain new outbreak amid anti-gay backlash.” The Guardian, 11 May 2020.

Lal, Vinay. The Fury of COVID-19: The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus. Pan Macmillan, 2020.

Mozur, Paul, and Aaron Krolik. “A surveillance net blankets China’s cities, giving police vast powers.” The New York Times, 17 Dec. 2019.

“South Korea to use facial recognition to track COVID-19 pa-tients.” Al Jazeera, 13 Dec. 2021.

Sverdlov, Leon. “Benjamin Netanyahu suggests microchipping kids, slammed by experts,” Jerusalem Post, 8 May 2020.

Weixel, Nathaniel. “Trump sought to ‘undermine’ COVID-19 response, says panel.” The Hill, 17 Dec. 2021.

Yeung, Jessie, and Isaac Yee. “Tens of thousands of Singapore’s migrant workers are infected. The rest are stuck in their dorms as the country opens up.” CNN, 14 May 2020.

Yuan, Li. “Has Shanghai Been Xinjianged?” The New York Times, 6 May 2022.

* * *

This essay appears in Sexual Fascism: Essays, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Related posts by Isham Cook:
The Sewage System
Toilet terror
Covid-19 and the disease of American exceptionalism
American fascism: The sexual rage of the state
American massage

2 replies »

  1. “It’s just a matter of time before total accuracy will be achieved and applied everywhere, in all contexts. Let’s consider where all this is heading, and why China is the dour model of the future.”

    Facial recognition will never reach 100% total accuracy; because in the end you’re converting an analog picture into a digital siganture. And analog pictures; anything analog, is prone to errors. While it’s alright to be 99% accurate for things like your phones, it is unacceptable for something that requires absolute trust and security, like monetarial transactions.

    Facial recognition might be used in two step authentication; together with a pincode or another form of authentication.

    For government to be tracing people, there will always have to be a human element to verify the face. And there will always have to be concrete evidence that the person in the picture, is indeed the correct person.

    Facial recognition and facial tracking, of course it will make life much easier for the government and police force to track people; but they will always need some other form of evidence.

    In court, a suspect can always say “That’s not me; why do you think that’s me?”. Then the police could say “Because this machine learning program recognized you and it’s 99% accurate” … the suspect can still say “I belong to the 1%; can you explain to the court, how the machine learning program recognized me?”

    And the police can’t. This is the problem with AI and Machine Learning nowadays; they are a *BLACK BOX*; filled with fuzzy logic, not based on concrete rules. So as long as that’s the case, it can never be solely used in court as evidence.

    “uses their cellphone for every monetary transaction … to paying a prostitute”

    Most prostitutes are smart enough to use a burner phone & burner wechat account, which has no wallet linked to it. Most transactions with prostitutes are done by cash money. The number of prostitutes that might be dumb enough to use WeChat is probably neglectible.

    ” … your respective marital status will also of course be indicated in the database.”

    China does not have access to the marital databases in foreign countries; although yea, for Chinese they can know your marital status; this is not the case for foreigners visiting China. When applying for a Visa or when registering in a Hotel .. have you ever had to specify that you are married?

    ” … the danger of catching the virus from sex might make fucking intensely exciting”

    What? No .. No absolutely not … What? When AIDS was prevalent, everybody was fucking around because it was an exciting idea that you might get AIDS? Absolutely not.

    • Mark, thank you for your detailed comments; they are well taken. I believe facial recognition will achieve something very close to 100% accuracy, at least far more than 99%, a poor rate of accuracy as it misses 1 out of every 100 people. Accuracy will be increased because there are increasing surveillance cameras everywhere tracking someone in real time as they move about, not just in a single instant; and they work in tandem with GPS. I don’t think a courtroom in China can protect citizens from electronic evidence against them. Sex workers in China do use WeChat pay for their transactions; there’s no evidence that the transaction had anything to do with sex (I currently live in China); they could of course be questioned by police on why they received money from specific people indicated in their transactions, but in recent years the police don’t seem to be hassling sex workers (in contrast to the US where there’s constant police harassment). Before 2003, some foreign couples did have to prove marital status at hotels, but yes things were usually more lenient for them; not for foreigners married to Chinese (as I experienced). No, people are not going to have sex in order to increase their chances of catching Covid; but the allure of sex increases when it’s made taboo, and it’s certainly not going to stop a lot of people from having sex.

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