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Friendship, interrupted: Disconnection in the era of COVID-19

Sociologist Trevor Hoppe draws on his experience studying how gay men manage HIV risk to discuss how COVID-19 risk is shaping our relationships and influencing our social worlds.

My phone buzzed the other day with a long missive from a friend to a group Facebook chat we share with my husband and his fiancé. Earlier in the day, he had invited me and my husband over for dinner at their apartment. In the spirit of social distancing, I responded by suggesting maybe we do something outdoors—perhaps a picnic or a walk in the park?

He was furious. He felt like we were avoiding their “COVID germs.” After a series of angry messages, he left the group chat—the digital equivalent of a gauntlet-drop.

I looked at my husband, speechless. Had COVID-19 just caused a different kind of loss, our friendship?

We all manage and respond to risk differently—and with varied emotions. Most of us are becoming well acquainted with the small daily frustrations of encountering people engaging in behaviors once considered perfectly normal but now labeled as risky: shopping for groceries without a mask, walking too closely to others, or coughing without covering your face. But as my friend made clear, we can also find frustration in others we believe are being overprotective or too risk-averse.

As a sociologist who has studied how gay men practice and manage HIV risk, I think a lot about the way diseases shape our behaviors, emotions, and, ultimately, our social worlds. HIV is fundamentally different from COVID-19 in that it cannot be transmitted through casual contact like handshakes or shared Uber rides. Nonetheless, in order to navigate HIV risk, we engage in a similar kind of mental calculus.

Some gay men think the risk of contracting the disease is well worth the potential pleasures of eschewing condoms with a one-night stand. Other gay men recoil at the thought, so wary of HIV that they meticulously practice condom use or even avoid casual sex altogether (indeed, that recoil can at times translate into shame projected onto anyone who doesn’t take the same precautions). As anyone who has spent time cruising for sex online knows well, clashing views on risk and pleasure can lead to plenty of hurt feelings and libidinous disappointment.

HIV and COVID-19 risk can both put distance between us, but the pleasures interrupted are of a different stripe. For HIV, we take risk in search of human connection and sexual pleasure. For COVID-19, even the most ordinary of behaviors have become suddenly risky: sharing a meal, taking a walk, going to a movie. Avoiding COVID-19 is forcing us to deprive ourselves of all the many pleasures of life, both sexual and platonic.

Our new marching orders for our now-COVID-ridden lives seems straightforward enough: avoid gatherings, wear masks in public, wash your hands vigorously. But for most of us, the truth is more complicated. We are faced with a social isolation that hurts. And the promise of connection is not trivial or superfluous: we crave it. We need it. 

Whether we are aware of it or not, we’ve all been doing a sort of risk-calculus in our heads these last few weeks. Is it OK to take a walk with my friend? Do we need to wear masks? Should I say yes to the invitation from my parents to come stay with them for a long weekend? For those of us that are single, is dating even possible anymore?

A tipping point in those risk-equations we all have been making these last few weeks is coming. As the loss of human connection and intimacy takes an ever-greater emotional and psychological toll, the potential risk of contracting COVID-19 won’t be enough to keep us away from those we love. For some, especially those suffering from depression, isolation will become unbearable to the point of even becoming deadly.

As restrictions lift and we come out of our isolation, many of our phones will buzz with eager invitations from friends asking to get together and connect—for dinner, a walk, or to get coffee. But we won’t all be ready to take those risks at the same time.

Try not to take it personally. The truth is we are all aching from the pain of isolation. We miss you. And in the words of Queen Elizabeth, I long for the day that “we will meet again.”

Trevor Hoppe is a sociologist and author of the book, “Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness,” and co-editor with David Halperin of the collection, “The War on Sex.” You can find him on Twitter @trevorhoppe.