5 Ways The Pandemic Is Affecting Sexual Desire (Beyond Just The Stress)
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
If you've noticed some stark changes in your libido since this pandemic started, you're absolutely not alone.
Chronic stress, such as what we're all experiencing right now throughout the topsy-turvy phases of this pandemic, can significantly affect sexual desire. And interestingly, stress can actually affect different people's libidos in pretty different ways: Some people can't stand the thought of sex when they're stressed, while others seek it out more than ever.
And beyond just the stress, spending so much time at home with our partners (or without access to any partners) has created a unique environment that's having a powerful effect on our libidos.
Here are just a few ways the pandemic has affected sex and how to best navigate the changes:
1. You don't want sex, period.
For many people, the overwhelming stress and chaotic emotions triggered by this pandemic have totally drowned their sexual desire.
"It takes up a lot of our bandwidth," explains AASECT-certified sex therapist Jessa Zimmerman. "Just like people might have thought—great, now I'll have time to clean out that closet or finally plant that garden—they probably aren't doing it. We have more time but way less motivation and capacity to apply to things that might matter to us."
Some studies have found that, in general, having a stressful life is linked to lower sexual arousal. Part of the problem is that we can't turn off our worry and get present in the moment, Zimmerman explains. If you're not paying attention to physical stimuli, it's hard to get spontaneously turned on.
More troublingly, Zimmerman says the type of ongoing background stress many of us are experiencing right now can contribute to what's called the allostatic load. The allostatic load is the "wear and tear on the regulatory systems in the brain and body" as a result of stress. Essentially, when we're exposed to prolonged, chronic stress, our body's alarm system—aka our neural and neuroendocrine responses to stress—remains at a heightened state without returning to normal, which may over time cause psychological consequences and even make us more susceptible to illness.
"It drains us physically, depleting our energy," Zimmerman explains. "Our brains are engaged with issues of survival and not available for pleasure."
What to do.
Cut yourself a little slack, says AASECT-certified sex therapist Holly Richmond, Ph.D., LMFT, CST. Your sexuality is a part of you as a whole, and if you as a whole are feeling low, so will your sexuality.
"We like to think that self and sex are dualistic," she explains. "We externalize sex. [We mistakenly believe] it's an act we do rather than really seeing it as a natural and holistic piece of our well-being."
Think of it like this, Richmond says: If you had a bad cold, you probably wouldn't be surprised at all that you're not in the mood for sex. Think of your mental health the same way you're viewing your physical health. You wouldn't expect yourself to want sex if you were physically sick, so similarly, try to adjust your expectations when you're mentally under the weather.
2. You're hornier than ever.
Not everyone responds to stress the same way. For many people, sex is a form of stress relief. It's a way to distract yourself from all the bad that's going on and get some pleasure and good feelings flowing, both physically and spiritually. A small recent study found that women are having more sex during COVID and have been experiencing generally higher sexual desire. Some past studies have also found a link between stressful days and higher odds of having sex.
"People differ in how their brains react under stress. Many people have a withdrawal response, but others have an approach response," Zimmerman explains. "So while many people feel shut down in our period of shut-in, other people are going to experience more desire."
For people who are quarantining with a partner, spending all that extra time together might naturally lend itself to having more sex. Now, that being said, the aforementioned recent study also found that women's overall quality of sex was lower during the pandemic than it was before it, despite the increased frequency of sex. Even though they're having more sex, women's sexual functioning (which includes ability to get aroused, lubrication, and ease of orgasm) was found to be significantly lower. That may be because of all the physical and psychological effects of stress on libido previously mentioned. We also might be having more sex to cope with our feelings but are still so stressed out that we're not really able to enjoy it.
And of course, for single people or those quarantining without a partner, you might find yourself really missing physical touch—perhaps more than you normally would. One recent study found single people are taking dating more seriously because of COVID, and dating apps have seen a lot of increased activity since the pandemic started.
What to do.
If you're having a lot of satisfying sex with your partner these days, great! Nothing to change there. But if you're having a lot of unsatisfying sex, as the above research suggests, Zimmerman suggests taking some pressure off it. Get out of the mindset that every sexual experience needs to involve intercourse and mind-blowing orgasms; expectations and performing a routine just for the sake of it are exactly what will make sex feel unsatisfying. Instead, lean into what your body is really craving. Focus more on that, whatever it is.
"Create some room just to share pleasure and connection," she suggests. "It may look different than it used to or than you want it to, but lean on each other, stay connected, and use your relationship as a resource and a respite from the storm."
3. You're not feeling your body right now.
A lot of people right now are struggling with their body image, says Richmond. Many people aren't getting the same amount of exercise and movement they usually do, she points out, and many of us are also indulging in comfort foods to help us cope. There's nothing wrong with either of those things, but if you attach a lot of your confidence to your body size, then the weight gain you might be experiencing right now may be affecting how you feel about yourself.
Plenty of research shows poor body image affects sexual desire and satisfaction. "If you're not feeling good in your body, it also makes sense that you wouldn't want to be intimate because you'll be in your head and thinking about what you look like instead of what things are feeling like," Richmond explains.
It also doesn't help that, because many people are working from home and seldom leaving the house, a lot of people aren't getting dressed or grooming themselves the way we normally do. Our hair is overgrown, our skin is breaking out, and we're wearing sweatpants 24/7. That's bad news both for our own sexual desire and our partner's desire, Richmond points out. If your partner isn't putting much effort into how they look, you might simply be less likely to get turned on by them. Again, no one is doing anything wrong here—it's just what's happening.
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What to do.
First of all, it's worth interrogating why you're attaching so much of your confidence to your body's appearance in the first place. It's a great time to learn how to love your body exactly how it is.
As far as the sex goes, if you're interested in having more of it, find ways to make yourself feel good about your body. Exercise certainly does that for a lot of people, so if that's you, it may be worth trying to prioritize going for that run outside or doing one of those workout videos at home. But it also may just be about putting a little effort into your presentation the way you would for a normal day out, Richmond says. It helps both partners tap into their libidos again when both people are going out of their way to look good for each other.
"Pay a little bit of attention to how we look and present ourselves," Richmond recommends. "I know that probably sounds a little objectifying, but I think for all of us...we appreciate how our partners look. We love finding our partners sexy."
4. You have no alone time.
Contrary to what you might think, spending every waking moment with your partner is actually not conducive to sexual desire. When you're living in such close quarters with your partner, no matter how much you might love them and find them attractive, that lack of alone time will mostly just make you want to get away from them—not get closer.
"That idea of missing each other and longing for each other, yearning for each other, that's shot. That's out the window because nobody's going anywhere," Richmond explains. "We don't have time to miss our partner."
As renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel often says, "fire needs air." Being able to have time away from someone—to feel yourself as a separate person from them—is part of what creates desire.
"A lot of us see our partners as their sexiest when they're doing their thing, when they're in their element, whether it's going off to work in a suit or whether it's working out or something that makes them uniquely them," Richmond says. "We're just not getting that now."
The problem of lack of alone time is further exacerbated if you're parents. You have no alone time from your partner and your kids. You're also overburdened with child-care responsibilities and have no break from your desexualized role of "parent."
What to do.
Carve out space for yourself, Richmond says.
It might seem counterintuitive, but spending more time on your own away from your partner can be the key to you experiencing sexual desire for them again. If you're working from home together, consider working in different rooms so you have plenty of hours a day away from each other. You can also try to go on frequent walks or take up hobbies that are exclusively yours, not shared with your partner.
If you have kids, it's up to you whether it's important to you to try to work on your sex life right now. You may feel that it's just not a priority of yours right now, which is totally fine.
"Do what you can," Richmond suggests to parents. "If you feel like you can put the kids in front of a movie and they'll stay there or their tablets and they'll stay there for an hour, go with your partner to your room. You don't have to have sex, but just cultivate intimacy some way that's not focused on wrangling the kids or something kids-centric."
5. Your routines are killing your desire.
Many people gravitated toward a daily routine to try to create some structure in these unpredictable times. But routine isn't conducive to desire either, Richmond says, especially for people living with their partners.
Research tells us that couples who engage in novel experiences tend to have a better sex life. When we're doing new things and having variety in our daily lives, we have more energy, an improved mood, and more to connect over and share with our partners. It's having that new, fresh stimuli that sparks the excitement and energy necessary for getting turned on.
"Novelty is the seed of human desire," Richmond notes. Instead, we're eating dinner in front of the TV and watching two hours of Netflix before heading straight to bed every single night, stuck in the same pattern for the last two months if not longer.
What to do.
In the midst of a pandemic, we have less access to variety and self-expansion, but there are still ways to mix things up and keep things fresh. Anything you can do to change up your daily or nightly routine a few times a week can make a big difference, Richmond says. It might mean eating dinner together outside, in a park, or even on your fire escape. Or perhaps it's just turning off the TV at night and forcing yourself to have an interesting conversation.
"Anything we do that adds newness or freshness to our relationship has a good chance of creating our libido," she says. "It's really about changing the environment."
How important is sex during a pandemic, anyway?
The answer will depend on how important sex is to you in general and how you in particular respond to stress.
"If people are facing issues of survival—housing, finances, health—sex may well fall to the bottom," Zimmerman says. "But sex is also a lifeline, an enlivening, pleasurable aspect to being human—and we may not want to throw that away or neglect it while we're navigating the situation. We could choose to grab moments of pleasure and aliveness when we can; perhaps that's an antidote to the fear and despair we are feeling."
Pleasure matters, even in times of hardship—perhaps especially in times of hardship.
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