No, Monkeypox Didn’t Come From a Human Getting Frisky with a Monkey

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A few weeks ago I made a video about how “the Great Replacement Theory” hawked by white supremacists has persisted in part thanks to Nazis at the Pioneer Fund, who have been promoting eugenics since before the Holocaust. And I explained how all of that connected to Douglas Murray, whose book “The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam” has been called “an attenuated version of the great replacement theory for the Telegraph-reading classes” and “gentrified xenophobia” by reviewers at The Guardian and “a great description of what’s happening in Hungary” by that nation’s far-right authoritarian dictator, Viktor Orban. His latest book, “The War on the West,” has been called “devoid of reason or evidence” by Adam Rutherford and “utterly superb“ by Richard Dawkins. So yeah, I guess he’s pretty divisive between normal people and people who are super into eugenics.

After that video I was happy to put Douglas Murray in my rearview mirror, but I regret to inform you that he is like the liquid metal terminator guy where I can’t just drive away because he will chase after me and turn his arms into metal hook things and grab onto my car. By which I mean, someone sent me a link to an article Murray has just written at The Spectator (a conservative magazine owned by the same guy who owns the Telegraph) in which he pontificates upon the idea that monkeypox happened because someone fucked a monkey. So. I guess I have to talk about that now. Because that’s what I do. I critically evaluate a neo-Nazi conspiracy theory that monkeypox comes from monkey sex. We have fun, don’t we?

Okay, so first of all let’s talk about monkeypox. Monkeypox is a virus related to smallpox, and has a similar but less severe effect as smallpox in that it causes flu-like symptoms and a distinct rash. It was first discovered in lab monkeys in 1958, which is why it’s called “monkey” pox. However, scientists quickly realized that it infects a wide variety of animals in the wild, like squirrels and rats, and it probably prefers to hang out in some particular rodent though we’re not sure which.

It also infects humans, obviously, as scientists discovered in 1970 when they found it in a baby in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Secondary transmission,” like a human spreading it to another human, is relatively rare: in the 1980s, researchers found that monkeypox is “poorly adapted for sustained transmission between humans.” Usually, a human contracts monkeypox by handling or eating an infected animal, and then the human gets treated and the infection ends. But sometimes, there are outbreaks where monkeypox seems to spread more easily between people, like what happened in Nigeria in 2017 when it was suspected that 228 cases appeared. More on that in a minute, but the basic idea is those cases, monkeypox spread through skin-to-skin contact.

The rarity of human-to-human transmission is what makes this current outbreak interesting and a little concerning for experts, because suddenly there are more than 200 cases spread out around the world in countries outside of Western and Central Africa where the disease is usually found, and those cases don’t all connect to just one traveler or shipment of animals from that area. That means there may be a higher rate of spread than we currently know, which means that it might be able to get out of control before we have a chance to contain it or at least vaccinate everyone (the smallpox vaccine has some positive effect and there’s also a specific monkeypox vaccine that we could start pumping out if its deemed necessary).

But hey, enough of all those boring FACTS. Let’s get back to Douglas Murray, and how he thinks that “the problem with us humans as a species” is that “someone always shags a monkey.” Yes, that’s it. If I had to pick on issue with humans as a species, I would walk right past abject bigotry against other humans, rampant disregard for how our actions impact the planet, baseless superstition, all of that pales in comparison to people fucking monkeys. Sure.

Monkeypox didn’t come from a person fucking a monkey: we know this in part because of common sense: if most human cases come from contact with infected animals, we can guess that hundreds or thousands of people every year aren’t fucking monkeys. They don’t even come into contact with monkeys: they come into contact with rats and squirrels. And they’re not fucking those animals, either! They’re touching them, cooking them, and eating them.

I know it’s comforting for people like Douglas Murray to imagine the only way they’re at risk is if they do something they would never want to do, like fuck a monkey, but the scary reality is that our normal everyday human society can produce and spread dangerous diseases.

The last time I heard this much talk about monkey-fucking was back in the 1980s, when it was a commonly shared conspiracy theory about HIV and AIDS. In fact, HIV probably did jump to humans from chimpanzees, but not from sex: again, it was probably due to humans hunting, cooking, and eating infected chimps. But “joking” or speculating about monkey sex accomplishes several things: it’s racist and xenophobic in that it mocks Africans for committing “barbaric” and “deviant” sexual acts (which is probably why research found this conspiracy theory to be more prevalent amongst white people), and it further mocks and humiliates gay men, who were most at risk for contacting the disease via sexual activity, by tying same sex attraction to “barbaric” and “deviant” sexual acts.

So it’s interesting that Douglas Murray, who is gay, not only invokes the “guy fucked a monkey” conspiracy theory in his article, but he also goes on to suggest that monkeypox may be a sexually transmitted disease and brands a World Health Organization proclamation as “outrage at a lack of inclusivity” for stating that monkeypox is not a “gay disease.” So let’s talk about that I guess.

This current outbreak has shown up more often (but by no means exclusively) in men who are gay or bisexual, which leads people like Murray to either insinuate or outright announce that monkeypox is the new HIV. It isn’t.

Murray writes “A study into a 2017 outbreak of monkeypox in Nigeria said that it could be sexually transmitted. So maybe we are here again, as we were with Aids, though hopefully with a far less serious virus.” Also I guess we aren’t capitalizing AIDS anymore? Do the editors at The Spectator not know it’s an acronym? Whatever. I looked up this study (which Murray fails to cite), and I think I found it: The 2017 human monkeypox outbreak in Nigeria—Report of outbreak experience and response in the Niger Delta University Teaching Hospital, Bayelsa State, Nigeria, published in 2019 and available in full on PLoS One.

The paper describes the outbreak, the fears and behaviors of patients and their families and healthcare workers, and the response by local governments, in the hope of providing guidance to prevent or alleviate future outbreaks. Like our current outbreak, the 2017 incident was notable because of an increased rate of human-to-human transmission. Since 1988, scientists have been warning that monkeypox outbreaks would increase over time in severity and that the disease would become more transmissible, so this 2019 paper is just another in a long line of studies breaking that down and warning that we need to take this seriously and learn to deal with it.

The big question has been how, exactly, certain strains spread from human to human. These researchers write, “Although the role of sexual transmission of human monkeypox is not established, sexual transmission is plausible in some of these patients through close skin to skin contact during sexual intercourse or by transmission via genital secretions. The role of genital secretions in transmission of human monkeypox, however deserves further studies.”

Many experts are stating outright that monkeypox is NOT, in fact, a sexually transmitted disease. So what’s the deal…is it?

Well, it’s complicated. “Sexually transmitted disease” is a term that we generally use to describe any disease that is primarily spread via sex, which is why you may immediately think of HIV/AIDS, or chlamydia, or genital herpes. You CAN contract HIV through a blood transfusion, but that’s relatively rare to how often it spreads via sex, so we think of it as an STD.

However, “sexually transmitted disease” can also apply to diseases that CAN be spread via sex even if it’s not the primary cause. For instance, Zika virus is technically an STD: most people contract it through mosquito bites, but it can also spread through sexual fluids, so wearing a condom can limit the spread.

Monkeypox spread from human to human in a few known ways: through droplets, through contact with clothing or bedding an infected person has been in, and even through skin-to-skin contact, even if it’s not contact with lesions. It’s not currently known if the virus can infect a healthy person through seminal or vaginal fluids.

Of course, we don’t think of COVID as an STD as it doesn’t infect you via semen, but if you have a marathon sex session with someone who the ‘rona, there’s a good chance that you’re going to get it, even if you wear a condom. Because sex usually involves a lot of saliva-swapping and breathing on each other and, you know, just being in the same room together for an extended period of time. Like, at least 30 seconds, amiright fellas?

That’s why many experts are rushing to point out that monkeypox is NOT an STD: it would be bad if people think they’re safe so long as they don’t have sex with someone with an active monkeypox infection, or if they just wear a condom. It would be even worse if someone who actually knows they have monkeypox thinks they can interact with people like normal so long as they don’t have sex with anyone.

So, why is this outbreak mostly affecting gay and bisexual men? There are at least two good explanations that don’t require sexual transmission: first, that cohort may actually be more proactive at presenting at medical clinics with a strange reaction, meaning there may be overreporting in that community.

The other even more likely scenario is that last word I used: “community.” Diseases that primarily spread via skin-to-skin contact are more likely to be found in close-knit communities and families. An airborne virus like measles can transmit easily between people who simply pass one another on the street and have nothing else in common, but diseases that spread via close contact are more likely to travel around groups of people who know each other, interact with one another, and yes, have sex with each other.

There’s no evidence to suggest any reason why being a gay man would otherwise make a person more susceptible to monkeypox. And so just like the reasons why it’s important for people to not think of monkeypox as an STD, it’s equally important that they not think of it as a “gay disease”: straight people aren’t safe because of who they choose to love or have sex with, and they need to be just as careful as anyone else. Labeling it a “gay disease,” thanks in large part to our society’s ongoing marginalization of the LGBTQ community, would do nothing more than increase stigma amongst patients and medical staff, leading to fewer people seeking treatment and more people being discriminated against if they do seek treatment. “Well, you got this disease because of your disgusting deviant lifestyle, you deserve it.” That’s the end result of this misinformation.

So to wrap up, allow me to state definitively that no, monkeypox doesn’t come from a man fucking a monkey, just like chickenpox doesn’t come from a man fucking a chicken, and cowpox doesn’t come from a man fucking a cow, and basic compassion for gay men doesn’t come from a man fucking another man, as Douglas Murray makes abundantly clear.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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