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 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” (video surveillance camera) installed inside every home in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Because the idea is so horrible, even tyrannical regimes and dictatorships are loathe to cross that line. To maintain their legitimacy, they rely on a base of popular support. this risks being eroded altogether in the face of a measure so drastic that no plausible justification exists. That’s why Orwell’s classic dystopia is generally regarded as too exaggerated (as satire is designed to be) to ever come to pass in reality.
Recently, a CNN news report revealed police in China’s Jiangsu Province to be engaging in this very act, installing surveillance cameras in people’s homes. They weren’t white-collar criminals or dissidents under house arrest, but coronavirus-free workers returning to the city of Changzhou after months of lockdown in their hometowns. In-home cameras were necessary to effectively monitor their two-week stay-at-home orders, the police argued, because placing them outside people’s front door (as some apartment complexes in Chinese cities have been doing) subjected them to vandalism (“China is installing surveillance cameras outside people’s front doors and sometimes inside their homes,” CNN, April 28, 2020).
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 has been due to a traditional absence of privacy rights in China, particularly since 1949. Few Chinese have ever experienced “privacy” as Westerners understand it. Most have only known narrow living 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, the police, etc. Yet though the Chinese may have a relatively higher tolerance level for privacy intrusion, in-home video surveillance is clearly overreach, to put it mildly. 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 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 somewhat defensive and apologetic, promising the cameras would be removed as soon as the self-quarantine period was over. And it was only tried out in one Chinese city. But the trend is clear. If the technology is available, it will be used, and redundancy seems to be of little concern, even if there are more cost-effective (though less profitable) ways of ensuring people obey strict stay-at-home orders. China is inventive at this too. Arriving foreigners undergoing their fourteen-day isolation in Chinese hotels this February and March, for example, had a fresh piece of paper pasted over their door after each delivery of food, which would tear apart if they attempted to leave their room. In other countries, parolees and people under house arrest are monitored by the no less intrusive means of GPS ankle bracelets; the companies renting out these tracking devices do big business in the U.S. Video surveillance is, however, ready and waiting to be deployed everywhere, in every country. China appears to have taken the lead. In a related and no less disturbing development, jaywalkers in Chinese cities are seeing themselves, along with their name and other identifying information, displayed in real time on giant LED screens at busy intersections, thanks to face-recognition technology — and automatically fined.
You don’t need to be an expert on surveillance technology to see what’s happening. States are employing the latest tools at their disposal for compiling and combining databases of their population. From these an elaborate profile of any citizen can be instantly called up on a computer screen. In the U.S., the information used to identify you is your social security number, driver’s license or state ID, and your credit, tax, employment and medical histories. In addition to this is a wealth of information provided to innumerable databases fleshing out your profile in far richer detail than the FBI and NSA ever had the capability of: your personal interests voluntarily shared on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and other social media, along with any morally dubious behavior in which you and your online contacts engage and assume no one outside of your circle could possibly be interested. Speaking of cellphones (and your entire conversation and text-messaging history), the GPS technology built in them can now pinpoint your real-time location with near perfect accuracy. In relatively democratic societies like the U.S., all these databases are not entirely centralized but scattered and incomplete. But they are bought and sold by private actors who may know more about you than the government. We mustn’t forget that our computer cameras and smart TVs also serve as 1984-style telescreens allowing hackers to watch us, a topic worthy of its own treatment, but for my purposes here it’s assumed the state itself is not (yet) implicated in this means of surveillance.
China has all the above data about its citizens as well, but the information is far more centralized and orderly, with the national ID number (passport in the case of foreign residents and tourists) being the key indicator used to seamlessly call up individuals’ identity. But there too information compilation is still an imperfect science. This is one of the more interesting observations which Covid has brought to light over the past few months. Since the outbreak began, Chinese citizens and foreign residents must employ various authorizations to get around in daily life. Your apartment complex provides you with a pass card to present at manned gates upon returning home every day, where your temperature is taken; if guests are allowed, they must register and prove they have been in the city for at least fourteen days. In recent weeks as the outbreak is ever closer to being stamped out across the country, restrictions are cautiously being relaxed, but there are still many shopping malls and plazas, stores and restaurants requiring you to scan one of a number of QR codes linked to your identification through downloaded apps, confirming on the spot that you’ve passed the two-week requirement. You’re then allowed to enter the establishment.
It may seem like clumsy overkill to have to prove your health status multiples times a day. Local governments seem to be competing to create the greatest daily hassle for everyone simply to demonstrate to the central authorities that they and they alone have the coronavirus under complete control. If people are calmly putting up with it, they recognize the importance of tracking down and screening out carriers of the virus. The larger issue is that the technology is still in its infancy. A few years down the road and it will all be much more powerful, effortless and invisible. When facial recognition reaches the apex of total accuracy (if that is indeed achievable), our exact whereabouts will be known twenty-four hours a day. There will be no need to screen us individually when moving about since we will all be tracked everywhere in real time by an omniscient central database. As noted, the capability of doing this is already more or less in place and is happening now, as exemplified by the instant shaming of jaywalkers at busy intersections. Why then can’t they apply the same to identity authorization when entering shopping malls so that people don’t have to fiddle with their devices? The answer is that face recognition is still short of 100% accuracy. It doesn’t capture everyone at intersections but pulls out the few who have been identified with any certainty. 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.
The Communists mastered surveillance long before video technology. This surveillance has always been, at its core, sex surveillance. During the Cultural Revolution, many families were split apart and forced to stay in sex-segregated dormitories. I have lived and traveled around China since the 1990s, and have been able to observe how hotels act as sexual gatekeepers and morality enforcers of the state. In the 1990s growing spending power allowed ordinary people greater mobility, and the private hotel industry developed in tandem with the domestic tourist industry. Only married couples were permitted to room together in hotels and had to present their marriage certificate upon checking in, a policy that remained in place until 2003. Oddly, the unmarried were allowed to room 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 (extramarital) sex, until the authorities put an end to it around the time of the 2008 Olympics. All bathhouses thenceforth began to require identification upon entrance, though by that time unmarried couples could freely room together in both bathhouses and hotels as long as they registered with their IDs at reception.
The 2003 milestone securing for the Chinese the private space to cohabit with the opposite sex outside of marriage 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’s to blame but GPS combined with the powerful WeChat app (like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and every other software you can think of rolled into one), which along with Alipay is also used for buying things. China has been cashless for a good four years now. Cash is still allowed, mainly to accommodate the tech-challenged elderly, but everyone else uses their cellphone for every monetary transaction from buying a car to booking a hotel room, to paying a prostitute or the migrant manning your favorite street-side snack stand. The trade-off is that this enormous convenience comes at the expense of the state’s knowledge of your every movement.
In that sweet decade of opportunity between 2003 and 2013 or so, before WeChat became so powerful and ubiquitous, committing adultery with someone at a hotel was still largely an anonymous act. The government could easily pay the hotel a visit and find you out if they had reason to, but mostly you could carry out trysts in reasonable confidence no one would ever know (to really be on the safe side, you could book the hotel yourself and sneak your partner up to your room). In the years since, your phone calls or WeChat messages recording your conversations to arrange the tryst, GPS tracking your respective locations in the same hotel, the record of your WeChat payment used to book the room, and your respective ID numbers presented at reception, all converge to overdetermine the fact of your liaison with a person of the opposite sex. This fact is potentially available to the police, and the knowledge it’s available have given many pause before using a hotel to embark on an affair, or adultery as the case may be, at least people with reputations to lose (to those who would advise against cheating if you’re already involved in a committed relationship, let’s save the American-style moralizing for later).
Fortunately, unless you’re a well-placed Party member or belong to the business or entertainment elite, nothing is liable to happen. There are far too many people having sex for the authorities to bother about. The sharing of politically sensitive material can result in your WeChat account being shut down without warning or recourse, but explicit sexting in personal messages has remained free from interference (forwarding of someone’s nude images without their permission is another matter and can get you thrown in jail). The Chinese Government today is actually quite lenient, surprisingly lenient, about people’s sex lives. It’s simply no longer a priority, and light years away from the grim circumstances that obtained up through the 1970s, when people could be shot or imprisoned for extramarital sex, while university students could be expelled for sex as late as the 1990s.
What’s changed under Covid is an intensification of the present mechanisms so that we are now under a much more active and comprehensive surveillance regime. To consider hotels again, you are only allowed to book once you’ve electronically established your health credentials (likewise the person you’re staying with) and no one gets past the reception desk without doing this. Bribery has long been a last resort in China; no longer, at least as regards coronavirus authorizations. Who knows what kind of algorithms the health and local authorities are presently using to scrutinize hotel guest lists for anomalies. They are interested not in adulterous affairs but in people infected with the virus and all those they had contact with. If someone in the same hotel is discovered to be Covid positive, you and your partner will certainly be approached during your stay, and there will necessarily be awkward questions about your motives in being together. In a more unlikely case, your hotel could suddenly go under lockdown before you had a chance to leave, and all existing guests including both of you would be stuck there for at least two weeks. If you feel it’s no longer worth the hassle going through with a hotel tryst, you’re not any safer sneaking your lover into your apartment while your live-in is out. He or she will have to register for the visit upon arrival at your complex’s gate (where you are both captured on video), your cellphones’ GPS tracks you right into your home, and your respective marital status will also of course be indicated in the database.
Few Chinese, in fact, carry out trysts in their home. It’s a cultural phenomenon going way back to when homes were mere hovels and living spaces were too small, shabby and crowded to accommodate guests. Since the functional 1990s when home décor consisted of white walls, bare concrete floors and fluorescent lighting, interior design has grown by leaps and bounds and most people nowadays put some effort into making their domicile more colorful and comfortable. Still, house parties and even small dinner parties remain a novel concept, as perplexed foreigners discover when they’re rarely invited to people’s homes. People know how to party all right — in restaurants. Chinese restaurant culture is vast and awe-inspiring. Many restaurants of the fancier variety are huge, multistoried affairs, with plentiful private rooms of different sizes for hosting couples to large groups. In the West, we go to a nice restaurant, even the most intimate of establishments, for the social atmosphere. In China, people go to restaurants for the privacy they offer. Some restaurants are joined to karaoke spaces and saunas; there are luxury bathhouses with their own first-class restaurants. All manner of hostesses, masseuses, and sex workers can be arranged, if you know the workings of indoor Chinese nightlife.
I should note that at this point in mid-May 2020, restaurant culture across Mainland China has already fully returned to its pre-Covid state of business and vibrancy. One place you might assume would still not be allowed to operate, given the close physical contact involved, is the massage parlor. Probably no country has more per-capita massage workers than China. Massage venues, both the therapeutic and erotic varieties, have been fully operative for a good two months now (though face masks are required by both masseuse and customer). We are confronted with the paradox, then, that in this most intrusive of surveillance states, the opportunities for intimate and sexual contact thrive even in the post-Covid era.
Unlike China where the coronavirus curve was crushed months ago and life is already more or less back to normal, the U.S. is scarcely able to even envision the post-Covid era. There may be no post-Covid era, only perpetual outbreaks and a new permanent normal of social-distancing. Short of real catastrophe (war, famine, etc.), few things are as dreadful as a total, Wuhan-style “hard” lockdown, in which no one is allowed out of their house and no one is allowed in. Wuhan’s two-month lockdown was brutal but it did have a clear beginning and end — crashing down on people before they knew what was in store for them and eventually easing in carefully orchestrated phases. There were adequate food supplies and deliveries and, as soon as the chaotic hospital situation stabilized, prompt medical care fully covered by the government. With Wuhan and Hubei Province sealed off and the virus contained, most Chinese cities were able to avoid home lockdowns altogether, though most businesses were closed. Even partial lockdowns, allowing people out to shop for basics and perhaps walk their dog, are stressful enough, especially when they drag on for months with no end in sight. The Chinese put up with it because they’re used to being ordered around by the government. Americans, unaccustomed to having their lives interfered with, have never encountered the like. It has been an awful experience for many, with growing unrest, e.g., heavily armed protestors congregating on the Michigan capitol and threatening to assassinate the governor.
The nasty conundrum forced on us by the Covid pandemic is that the only way to effectively combat it is not medicine but 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 medical burden, while its absence escalates the medical burden, since testing and contact tracing will be 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. The hard truth is that electronic 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, the involuntary implanting in people of microchips (“Benjamin Netanyahu suggests microchipping kids, slammed by experts,” Jerusalem Post, May 8, 2020).
South Korea, 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 recent virus outbreak at a gay nightclub, hundreds who might have been exposed are reluctant to get tested for fear the medical authorities will inform their workplace and they’ll 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 (“South Korea struggles to contain new outbreak amid anti-gay backlash,” The Guardian, May 11, 2020). Singapore has similar issues with its discriminatory treatment of its million-plus migrant workers from India and Bangladesh (“Tens of thousands of Singapore’s migrant workers are infected. The rest are stuck in their dorms as the country opens up,” CNN, May 14, 2020). On the other hand, sex-positive social attitudes can be turned to advantage and people whose job involves extensive networking martialed to assist the medical authorities, as sex workers in Zambia are doing (“Coronavirus: Zambia sex workers praised for contact tracing,” BBC, May 10, 2020), but this takes a rare degree of imagination.
And then there is the dreadful situation in the U.S. (see my “Covid-19 and the disease of American exceptionalism“). It’s easy for nations that are successfully containing the virus through effective testing, contact tracing, and lockdown measures to lecture the US on what it’s doing wrong. But the American political system was no more structured to handle the Covid pandemic than it was the 1918 Spanish Flu. Four months into the present catastrophe, there are no signs that significant changes, or any changes, are in the works to prepare for the next pandemic. Apart from Democratic presidential candidates no longer in the running, there has been zero talk of reforming US health care to implement even bare-bones national health coverage, beyond the miniscule gains under the Obama Administration, which could bring the country into the club of civilized nations. The government can’t even administer the paltry $1,200 stimulus checks properly, sending them to people who don’t qualify and outrageously denying them to those married to non-U.S. citizens; or feed the hungry (“As hunger spreads with pandemic, government takes timid steps,” New York Times, May 13, 2020). Though the Trump Administration’s incompetence has been breathtaking, and we’re eagerly waiting for the nightmare of his presidency to end, its confused gesturing is symptomatic of a profounder problem: the inability of a cruel Victorian-style capitalist regime run by cynical and blindered plutocrats entrenched in old-school imperialist ideology to deal with something beyond its comprehension — a pandemic.
The U.S. is bifurcating in two directions as it adapts to Covid, roughly corresponding to the political “red” (Republican) and “blue” (Democratic) states, but with a few key differences. Covid Reds oppose lockdowns but are not necessarily Trump supporters and count liberals and Democrats in their ranks who are not only chafing under lockdown but losing their livelihoods. Covid Blues support lockdowns but include many conservatives who understand the need for them. More than political differences, the overriding factor determining people’s attitudes is how much they’re suffering financially. You are more likely to support a lockdown if you can afford to — you still have your job and can work from home. We cannot simply blame people for defying medical reality. If you find the present sight of bars and restaurants packed with patrons disturbing or pathetic, they might beg to differ. They’re not just out for a good time but are trying to preserve the only reality they have ever known before it collapses around them. This means continuing to support local businesses they have been supporting their entire lives and which may be only days away from going out of business. The patronizing of local business during this most trying of times could even be regarded as a well-meaning though misguided expression of Americans’ customary generosity, in stepping in to help the community during disasters.
The crowds of mostly young Americans blithely swarming bars and beaches despite stark warnings are causing much consternation and outrage. But their nose-thumbing acts of freedom are conveying something of symbolic importance. They are 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 government is doing everything in its power to allow it to spread? Why should they have to take on the burden of protecting the country when everyone’s going to catch it anyway? These people aren’t the complete idiots they’re being 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 an infection are pretty good. They are simply carrying on as everyone will have to once the virus completes its trajectory through the rest of the population, and they’ll be the first to gain immunity.
We are hearing news of the devastating effects on mental health from stress and loneliness under lockdown, compounded by inadequate and unaffordable psychological services provided by the failed state (“Coronavirus pandemic prompts global mental health crisis as millions feel alone, anxious and depressed,” Democracy Now! May 14, 2020; the article is about the situation in the U.S., not the globe). Far down on the list of priorities is sexual loneliness (not once mentioned in the article). Being intimately bound up with loneliness, sexual loneliness is perhaps something many Americans — young and old alike — are in fact preoccupied with. You won’t find much in the way of advice, except of course to avoid sex altogether. What the conscientious, the Covid Blues, would say is this: the act of lovemaking turns you into a highly efficient disease vector (if not quite as bad as the act of singing, I should add: “Health authorities explain how choir practice caused the ‘superspread’ of 52 coronavirus cases in US town,” ABC, May 13, 2020). During AIDS this problem was solved with safe sex and condoms, but there is no safe sex under Covid. Socializing cannot be undertaken without aiding the enemy. Covid is changing America and you are never going to be able to party again. 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. The new sexual normal means adapting to virtual relationships. Better get used to it.
And dating? Nothing could be more selfish, the Covid Blues would add, than the business of meeting people for the purpose of something as dangerous as sex. But there’s a problem with dating, even leaving sex out of the equation. It introduces a new person, possibly an asymptomatic superspreader, into your circle. If you cannot prove you had a more legitimate reason for meeting this person, it can be assumed your intent was 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 potentially sleeping with them will make you guilty of intentionally aiding the pandemic.
Consider the sobering possibility that Covid could be declared a sexually transmitted disease. This is yet to be established by the medical community, but it’s coming (“A small study detects coronavirus in semen—but can you get it from sex?“, Health, May 8, 2020). If a person you slept with dies of Covid after informing those tracing her contacts that the only person she had close contact with was you, and if the virus was found in your semen, you could be in serious trouble. There are laws against knowingly transmitting an STD. From a legal perspective, the possibility you intentionally sexually transmitted Covid to your partner will be considered. You will not be able to fall back on the excuse you were asymptomatic. Ignorance is not a defense. You could have gotten yourself tested beforehand but didn’t. You had no right to be out meeting and potentially infecting new people in the first place. Convicted coronavirus spreaders could even be ruled sex offenders (as deliberate HIV-spreaders are). If you think Covid has ruined your life, see my “American fascism: The sexual rage of the state” for a look at how life is ruined for registered sex offenders in the U.S., including those guilty of the most minor of offenses. There is presently no more sexually punitive country than the United States. From internet trolls to mainstream journalists, from politicians on the left and on the right, the voices of morality are constantly on the lookout for new definitions of sexual misconduct, and if they can find it in Covid-19, they will.
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. 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., by contrast, individuals are duty-bound not to cause others harm, even from something as impossible to control as the coronavirus. You must take responsibility and will be held responsible for your actions. Of all the reasons for accidentally infecting someone, sex is the very worst, and there will be no forgiveness.
If you were to ask the younger generation of Covid Reds what they feel about the new sexual normal and how they are adapting to a foreseeable future without sex (since the medical consensus is that the virus may be with us for good), they would, again quite logically, assert that they aren’t planning on curtailing their freedom one iota. On the contrary, the danger of catching the virus from sex might make fucking intensely exciting. Not for me, but the allure of sex is intensified by taboos against it. Defiance naturally follows from an absence of moral exemplars. If we were living in a country that had been prepared for a pandemic and had instituted immediate measures before the virus had a chance to spread (Vietnam, Taiwan and New Zealand are a few shining examples), the hardships of living under lockdown would have a whole new meaning, one infused with national purpose. At the opposite extreme, the horrendous performance of the U.S. Government inspires nothing. Americans have nothing to fall back on in turn but themselves, their friends and their families. They are finding their own dignity under Covid on their own terms, whether this be at home or at the beach.
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This essay will appear in Sexual Fascism: Essays (forthcoming, January 2022)