Hooking Up Under Lockdown12 min read

A personal essay by Fan Popo, translated by Allen Young

Not long ago, a heartwarming story appeared on the blog Humans of New York: anxiously awaiting his Covid-19 test results, a young man opened Grindr and shared his fears with a retired doctor he’d met. The two had no intimate contact, yet the older gentleman offered more than a shoulder to cry on: he brought over quarantine supplies and left them at the young man’s door.

The post got hundreds of thousands of likes on Facebook, maybe because people are especially in need of this kind of positive energy right now. Turns out that Grindr – a hookup app – can be used in diverse and innocent ways. You have to wonder, though: did those two really open the app just out of a desire to chat? Life under lockdown has heightened our sexual anxieties. In a world of social distancing, has the carefree hookup become just another fantasy?

The mood of panic inevitably calls to mind the AIDS fears of the 1980s, when gay men in the US and Europe began to regard each other with suspicion. The crisis left such a deep stigma that virtually the entire community has some connection to it, from the daddies who lived through it to the twinks and cubs who are just coming onto the scene.

Now gay men (like everyone else) have a new virus to worry about. A friend in New York sent me screenshots from Grindr at the start of the outbreak:

“White-Asian couple in search of third. No coronavirus here lol.”
“Midtown, hung, can host, no corona symptoms.”
“Vers dtf #coronafree”

The word “clean” on someone’s profile – usually an insensitive term for HIV-negative – has now taken on a new meaning. Compared to HIV, of course, the coronavirus is in some ways less frightening: it has a shorter incubation period, and most young people fully recover. And it hasn’t led to a stigma for gays.

Yet new illnesses are always associated with some identity or another. As Covid-19 began to spread unchecked, attacks against people of Asian ethnicity spiked around the world. Online spaces became hotbeds of cyberbullying: at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, a Singaporean director I know was called “coronavirus” on an app.

Examples like this aren’t unusual, nor are they new. Before the virus, a lot of guys openly advertised their preferences on their profiles, and of these, “No Asians” was one of the most common. In 2018 in the US, an Asian American man tried to sue Grindr for condoning racism, though unsurprisingly nothing came of the lawsuit. Online spaces tend to amplify the ugly sides of human nature, and they give a particularly aggressive edge to racism among gay men, an issue the community has never seriously addressed.

Personally, I deleted Grindr and apps like it long ago. They had a negative impact on my mental health: there’s too much pressure, implicit and explicit, from all the cutthroat competition. Just about every message you get contains a judgment about your body, your looks, your clothing, or even your beliefs. And long-term use can easily lead to dependence: some of my friends are so addicted they have to check their phones every few minutes. It’s the heroin of the virtual world.

Another reason I deleted Grindr is that in Berlin, where I live, there’s no shortage of offline spaces for sex. Clubs throw every kind of theme party, catering to every possible gender, with every imaginable dress code. You can wallow in the fleshpots all weekend long, if you like – some don’t close until Monday. Of course, you can also dance or even chat, which is much more fun than checking your phone for messages. But sex clubs are also a breeding ground for STIs and all sorts of other unpleasant infections – even in the age of PrEP, when HIV no longer holds the same terror it used to.

What are we supposed to do – spritz our partner’s privates with a 75% alcohol solution?”

In 2018, bacterial meningitis broke out at KitKatClub, one of Berlin’s most famous venues. After several people tested positive, the club was forced to thoroughly sterilize the premises. And just one weekend before Germany shut down all its entertainment venues, several people were infected at the popular club Kater Blau – so many that the city had to issue an announcement calling on anyone there that night to self-isolate. If the coronavirus is here to stay, will sex ever again be so heedless? One shudders to think of the cheap scent of disinfectant permeating a club once rife with human secretions. And what are we supposed to do – spritz our partner’s privates with a 75% alcohol solution? That may not keep us safe, and it could even lead to other problems.

The third reason I don’t need Grindr is that I already have a handful of fairly stable lovers or hookups. Of these, the most serviceable – until recently – was a young German whose personality was almost the exact opposite of mine: he was painfully introverted, I’m endlessly chatty. My friends called him Shy Guy. Since we were clearly so different, we decided when we first met that we could only be lovers, never boyfriends. I say “serviceable” because his body and looks were just my type: I don’t go for very tall men, and he’s a little shorter than I am, a rare find in Germany; and second, because we had perfectly complementary needs. Plus he’d respond to texts right away and was basically always down to meet up, which saved me a lot of headaches. Among the foot-dragging Germans, that kind of eagerness is exceptional.

Our arrangement continued for over a year, and we’d get together every other week or so, not just for sex, but also for tea or lunch. Recently, though, we’d gone almost a month without seeing each other. In part this was due to a slight embarrassment during our last encounter: right as we were in the middle of things I noticed two little bumps on a sensitive part of his anatomy. Since I knew all the ins and outs (so to speak) of his body, even a subtle change made me a little anxious. I hurried to finish, and afterward I bluntly suggested he get checked out. He made an appointment with a doctor right away, and luckily all the tests came back negative. The two little bumps were a common skin condition and not sexually transmissible.

After that, we both became busy and didn’t hang out for a few weeks—maybe because of that last awkward episode, I don’t know. Once the Berlin International Film Festival kicked off, my schedule was completely booked for ten days straight. With each passing day the number of Covid-19 cases climbed, and the hostility to Asians grew increasingly severe. When the festival ended, I started isolating myself a week before most Berliners – and to avoid exposure without giving up sex, I figured I’d try monogamy for a while. I sent a “what’s up?” to Shy Guy, and after a little back and forth, he wrote:

“Popo, there’s something I want to tell you. I’ve met someone, and we’re going to start dating seriously.”

The text came with no emoji, but on my phone I could see the awkwardness and hesitation from his side.

I’d expected this day would come, but now that it had, I was filled with all sorts of contradictory feelings. Somehow it caught me off guard. If we’d talked about something other than STIs on our last encounter, might things have turned out differently?

After sex that night, we’d nestled against each other’s bodies. There’s something I want to tell you . . . By starting out like that, I’d made it sound like I had something serious to propose. But instead I said he had two little bumps down there.

We’d found ourselves in post-coital embraces like that plenty of times in the previous year, and sometimes I’d hear his racing heart and wonder, is there something he wants to ask me? Does he want something more?

Luckily he never asked. We knew we couldn’t be boyfriends.

If he had asked, maybe we couldn’t even have been lovers.


Europe had mounted a war effort against the epidemic, and I felt like I’d just lost a general on the eve of battle: I now faced the prospect of a sexual famine that would last for the duration. As people across the continent poured into supermarkets to stockpile food, I began considering my erotic resources for the quarantine. Looking for new hookups would be both unrealistic and unsafe. Yet I could still satisfy my needs in the virtual realm.

So I picked up my phone and texted another of my European lovers, a guy who lives in the city of A––––. We’d planned to take a trip together in March to Italy (of all places!), though of course that had now been shelved. After a few teasing messages, he figured out what I wanted. I typed out my sexual fantasies, and just as things were getting hot and heavy, he suddenly asked me to catch a train to go see him in person: “If you want to get in my body, you’ve got to get on a train.” He sounded like he meant it. I began forwarding him articles about how the epidemic made traveling out of the question. He insisted: he clearly didn’t grasp the seriousness of the situation and didn’t seem to care about my health.

“Striking Vipers,” an episode in the fifth season of Black Mirror, tells a story of virtual sex that crosses the boundaries of gender and race. In a VR videogame, two straight black men take on avatars as an Asian man and woman and unexpectedly engage in explosive lovemaking. In the real world, we have to rely on words, sounds and images, and not everyone has enough imagination to enjoy virtual sex. It may even require a certain aesthetic training: you have to disengage from the physical world and stare deep into your own and your partner’s soul, to confront desire without turning away. And my friend in the city of A––––, with his lack of aesthetic sensibility, is clearly not the most suitable partner.

Yet if geographic distance wasn’t a problem, then why should I confine myself to Europe? I thought about a friend of mine in the city of B–––– whom I’d once had a summer fling with. To judge by his social media, self-isolation had left him pretty glum. I messaged him, and it didn’t take us long to start rekindling old fires. I could practically feel the heady sensation of being on top of and inside his body again. Yet I was so focused on my own arousal that I barely noticed when the heavy breathing on the other end of the line stopped: the connection had cut out.

“Hello? Hello? Fuck!”

The problem was clearly on my end. Since the lockdown began, everyone had been staying at home binge-watching shows and video-chatting like crazy. Faced with a historic spike in demand, Europe’s creaking infrastructure couldn’t keep up, and even Netflix had to reduce its resolution. I used my last remaining data for the month and called him back, but by then we weren’t in the mood. All I could do was explain what happened and say goodnight.

Even with virtual sex, you’ve got to make sure your hardware’s in good condition.


When I told all this to a friend of mine, she just laughed. “So now you see that single life has its downsides?” This was an allusion to her own superior resources: she has a boyfriend and two cats at home. And yet . . . are people with partners really better off right now? It’s like those shoppers who stockpile toilet paper, so worried they’ll run out that they buy more than they need. Boyfriends have their own disadvantages, compared to toilet paper: they have mouths but don’t always speak sweetly; they have hands but can’t always cook for themselves. Sometimes they might even hit you.

According to Southern Weekend, a charitable organization for victims of domestic violence received 175 complaints in February in a single county in Hubei – twice as many as in January and three times as many as over the same period last year. With police on the frontlines fighting the epidemic and prosecutors working from home, calls went unanswered, and domestic violence became especially difficult to report. Road closures across the country made it hard for families or institutions to provide support – and this in a country where most domestic violence cases end in “reconciliation,” leaving victims to go on living with their abusers.

Since work resumed on February 24, marriage registration offices around China have seen more and more couples filing for divorce. The prolonged, isolated togetherness has led to a dramatic uptick in the divorce rate compared to last year. “Loving each other is easy, living together is hard,” as the Chinese saying goes, and any couple that can survive being cooped up together for a month is in it for the long haul.

If Shy Guy and I were stuck in the same apartment for even a week, we’d be pulling our hair out, no matter how fantastic the sex was. My endless chatter would drive him crazy, and I’d find his silence suffocating. Even so, I’m still a bit stunned he started a relationship with someone else.

So who’s your safest, most convenient sex partner? You are! You’ve got two perfectly good hands, so why not put them to work? Studies show that masturbation causes a rush of dopamine that effectively alleviates and prevents pain; it can boost the immune system and help fight off colds and flus. And for those of us isolating at home, it’s a nontrivial form of exercise. Apparently masturbating burns about 70 calories, and the quickened pulse is a good workout for your heart. To encourage everyone to stay at home, Pornhub briefly made its premium membership free.

Your orgasm won’t keep the virus at bay. Still, most of us know from experience that scratching that itch can be calming, something a lot of us need during the lockdown. So if you’re in the mood and have no one within reach, show yourself some love. But now more than ever, don’t forget to wash your hands!  ∎

This essay, in a slightly longer form, originally appeared in Chinese in Initium Media.