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Get ready for the post-pandemic party History tells us that enforced chastity only strengthens our libidos

Nothing can quash our pleasure-seeking instincts. Credit: Getty Images

Nothing can quash our pleasure-seeking instincts. Credit: Getty Images


January 7, 2021   5 mins

Revellers standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a lit-up swimming pool. Young people crowding round a bar, waiting to be served. A couple kissing on a packed dance floor. All these activities are currently illegal in the UK. But pictures from Wuhan offer a tempting glimpse of our future. Despite 2020’s resurgent puritanism, hedonism is going to make a comeback.

Lockdown has disorientated everyone’s social life, with the indefinite suspension of the night-time economy — pubs, bars, nightclubs, restaurants, theatres and music venues. Of course, some pleasure-seeking inevitably has to be sacrificed temporarily for the sake of arresting the spread of the virus and protecting those most vulnerable. But the sacrifice has hit singletons and voluptuaries particularly hard.

The last year has been a puritan’s wet dream: social distancing has devastated all the industries that facilitate casual sex; some countries have imposed alcohol restrictions; the film industry even consulting the old priggish Hays Code for filming intimate scenes; universities restricting parties and hooking up on campus in the interest of public health. And now a third lockdown has once again cancelled all opportunities for us to go out and enjoy ourselves.

Worse, it’s felt as if the risk of spreading the virus has been exploited to bolster an old prejudice: that spending time in these places is inherently immoral. The stench of puritanism, which H.L Mencken summarised as “the haunting fear that someone somewhere might be happy”, has risen to the surface to pollute the nostrils of society. Official Western morality — whether represented by Plato, Christianity or Kant — has always regarded hedonism as fundamentally bad. The new Puritans, like the old ones, like to police the way other people get their pleasure.

You don’t need to have broken any rule to earn their ire: to even complain about what it feels like not being able to date or party, or even socialise with friends over a drink, is regarded as inappropriate, dismissed as inconsequential, in comparison to the noble goal of saving lives.

And so no one protests that the lifestyles of the lustful, the promiscuous, the sluts and fuckbois (“libertine men and scarlet women” as The Music Man refers to them) have been turned upside down. Some hopeful young romantics gave e-dating a go; others tried out “Zoom nightclubs”. The use of online porn has increased and OnlyFans has risen meteorically. But the pleasures of the flesh have been out of bounds.

Even though I knew this state was temporary, in the early days of lockdown an irrational, paranoid voice inside me did entertain fears that the so called “new normal” would irrevocably abolish these pleasures. In stark contrast, the neo-puritans celebrated the current chaste state of affairs — even calling for it to continue. They imagine Covid-19 to be the nail in the coffin for the “soul-eroding” hook-up culture; they reminded us that there are dangerous “consequences” to casual sex again.

Thank science for the vaccine then. Not only is it a testament to human endeavour,  it is also a precious golden ticket to the return of a varied and exciting social life. Some predict, or rather salivate over, an explosion of decadence and debauchery — a “roaring twenties” of the 21st century. Epidemiologist Dr Nicholas Christakis certainly thinks such an era is on its way, arguing in his recent book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, that the rest of the 2020s will be defined by “sexual licentiousness” as people will be “relentlessly seeking social interaction”.

During the peaks of pandemics, he argues, people tend to be more risk-averse, frugal, abstemious and socially reserved. Afterwards, all of these trends reverse, and people spend and socialise more liberally than ever before. The most obvious comparison, of course, is the Jazz Age following the Spanish Flu and the First World War that witnessed “a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it. The era was made legendary by the Flappers and Greenwich Village; it developed new social and cultural freedoms, especially for women, who turned against stifling domesticity (as so many of us now long to.)

During the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century, the belief that the end of the world was near was so popular that survivors became wildly hedonistic, organising lavish parties and feasts in ale houses, simply to celebrate the fact that they were alive amidst the spectre of death and misery all around them. “They spent day and night moving from one tavern to the next, drinking without mode or measure
engaging only in those activities that gave them pleasure”, observed the contemporary writer Boccaccio on the excesses of the era.

There are even accounts of survivors going to their local graveyard for a quick shag before repenting in church to laugh in the face of death, which later led to the Papal office threatening fines and excommunication. Moreover, the plague saw the de facto institutionalisation of prostitution, with brothels providing a new source of income for the authorities and arguably ensuring social stability by serving as an outlet for riotous lower class men, especially in areas where they outnumbered young women.

In the 1980s the HIV/AIDS epidemic was supposed to have been the end of the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. It was viewed by religious fundamentalists as cosmic karma for the promiscuity of gay men. The epidemic contributed to the demise of the gay-centred bathhouse culture and shifted campaigners’ focus from sexual liberation to gay marriage. The porn theatres that were once a hallmark in Time Square, New York were gentrified in favour of “family values and safety”.

Still, the HIV/AIDs epidemic was succeeded by the sex positivity of the 1990s, during which the West was drunk on the rather shallow liberal optimism of the ‘end of history’ following the end of the Cold War. That era saw the Spice Girls, the golden age of lads mags and the rise of queer culture, kink/BDSM and Tantric sex in mainstream pop culture — and their steady integration into the consumer economy.

A pattern is apparent: human beings are pleasure seeking-creatures. After a period of retrenchment, sacrifice and austerity, an orgy of decadence and debauchery isn’t too far away. All that pent-up energy and desire just waits to express itself. Why? Because it feels good. Don’t underestimate the sheer endurance of the human libido, and the lengths we will go to, even in unbearable situations, to satisfy it.

For the neo-puritans who are surreptitiously giddy that Covid-19 will somehow put an end to casual sex and hook-up culture in favour of marriage or at least long term “emotionally committed” relationships: if even HIV/AIDS couldn’t do it, then Covid-19 sure as hell can’t. Humans have always hooked up despite what traditional morality said — and will continue to do so. Once this third — and we can only hope final — lockdown comes to an end, lust will be in the air.

One key motif of modern politics in the past decade has been the recurrence of the antinomy between individualism and communitarianism. This has especially been the case in the Covid-19 pandemic, during which activities like partying have been condemned as individualist selfishness in contrast to our communal obligations to “protect our NHS”. It is important to stress, nevertheless, that hedonistic proclivities aren’t simply about satiating individual desires, but about forming bonds, connection, even intimacy with others.

The “anarchy of the flesh” is an essential part of social life: we drink, eat, party, dance and screw with other people. There is a particular intimacy that one can experience on a dancefloor or in a concert that can evolve into a transcendent experience. This is something to be valued and cherished as part of the human experience — and something to invest and indulge in, when the pandemic is in the past.


Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.

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Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

Pretty well all major bloodlettings have been followed by episodes of relaxed personal morality: the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and both world wars were followed by massive outbreaks of prolific rumpy-pumpy.

Presumably it’s an evolutionary adaptation to replace the population loss: everyone’s in like Flynn.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago

What makes you think that lockdown is likely to end? Every time it begins to look like people are starting to relax right on cue the Government announce a new and more terrifying strain of the virus. What are the chances that vaccine will be ineffective against the next variant. This could run and run.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago

This. There will always be another variant or a new crisis they can use to reassert control. I don’t see them taking their foot off our throat any time soon

Mark Beal
Mark Beal
3 years ago

The Lockdown will end when the Money Tree ceases to be magical.

J J
J J
3 years ago

“Some predict, or rather salivate over, an explosion of decadence and debauchery ” a “roaring twenties” of the 21st century.”

Boris Johnson, right man, right time.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  J J

I don’t know where you stand on Boris…but you have me laughing!

J J
J J
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

I’m actually a big supporter of Boris and voted for him. But I could not resist an ironic comment 🙂

I wasn’t being entirely ironic though. In a general sense I believe Boris would be an excellent pied piper of a resurgence of the ‘good times’. I suspect he has found this period of restrictions personally so difficult, he will be desperate to prove his liberal credentials going forwards.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

His windpipe… © Steve Coogan & Rob Brydon.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

Do puritans have wet dreams?

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Yes but they have to flog themselves afterwards.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago

Zoe Strimpel won’t be happy with this.

ralph bell
ralph bell
3 years ago

Great article.
Finally some positivity and hope….Hurrah!!!
Count me in.

johntooth22
johntooth22
3 years ago

I fell about laughing. Lockdown has had a dreadful effect.

johntooth22
johntooth22
3 years ago

Your allowed to the shops once a day.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Nunc est bibendum!

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Nunc est bibendum!

David McKee
David McKee
3 years ago

In the short to medium term, Mr. Leonard is surely right. When all this is over, there will be some pretty spectacular orgies (I’m waiting for my invite), and Ashley Madison will do a roaring trade. In the meantime, we seek solitary pleasures: alcohol consumption has soared (https://www.bmj.com/content…, as has cannabis consumption in those jurisdictions where it is legal.

To use a nautical metaphor, the post-pandemic orgiasts represent a large wave. But what of the state of the tide? The extreme individualism, which Michel Houellebecq described as atomisation, is still there. This describes the unwillingness of people to commit to the effort of building and sustaining long-term relationships – the ‘little platoons’ described by Burke.

So I suggest we also keep an eye on things like domestic violence, divorce and suicides. I would not be surprised if they follow the same trends as the wild partying.

johntooth22
johntooth22
3 years ago

Ever though about being a voluntier for the NHS vaccination program?

nb001713
nb001713
3 years ago

In Tasmania, Australia, we have recently had dance floors and nightclubs opened up to normality. However, there are still limits of 250 people inside and there is a recommendation of keeping a social distance of 1.5m. Social distancing recommendations are not being followed by the young. They just want to party like it is the end of the world. So, Leonard’s analysis is spot on.
Obviously, not following the recommendations could be at the detriment to the most vulnerable if the virus spreads.

Banned User
Banned User
3 years ago

A fair enough article in its way, and we do need to offer more sympathy to those whose valued social lives are seriously disrupted by sound lockdown strategies.

But it’s important to distinguish between these scientifically informed strategies, motivated by a desire to save lives, and the anti-social motives of puritans, which are basically irrelevant.

For sure, enjoy yourself when it’s safe, but it won’t be safe for a while yet.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago
Reply to  Banned User

Well said, Colinðƾ‘

Julian Hartley
Julian Hartley
3 years ago
Reply to  Banned User

It’s perfectly safe for me, a young, healthy person, and it has been all along.