In recent weeks, China has ramped up its use of a controversial coronavirus diagnostic tool: anal swabs. The test reportedly involves a patient bending over, putting one hand on the back of a nearby surface, and using the other to spread their cheeks apart while an official inserts a saline-soaked cotton swab one-to-two inches inside their rectum and swirls it about a bit to collect a sample.
Some evidence suggests the virus ravaging the globe survives longer in feces and thus people’s rectums than in noses and throats, a local doctor told the state-backed Global Times in late January. So, some Chinese authorities believe these swabs may be better at reliably detecting asymptomatic carriers than other tests. The state has reportedly mandated the tests for international travelers coming into Beijing, people in key quarantined areas, and all the staff and students at a school where a kid came down with COVID-19.
Of course, the idea of looking for an upper respiratory infection in someone’s butt strikes many observers as bizarre, noted Eric Garrison, a sex educator and assistant director of The College of William & Mary’s Office of Health Promotion. Add to that a long and widespread history of taboos and dumb jokes about all things ass and you’ve got a reliable equation for internet humor.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who monitors chatter about the pandemic on social media, said she and her colleagues have seen a wave of largely innocuous anal swab quips on platforms like Facebook and Twitter in recent weeks. Matthew DeVerna of Indiana University–Bloomington’s Observatory on Social Media told The Daily Beast that on one day earlier this month alone, people Tweeted about anal swabs well over 4,000 times. Memes envisioning what a drive-through anal testing site might look like, or suggesting an at-home anal test would just be sticking a finger up your own ass and seeing if you can smell it, appear especially popular.
However, while China’s anal swab tests have most observers cocking an eyebrow and perhaps giggling nervously, they have sent many COVID-19 conspiracy communities into full-blown freak-outs.
“How long before they start doing this everywhere else?” an anonymous post shared on several major COVID-19 skeptical Telegram channels in late January mused. “After all, it’s about discomfort and humiliation and not really about a pandemic.”
“The COVID anal swab test is *definitively* coming to the US and Europe,” a cryptocurrency Twitter personality with almost 16,000 followers and a predilection for sharing anti-lockdown content argued. “You’ve bent over and taken everythin g [sic] they’ve done so far. Now it’s going to go from the metaphorical to the literal. #TheDimAge.”
“I can’t wait to see people clamoring to be the first in line to virtue signal their total trust of this NewFact from Science™. Imagine the stickers they could wear. I BENT OVER!” a commenter in Reddit’s Conspiracy community posted. “They’re seeing what they can get away with.”
In these circles, anal swabs are proof that pandemic control measures are designed to degrade and control us rather than to help us overcome a crisis. A number of American conspiracists seem to believe Chinese anal swabs will inevitably come to the U.S., become mandatory, and usher in a totalitarian dystopia.
Conspiracy theorists have, of course, argued that virtually every pandemic control tactic is absurd, degrading, and totalitarian. However, they seem to be especially hung-up on and distraught about anal swabs. This, experts told The Daily Beast, is likely because these tests not only seem particularly egregious and intrusive to many observers, they also play into widespread, deep-seated homophobia among far-right audiences.
“They’ll probably be penis shaped,” a commenter wrote in Reddit’s COVID conspiracy group NoNewNormal. “‘It’s just to make it go in easier.’ The elite laugh in their ivory towers.”
America is almost certainly not, as many conspiracists seem to fear, headed towards a dystopian regime of mandatory anal swabs. Health experts have been looking into these sorts of tests since the start of the pandemic, Garrison explained; they are not some sudden Chinese innovation. But while China decided to deploy anal swabs in certain contexts—they’ve actually been doing this for months, albeit less frequently—most nations have decided that this style of testing is almost never worthwhile, especially given how invasive and impractical it is. As the Global Times noted in its initial, state-backed report, not even every doctor in China is onboard with anal swabbing regimens. The state has only ramped them up as part of its hyper vigilance over a few select communities, and has allowed many people to forgo swabs for stool samples, which take more time to collect.
But as several experts on conspiratorial beliefs told The Daily Beast, many COVID skeptics are already convinced that shadowy figures either created or exploited the virus to rob them of their freedom. Avid conspiracy theorists obsessively consume pandemic news, noted Matthew Motta, an expert on anti-science beliefs at Oklahoma State University—which is likely why they seemingly caught onto the anal swab story before most other observers outside of China. They mainly do so in order to find new so-called evidence they can work into their extant narratives about the pandemic, discarding or twisting elements of reports that don’t fit.
So, they throw out explanations for why and how China is rolling out more anal swab tests, explained Jamieson, and, in line with their grim convictions, “assume that this is being done needlessly.”
Notably, conspiracy communities have widely shared a video that purports to show children waddling out of a Chinese hospital “like penguins” after receiving anal swabs to stress the supposed absurdity and cruelty of these tests. However, they seem to actively ignore ample reporting that proved this video was appropriated and deceptively edited footage of children leaving a clinic after receiving circumcisions, insisting as usual that fact checkers are just lying.
Many COVID conspiracy theorists look at China, an openly totalitarian state, as a blueprint for where America is headed, especially under the Biden administration, which they often paint as a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party. They are quick to assume that what they believe they see in China will inevitably become a grim reality in America as well. And they are just as quick to blame “doomers,” people who endorse and follow pandemic control measures, for walking down a path that they believe leads inevitably towards mandatory, invasive testing.
“Well this is coming,” another commenter in Reddit’s Conspiracy forum wrote. “Masks fuck with your mind as do shots, now they want to stick something up our asses. This was inevitable.”
Conspiracy theories often latch onto stories that suggest authorities want to take away not only our political liberties, but our core bodily autonomy, added conspiracy researcher and University of Miami professor Joseph Uscinski. “There have been conspiracy theories about government plans to tattoo us with our Social Security numbers—and that those numbers are Satanic,” he said. “That we will have chips implanted in us. That fluoride is dumbing us down for communism. And so on.”
More than mask wearing or even contact tracing, the idea that the government is going to force you to let them insert a cotton swab up your ass plays right into this trope, added Jamieson. It opens up the door to talk about general government overreach as a form of physical violence.
Talk of mandatory nasal swab testing in certain contexts has already spoken to this general—and unfounded—fear of public health as state violence. But anal swabs evoke more fear and outrage because, as sex therapist Dulcinea Pitagora explained, most Americans grow up learning that they should be ashamed of their anuses. Straight cis men especially often take to heart that they should never talk about, and especially never let anyone else touch, their asses. That last taboo is tied closely to homophobia and the idea that any form of male anal penetration or stimulation is feminizing and thus degrading.
“The more hysterical someone is about anal swabbing, the more deeply they have internalized the heteronormative socialization that makes them ashamed of anything to do with their anuses,” Pitagora added.
The sexual anxiety of COVID conspiracy theorists’ responses to China’s anal swabs comes out subtly at times, as in a meme circulating that shows a doughy shirtless man from the shoulders up with a blissful look on his face and is emblazoned with cartoonish text that reads, “How Biden voters take their COVID-19 anal swabs.” However, often it is far more overt. Many comments on posts on Covid Red Pills, a major pandemic misinformation Telegram channel, for example, explicitly embrace homophobic slurs.
All of this may explain why some commenters on platforms like Reddit’s Conspiracy forum fatalistically argue that, “Once you let the government into your ass, there is no turning back.”
Anal swab conspiracies also speak to established fears about a “gay agenda,” which supposedly aims to turn straight men and destroy society, noted sex educator Lawrence Siegel, who has been keeping an eye on paranoid memes about these tests. Jamieson added that they can tie into extant conspiracies about pedophilic cabals like QAnon; commenters in Covid Red Pills chats have claimed anal swabs are clearly an excuse to molest children, a supposed favorite pastime of sinister elites. These seeds and precedents mean that fears ginned up around anal swabs could entrench paranoid beliefs within established COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and suck casual skeptics or other conspiracy theorists into their fevered misinformation orbit for the first time.
“Conspiracies about anal swabs are still confined to the fringe world,” Jamieson stressed. “But we are concerned with if and when they could come out of the fringe into the mainstream.”
Motta suspects that, as mainstream reporters move on from the Chinese anal swab story and the tests fail to turn up in the U.S., the general public will lose interest in, and be less susceptible to, this particular line of paranoia. However, that does not mean that hardcore COVID conspiracy circles will give up on the idea that evil elites are coming for our assholes. These groups hold onto arguments as long as they can, reviving evocative ones whenever news cycles allow.
As DeVerna put it, “Conspiracies that catch on in digital spaces tend to endure, even if only circulated by a small group of individuals, despite clear evidence disproving them.”