By Max Schnepf and Ursula Probst

Abstract: Over 30 years ago, Gayle Rubin argued in her seminal essay “Thinking Sex” that “sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress” (1984, 143). As the COVID-19 pandemic is expanding across the globe, her words gain new urgency. The presence of the coronavirus among us and the measures to contain its spread raise new questions about how we engage with one another, rendering sex and physical intimacy highly ambivalent issues once again. On the one hand, normative ideas about monogamous coupledom, the heterosexual family and the home as a safe place resurface in discourses about solidarity and the enforcement of social distancing. The re-moralization of non-normative sex particularly affects already marginalized groups such as sex workers and queers. On the other hand, the margins also constitute a site of hope and creativity, where new forms and conceptions of intimacy emerge, and community care is practiced to imagine and enact alternative futures. 

Ursula has conducted ethnographic fieldwork about racialized and sexualized constructions of “Eastern European” bodies in Berlin’s sex industry, while Max is preparing a project about the medical HIV-prophylaxis PrEP and how it transforms intimate encounters between gay men in Berlin. Drawing on our respective research projects, we engage in a conversation about how to think sex in times of corona and what queer and feminist thinking in anthropology has to offer for an analysis of the current circumstances. Treating the ambivalence of sex in times of corona with special respect, we pose the following questions: How do the heteronormative underpinnings of quarantine affect us in our everyday lives but also in our fantasies and desires? How are sex and physical intimacy moralized, but also creatively reinvented nowadays? And what kind of socialities and imaginations of the future emerge under the present situation?

Keywords: sexuality, intimacy, heteronormativity, sex work, queer, gay sex, Covid-19

Ursula Probst is a PhD student and research associate at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin. She has been conducting research on Berlin’s sex industry since 2012. After investigating sex workers’ perspectives on support services as part of her MA research she is currently analyzing how intersecting processes of sexualization and racialization of “Eastern European” bodies affect the realities of migrants from this region who engage in sex work in Berlin. Since 2019, she is a board member of the Association for Sex Work and Prostitution Research, an interdisciplinary network of sex work researchers predominantly based in the German speaking area (see more soon at – 

Max Schnepf is a research associate at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin. He has obtained his master’s degree at the University of Amsterdam. As part of the program in Social Sciences, he conducted ethnographic fieldwork about bodies in styling practices at an upmarket hairdressing salon in Berlin (see In his PhD research, he approaches intimacy as queer affect by investigating how bodies and sexuality are socio-materially transformed through PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), a new drug that provides an effective protection against acquiring HIV. Since 2019, Max is co-chair of the working Group “Gender & Sexualities | Queer Anthropology” within the German Anthropological Association (DGSKA). –