The Dissident Voice inside Our Heads

Posted by

By Justin Abraham Linds

What are we to do with the dissident voices inside our heads—the ones telling us that there are gradations of permissible disobedience to the quarantine? Surely, repression is one response. You suppress the thought as irresponsible and selfish and accuse others who confess this thought to you of being careless and thinking only of themselves. Denial, too, is a way forward: You claim that this is not a thought you have had, that you are a completely obedient subject of governmental and public health management, and you continue to pursue a moral and perfectionist goal of total compliance with regulations that are changing every day, that are disagreed about, and that are really only available to the most privileged members of our society. There, too, is moderate embrace, which can be distinguished from total embrace. A total embrace of dissidence looks like the “anti-quarantine” protests, which have emerged around the world in places like India, Germany, and most heavily in the United States. People attend these protests in complete defiance of social distancing orders and yell about government over-reach. In Michigan, total embrace of dissidence during COVID-19 quarantines looks like protesters showing up with rifles to the State Capital building.

I am interested here in querying the meaning of moderate embrace of dissent during a global health quarantine or state-ordered lockdown without relying on simple condemnation or ignorant endorsement. There are forms of dissidence that move from a place of collective care rather than violent self-interest. And, perhaps, by decoupling dissidence from anti-facticity and spotlighting instead its skeptical practices, we can redeem the creativity, knowledge, and progressive visions that lie within dissident actions. At the tense intersection of social dissidence and compliance during dangerous times there is a road, not very much travelled, that runs through a rich history of authors, including Frederick Douglas, David Walker, Franz Fanon, and Aimé Césaire, who have explored the social, political, emotional, and creative potential of disobedience.

In his lecture of March 1, 1978, the French philosopher Michel Foucault questioned the forms of political revolt that are enacted against pastoral power—forms of power that shepherd subjects and their behavior. Looking at a large swath of time from the Middle Ages to “modern forms,” Foucault offered refusing to bear arms, political parties as counter-societies, and “medical dissent” as three examples of revolt against governance as bodily management. Since the end of the eighteenth century, Foucault put forward, medical knowledge, institutions, and practices have been primary sources of management for the pastorate, so the refusal of medical governance has likewise been a primary site of dissidence:

From the refusal of certain medications and certain preventative measures like vaccination, to the refusal of a certain type of medical rationality: the attempt to constitute sorts of medical heresies around practices of medicine using electricity, magnetism, herbs, and traditional medicine; the refusal of medicine tout court, which is frequently found in certain religious groups (200)

Foucault eventually gave the name “counter-conduct” to these forms of dissidence that refuse a type of power that “assumes the task of conducting men in their life and daily existence” (200). Counter-conduct is a rejection of society’s values. It is a withdrawal from behavior contributing to the “nation’s salvation” (198). A concept that appears haunting if somewhat opaque, even for Foucault, counter-conduct is “a refusal of the relationship to the death of others and of oneself” (198).

Perhaps you’re now thinking: counter-conduct sounds dangerous. Indeed, it is. Or, at least, it’s risky. It certainly is disobedient, but it does not involve so much an attempt at erasing power as a process of finding a new source of power. Counter-conduct is marginal and risks being labeled as mad. In fact, according to Foucault, some forms of counter-conduct “may well be found in fact in delinquents, mad people, and patients.” (202) But the potential madness of counter-conduct does not disqualify dissident behaviors outright. Elsewhere, I have written about counter-conduct across species in which humans choose non-human lifeforms as entities to guide their behavior. In that piece, I looked to AIDS activists from the beginning of the North American AIDS epidemic who found in viruses and bacteria guides for how to behave in a pandemic. Their behavior did not produce a cure for AIDS (no behavior has yet produced a cure for AIDS), but it did offer a range of disobedient tactics for surviving with AIDS beyond the treatments offered by biomedicine. Counter-conduct is not about abandoning responsibility, for it is also productive: counter-conduct produces, organizes, and solidifies new truths, new forms of existence, new leaders for guiding conduct. I wish to expand on this work here and think through the work of two AIDS activists who present a unique case study to examine the possibility of ethical dissidence during an epidemic. Mapping a historical example of counter-conduct might allow us to glimpse valuable forms of dissidence for our present moment and provide a tentative answer for the question: what do I do with my dissident urges?

“How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach,” cover page.

Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, both twenty-eight years old at the time, wrote and published “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach” in 1983. By the time Tower Press had printed five thousand copies of “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic”, approximately 2,118 people in the U.S. had died from AIDS. In 1983, the mortality rate of AIDS was close to three out of four, and even if the exact cause of AIDS was unknown, many understood that sexual activity was a mode of transmission. Despite mounting calls for abstinence and widespread fear about sex in the gay community (or perhaps because of these things), “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” affirmed the need for sex. The forty-page document was stigma-bashing —“Sex doesn’t make you sick–diseases do” (3)— and life affirming —“Our challenge is to figure out how we can have gay, life-affirming sex, satisfy our emotional needs, and stay alive!” (4). It took on toxic masculinity and fear, and it affirmed that gay men must find ways to love each other “despite continuing and often overwhelming pressure” not to do so (38).        

Importantly, “How to Have Sex” did not seek to change the minds of people who were choosing to avoid sex. Instead, it addressed itself to men who still craved sexual intimacy and pleasure, to people who may have even been more turned on as they used sex to distract themselves and connect with others while their friends and lovers were dying and their world felt like it was crumbling. The authors of “How to Have Sex” knew that governmental power bearing down and prescribing abstinence, or talking about sex as a taboo, rarified, and vanishing thing, might just make some people crave sexual pleasure even more. So instead of criticizing their behavior as “unsafe,” it sought to help them.

“How to Have Sex in an Epidemic,” epigraph.

In 1983, “How to Have Sex” first acknowledged that sex had become risky behavior but then proceeded by suggesting ways to diminish riskiness without giving up sex. The document’s authors sought to pin the word “responsible” to sex, a place it perhaps had never gone. They sought to create a community—rather than a governing body— of sexually active people looking out for each other’s health. They took gay sexual desire as a shepherd leading people’s behavior and preached forms of conduct for following like sheep.

Without reservation, for instance, the pamphlet states, “Unfortunately, sucking your partner can not be made risk free (unless your partner is wearing a rubber!).” But the authors were not so naive as to think that just because a sexual behavior is deemed risky, people will stop exhibiting it. The document carries on, consequently, with advice for people who are not going to stop having oral sex: “If you want to REDUCE your risk… suck but don’t let your partner come in your mouth”(18). This is insightful, realistic, harm-reducing public health talk: if you are going to do something, it advises, here is how to do so in a safer way. Instead of seeking an ineffective ban on human contact, the pamphlet sought to mitigate the riskiness of the contact. “How to Have Sex”, though, even goes a step further: “If your partner ‘accidentally’ comes in your mouth or if you get a taste of pre-come fluid, spitting it out will probably reduce your risk” (18). The apostrophes around accidentally here speak volumes: do not distract yourself justifying, explaining away, or shaming yourself because you have had risky sex, they imply. Rather, they contend that even up to the point of the riskiest sex acts, there are still ways for you to be responsible.

“How to Have Sex in an Epidemic,” table of contents.

Certain modifications to your behavior can “probably” reduce risk for yourself and your community; although what we see in “How to Have Sex” is probable harm-reduction, not proven. The authors of “How to Have Sex” argued that it was possible for gay men to imagine and practice thoughtful, ethical, and pleasurable forms of sexual behavior even when they lacked comprehensive guarantees of the ‘rightness’ of their choices offered to them by scientific, governmental, epidemiological, and moral discourses relying on their own brands of authority.

The irony I find most compelling about “How to Have Sex” is that its recommendations are based on scientific knowledge we now know to be incorrect, and yet those recommendations and the document itself remain inspiring and useful. Without getting into the details of cytomegalovirus and the multi-factorial thesis, it is clear that the authors of “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” based their recommendations on a theory of AIDS transmission that is now disproven. While the science is faulty, though, the findings hold up. How is that possible? Because ethical, caring advice based on imperfect medical knowledge is still valuable knowledge. The authority of the document does not come from its scientific findings. Quite the opposite: the authority of the document comes from its dissidence in the face of the dominant discourse, its embrace of care, and its interest in relaying subjugated knowledges.

The document is ‘incorrect’ about the disease but ‘correct’ about the treatment, and that is a form of dissidence potentially useful to us now. Equitable ethics is more important than a kiss blown at six feet, or mimed at three feet, or done with bodies up against one another. Innovative and creative acts of social togetherness that tweak quarantine regulations to mitigate other harms not prioritized by the state are more important than vying to be the most successful adherent to social distancing. Julia Marcus, professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, has recently made a similar observation and she too finds this lesson in “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach.” Governments manage bodies at a population-scale and struggle to nimbly respond to nuance, difference, subculture, and resistance. In response to state-ordered ‘social distancing’, marginal communities —especially those with already fraught relationships to government managers — inevitably devise their own ways of responding. Communities evaluate risks and then come up with ways of mitigating those risks. In 1983, this looked like masturbation clubs (“they provide a unique atmosphere which is friendly, communal, well-lit and intensely erotic” (31)) or a ‘closed circle’ of sex buddies (“merely an expanded version of monogamy” (30)).

Today we would add to this list by recommending phone-sex, sexting, webcam sex, and any kind of sexual play that is digitally mediated or spaced out. Indeed, the New York City Health Department currently recommends “video dates, sexting, or chat rooms” as forums for sexual pleasure during quarantine. Similarly, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands suggests seeking a “seksbuddy” for coping while social distancing measure are in effect. However, I think an “expanded version of monogamy” is highly suggestive and deserves a brief consideration. In New York City, where I live, I have noticed that popular public spaces like parks have been nearly purged of groups that are not heterosexual pairs or heterosexual pairs plus babies. It’s as if we all agreed that the nuclear family was the safest unit of togetherness. However, letting the nuclear family naturally imply safety is risky in itself because it suggests that other human groupings become dangerous the more they diverge from the epidemiologically sanctioned norm. Friend groups, mutual aid networks, and queer families all of a sudden look like people disobeying social distancing orders when in fact they are essential forms of togetherness that keep people alive.

To end, “How to Have Sex” preaches a generous definition of love. “It is vital to the survival of each member of the sexually active gay community”, the pamphlet affirms, “that the issues of your own health and the health of your partner(s) never become separated” (15). Through an expanded notion of love the document encourages people to think broadly about care for their partners: “If you love the person you are fucking with–even for one night–you will not want to make them sick” (39). Is it possible that love could be a shepherd of counter-conduct? Foucault does not suggest it. But as the United States feels more and more jingoistic, more and more interested in individualistic betterment for only certain citizens, more and more supportive of grotesque wealth accumulation for a select few individuals rather than large groups of laboring communities, it seems like collective behavior motivated by love, care, or affection could actually be quite dissident. A conclusion from “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” might also be a conclusion for the question of what to do about that dissident voice: “Maybe affection is our best protection” (39).


Justin Abraham Linds is a PhD candidate at New York University.

Header image: Snails in search of affection. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply