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.