Graphic Guidelines

A New York COVID-19 Health Memo Reveals the Heart of the American Sexual Ethic

Times of crisis tend to reveal where a society’s values and interests lie, and this is particularly true of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are certain things we’re expected to give up: social contact, going into work, eating out, etc. For many of us, these normal routines are badly missed.

But in New York, a provocative health memo was recently distributed issuing guidelines for sexual behavior among citizens of the city, assuring them that although “normal” sexual activity might be temporarily postponed, folks can certainly still find safe avenues to act out. First of all, the memo encourages self-sex as the safest mode of expression. “You are your safest sex partner. Masturbation will not spread COVID-19, especially if you wash your hands (and any sex toys) with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after.” The Department of Health also acknowledged that it was safe to have sex with the person living in the same household since “you’re already sharing the same germs.” The main activities the memo warned against were “groupsex” and engaging with other people outside your own household, encouraging people to instead turn to the internet for sexual comfort and release. “Video dates, sexting or chat rooms may be options for you,” the health agency said.[1]

PornHub has notoriously offered free premium subscriptions to citizens of countries suffering the worst from the virus, making these online options easier for people to indulge in. It’s already verified that pornography is being viewed at an exponentially higher rate than usual due to the stay-at-home orders most are operating under. But the case with the New York sexual health memo shows what so many are and aren’t willing to give up when it comes to sexuality; moreover, it reveals what the official organs of the state have decided sex is and what it’s for.

The options lined out by the health agency highlight pleasure, convenience, and safety. There is no mention of fidelity, marriage, or children. Even the warning against groupsex reveals that this is an otherwise viable option under normal social conditions. For now, we should simply settle for masturbation, pornography, and if we must, actual intercourse with the person who happens to be living with us. If it’s safe and is preferable to personal taste, it shouldn’t be discouraged.

A memo like this is more than a guideline for safe sex during a health crisis. It’s a revelation about the kind of sexuality American culture has come to worship. Only a pandemic could somewhat curb modern sexual habits, and perhaps only a pandemic could fully reveal how bankrupt those habits truly are. We know that these “official” measures encouraging online participation in sexual activities will fail to cure the underlying epidemic of our time, sexual dysfunction and its attendant loneliness. They constitute “improper treatment.”

Perhaps the Church can send out a counter-memo to help people cope with the painful circumstances we now find ourselves in. We can proclaim the peace found in encountering God’s presence and reject the lies that sexual pleasure can be safely substituted for marital intimacy and a community of loving persons. As Peter writes in his second epistle, many will be intent on “following after their own lusts.” (2 Peter 3:4) But the church is called to have a greater vision to share with those still entangled in the flesh and its pursuits: “Therefore, I urge you, brethren, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1,2 NASB)

For those following a traditional sexual ethic, all “normal sexual activity” between husband and wife remains unimpeded by any stay-at-home orders.


Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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