Covid-19 and the impact on gender and sexuality

Published on 21 May 2020

Susie Jolly

Honorary Associate

Differences are emerging in the way people develop Covid-19 – whether by age, underlying health, geography or socio-economic factors, people are not experiencing the pandemic equally.  Although women and men appear to have an equal chance of contracting Covid-19, globally, in almost every country with sex disaggregated data, deaths of men exceed women. The reasons are not yet clear but are suspected to be related to sex differences in the response of the immune system, i.e. biological rather than social factors.  Outcomes for men differ in terms of health, but there are other gender and sexuality factors at play.  Although there have not yet been systematic studies in this area, initial evidence, analyses and testimonies already show the importance of gender and sexuality to better understand the pandemic.

Sex, violence and relationships

Covid-19 is changing how people relate to each other. Physical distancing, lockdowns and fear of transmission enforce some kinds of intimacy and change possibilities for others. Writer and philosopher, Preciado narrates (with some poetic exaggeration) how, coming to in his Paris apartment after 10 days with the virus he realised, “Those who were married were now condemned to live twenty-four hours a day with the person they had wedded, whether they loved each other or hated each other, or both at the same time… those among us who had lost love or who had not found it in time – that is, before the great mutation of COVID-19 – were doomed to spend the rest of our lives totally alone.”

Of course, the lockdown and physical distancing which create this situation, are only possible for people with homes and space, and are easier in a house with a garden than in a slum, refugee camp, prison or dormitory. Meanwhile, people who have no savings and no government subsidy must continue to try to earn an income, risking exposure to the virus. Generally, the poorest and most marginalised populations are least able to observe lockdowns and may be blamed for irresponsibility and spreading the virus. So while many sex workers, for example, have suspended businesses, the most precarious may have to continue to survive in spite of the risks to themselves and their clients.

While lacking possibilities to isolate brings risks, isolation can also be hazardous. Private spaces are not always safe spaces and during the pandemic, cases of domestic violence have surged with mostly women the victims.  During lockdown the UK government funded Revenge Porn helpline has seen a huge surge in numbers of adults experiencing non-consensual intimate image abuse.

At the same time violence in public spaces, which men are generally more likely to face, has fallen in some contexts e.g. the UK, and USA, although some kinds of public violence may be increasing for example in the Philippines where President Duterte has endorsed police’s right to shoot on sight people breaking lockdown.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights and sexuality education

In the recent World Health Assembly, Donald Trump has demanded that any reference to sexual and reproductive health or to abortion be removed from the Covid-19 response resolution, due to his opposition to abortion. In fact, sexual and reproductive health and abortion services are vital to preventing more deaths.

In the US, the Guttmacher Institute research team warns that with disruption of health care and diversion away from Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), there could be a massive rise in unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and maternal and new born deaths. Additionally, disruption in contraception and abortion services could lead to additional deaths with increases in people resorting to illegal abortions Girls in the UK already report a decline in availability of contraceptives.

Already young people in many contexts learn about sex as much from digital media as from schools, and with many schools suspended, and social and sexual life moving even further online, this shift is likely to intensify. And many digital sexuality education platforms are tailoring advice to life with Covid-19. Love Matters features material on how to negotiate relationships with partners during lockdowns. Meanwhile, Agents of Ishq in Mumbai features hot tips on masturbation, and limiting sexual partners.

State power, inequality and stigma

Covid-19 has been used as an excuse for greater authoritarianism by governments, with countries such as Hungary and Poland curbing or suspending democratic institutions. At the same time as surges in domestic violence during Covid lockdowns, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Latvia have blocked ratification of a regional treaty on violence against women, and Poland has threatened to withdraw, with accusations that it promotes “gender ideology”.

Government compensations for economic impacts of lockdowns and the virus are rarely extended to the informal sector. In many countries, women are more represented in the informal sector than men, and are also doing the bulk of domestic labour, which has only increased with lockdown, sickness, and risk of transmission. Already, with neoliberal economic policies undermining health systems, these kinds of labour had intensified. Women’s labour has largely increased, and remuneration decreased. One silver lining is women in Asia and the Pacific reporting increases in housework done by male partners and sons, although they are still doing less than women.

Covid-19 has been deployed to exacerbate marginalisation and stigma including along lines of gender and sexuality with particular groups being blamed for transmission of the virus. For example Chinese in the US and UK, Muslims and health workers in India, and LGBT in Korea and Turkey.  In Uganda 20 people presumed to be LGBT and living in a homeless centre were arrested and charged with risking spreading disease . Transphobic measures have been proposed or passed by governments using Covid-19 as an excuse for greater powers, or as a distraction from their actions. Lockdown rules in Panama, Peru and the municipality of Bogota allow men and women out on different days, which has led to instances of persecution of transgender people who do not always fit neatly into either category.

There is speculation that several states governed by women may have better managed the crisis, such as Germany, Argentina, Barbados, South Korea, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, Portugal and Taiwan although other states, such as Bolivia,  also governed by a woman have gone with the trend of using the pandemic as an excuse to curb freedom of speech and consolidate power.

Advocacy and analysis around sexuality and gender

For all the horror stories emerging, the pandemic has also given rise to energetic advocacy around sexuality and gender.  The World Health Organization documents and advocates on the gender intersections with Covid-19. Sexuality Policy Watch provides brilliant global analysis and communications from Brazil. UN and human rights organizations advocate that human rights must not be compromised in the Covid -19 era . UNFPA is mobilising funds to support access to GBV and SRH services during the epidemic, and to tackle stigma Governments worldwide signed onto an official statement urging for the protection of sexual and reproductive health and rights and promoting gender responsiveness during the pandemic.

This pandemic is truly global. North, south, east and west, are facing a common virus, although existing inequalities mediate hugely the impacts. The paradigms deployed to understand the pandemic, identify causes, and structure responses, are also circulating globally. Right-wing populists use Covid-19 to bolster nationalism and stigma including around gender and sexuality. Progressive voices call for redressing the inequalities which enable such huge death rates, and investment in health and gender-based violence services to tackle the virus and its effects. It remains to be seen how these paradigms will rise and fall in the Covid-19 era and beyond.


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