The social distancing measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 have shaken up our sex lives, for better and for worse.
Maintaining that safe 6-foot distance from anyone you don’t live with makes sex — the conventional kind, anyway — all but impossible because of the close physical contact it involves. The virus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets that are emitted when an infected person coughs, sneezes, breathes or speaks. One small study found the virus present in the semen of some COVID-19 patients; however, this does not necessarily mean the virus can be transmitted sexually.
While people are still encouraged to limit their contact with anyone outside of their household, some public health officials recognize that it’s not realistic to ask folks to remain abstinent over a long period of time. The New York Department of Public Health released updated sex guidelines on June 8 that offer “harm reduction strategies” so people can do the deed more safely.
If you’re going to meet up with a sex partner IRL, they recommend avoiding kissing and rimming (because the virus is found in saliva and feces), wearing a mask, masturbating together at a distance and getting a “little kinky,” among other suggestions.
“Be creative with sexual positions and physical barriers, like walls, that allow sexual contact while preventing close face to face contact,” the website reads. (They also say to skip sex if either of you is feeling unwell or has been in contact with someone who has COVID-19.)
For sexual partners who live together, pandemic life has posed another set of challenges.
“COVID has upturned many families’ sense of normal,” Greensboro, North Carolina, sex therapist Tom Murray told HuffPost. “Kids are home 24/7, parents are now teachers, there are losses in identity as careers turn into layoffs. These are stressors of the likes not seen in many decades. Stress in the short term can be an aphrodisiac; chronic stress causes sexual sedation.”
We asked sex therapists to reveal some of the ways quarantine has changed our bedroom lives. Here’s what they said.
For many, sexual desire is down.
The stress of living through a pandemic — and also the trauma of George Floyd’s death in police custody and the social unrest that followed — has understandably affected people’s interest in sex right now.
“It’s common for people to experience low sexual desire when under stress or dealing with trauma,” said Los Angeles psychologist and sex therapist Shannon Chavez. “The state of the pandemic sent people into a spiral of emotions leading to stress, fatigue, sleep issues, appetite changes and mood swings.”
For couples, the constant togetherness of quarantine has brought certain relationship issues to the surface that can mess with their sexual connection.
“When couples spend all their time together, they can find annoyance, frustration, fatigue and irritability growing between them,” Murray said. “Space is often a necessary ingredient to fuel passion. That’s hard to acquire during a state of stay-at-home requirements.”
Others are hornier.
Not everyone is feeling a dip in desire. In fact, for some people, the time at home seems to have revved up their sexual engines. Kinsey Institute research fellow Justin Lehmiller told Men’s Health that the combination of some people having more free time and fewer outlets for social connection may be responsible for the increase.
Some couples have also found the extra quality time they’ve gotten to spend together has actually “ignited some passion in their sex life,” Chavez said.
“Time at home has the advantage of less stressors such as getting home late due to traffic, extracurricular activities that take priority over sex and excuses of not enough time,” she said. “The extra time together has helped some feel more relaxed and open to sexual activity.”
More leisure time than usual has given some couples a chance to slow down and connect physically beyond intercourse, said Los Angeles sex therapist Nazanin Moali.
“They are also spending more time in non-intercourse physical touching and are engaging in more foreplay,” she said.
We’re watching more porn.
Since social distancing measures went into effect, Pornhub has seen increases in daily traffic to its site — including a nearly 25% spike on March 25 after it made premium content on the site free for a month.
“People are both bored and spending considerably more amounts of time online for work and/or to treat their boredom,” Murray said.
In relationships, when one partner’s increased porn consumption is combined with less desire for actual sex, tensions can arise.
“Consequently, some view their partner’s porn as a form of infidelity,” Murray said. “Combine this with couples impacted by low sexual desire, the more desirous partner can grow bitter, resentful and angry.”
We’re exploring self-pleasure and masturbating more.
Early social distancing guidelines discouraged IRL sex with anyone who didn’t live with you ― making it difficult if you didn’t have a live-in partner. So, then, it’s not surprising that sex toy sales have boomed since the pandemic took hold.
“I have had several clients talk about their ‘sexual revolution’ happening while being quarantined at home,” Chavez said. “This has included reading sex books, watching porn, buying sex toys, talking to their partners about fantasies and having more relaxed sex.”
Pre-quarantine, New York City sex therapist Ian Kerner said he was working with a number of male patients looking to decrease their porn and masturbation habits. But now those goals have “gone out the window.”
“I try to tell my patients to give themselves a break and not be so hard on themselves, but also to notice why they might be masturbating more ― boredom, loneliness, anxiety, lack of healthy coping mechanisms such as exercise,” said Kerner, author of “She Comes First.” “Once we get to the root causes, we can also start to open up and reflect upon them and also develop healthy coping mechanisms that are within reach.”
We’re dealing with mental health issues that affect our sex lives.
The upheaval of our daily lives and ongoing stress can worsen mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, that, in turn, can also tank our desire.
“These psychological disorders not only impact our mood but may also lead to sexual difficulties, such as erectile dysfunction or painful intercourse,” Moali, host of the “Sexology” podcast, said. “Furthermore, those with obsessive-compulsive disorder may struggle to engage in any type of partnered sexual activity for the fear of contamination.”
We’re expanding our sexual horizons.
Some of the couples Kerner works with are putting themselves through a “sort of sex boot camp,” with a focus on building intimacy and trying new things.
“They’re really putting sex on the top of the priority list,” Kerner said. “From talking about sex and issues, to making time to indulge and masturbate to enjoying midday porn screenings to loosening up with wine and CBD to finally getting around to some role-playing. Many couples are trying to take their sexual selves out of exile with some real intentionality.”
Partners are also using this time to explore kinks together, Murray said.
“One couple found reinvigoration in their relationship as they explored pegging. They took an online course offered by a colleague, a pegging educator,” he said.
We’re having more virtual sex.
People are finding safer ways to get off that don’t involve person-to-person contact.
“There are sex-positive online communities that have been outlets for sexual play, voyeurism and exploration,” Chavez said. “Some of these environments include online sex parties and Zoom chats that involve community sexual play and education on consent in the digital world.”
If you’re going the digital route, just make sure you’re taking the right cyber-safety precautions. For example, use strong passwords, make sure your devices are updated, set up an anonymous email (not tied to your name), use an encrypted platform and don’t show your face or other identifying characteristics, Cosmo.com recommends.
Risky Business: Love And Sex In A Germaphobic world is a HuffPost series exploring the way that coronavirus is changing the way we date, have sex and enjoy intimacy.
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Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.