Why you’re probably having less (or more) sex right now

Busier or less busy?
Busier or less busy?
Image: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
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Most people in lockdown, as 75% of Americans are at the moment, are probably experiencing big changes to their usual routine. There’s no office commute, no school bus shuttle; there are no parties to attend, no group dinners to plan. It’s unsurprising, then, that for a lot of people, those changes may also be affecting their sex life.

For some, less sex during the pandemic is a given—for those who are self-isolating while single, making their usual sex lives too risky, or those whose partners are away or sickened by the virus. Meanwhile, those with the option of having more sex might well be taking it: Condoms may become the next item to be in short supply worldwide, while some have speculated that maternity wards will see an uptick in mothers giving birth nine months after the lockdowns began.

But if you’re not feeling in the mood, well, you’re not alone. On Twitter, users lamented that “general panic and despair” had led to the sudden disappearance of their libido, as one put it. Others described feeling “unappealing” or wanting to cuddle and eat snacks instead. In a poll of just over 9,000 people from NBC News, only 24% said the coronavirus outbreak had positively affected their sex lives (28% were neutral and 47% said it had affected them negatively).

Online, sex researchers and therapists acknowledge that people could really go either way. “After all, we know from a mountain of psychological research that two people can respond to the same situation in very different ways and that the factors that increase sexual desire in some can drive it down in others,” Justin Lehmiller, a sex researcher at the Kinsey Institute, wrote in a blog post.

Wondering what’s going on? There might be a few reasons why you’re feeling different about getting busy.

Fighting off the blues

“For plenty of people, when they get stressed out, sex is the farthest thing from their mind,” says Heather McPherson, a sex therapist based in Austin, Texas. Between worrying about elderly parents, figuring out how to exercise at home, and managing a new routine, “a lot of things can point toward not doing it, because you’re so focused on surviving,” she says. Meanwhile, “stress and anxiety and potentially losing your job will potentially take a toll on all relationships.”

Still, in such unusual circumstances, it’s hard to know which behaviors are most common, McPherson says. “We don’t really have good measures to go off.”

Some people may see the opposite effect altogether: “For some people, when anxiety and stress goes up, their libido kicks up,” with sex serving as a coping mechanism. This is the phenomenon dubbed the “apocalyptic hornies” by Men’s Health, perhaps contributing to a 17.8% increase in US site traffic to PornHub on March 24, compared to an average day.

Writing in Psychology Today, sex therapist Diane Gleim suggests that it all comes down to a delicate balancing act: “A person’s sex drive needs just enough anxiety/tension/uncertainty to get activated but not too much anxiety/tension/uncertainty or else the person can get overwhelmed, flooded, and then sex drive goes underground,” she writes. “Think of it like the Goldilocks principle: not too much (anxiety), not too little (anxiety), but just (the) right (amount of anxiety).”

One of the few studies into the relationship between trauma and the libido, published in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, looked at the effect of the massive 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan, China, on the reproductive health of 170 local women. Researchers found a marked decrease in women’s satisfaction with their sex life: Before the quake, 55% of women surveyed said they were satisfied, falling to 21% afterwards. They had less sex, too: Before the quake, every woman surveyed said they were having sex at least once a week, and in the week immediately after, 89% said they had not had sex at all. Even a month later, 32% said they were still not having sex.

The economy sucks

If US history is anything to go by, a downturn in economic prospects is similarly bad news for the nation’s sex life. That’s according to studies on the nation’s birth rate: During years of prosperity, such as the 1950s, the US birth rate soared. Its greatest nadirs, meanwhile, coincided with times of economic hardship: the Great Depression of 1929, the 1973 oil crisis, and the 2008 recession.

Between 2008 and 2013, for instance, nearly 2.3 million fewer babies were born in the US than would have been expected if pre-recession fertility rates had persisted, according to one study from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy.

Some of this may be pragmatic, of course—who wants to have another child when they can barely afford the ones they have? Still, while birth rate isn’t a perfect measure for how much sex people are having (especially after 1960, when the pill went on sale as a contraceptive), it’s one of the better indicators widely available.

Too much togetherness

In long-term relationships, it can be hard to keep the mystery alive at the best of times. That goes double when you’re stuck together in the confined space of your own home, with few opportunities for independent activities or time apart.

Too much closeness, in fact, can actually hinder the kind of intimacy we look for in sex, sex therapist and relationship guru Esther Perel writes in her book Mating in Captivity:

It is too easily assumed that problems with sex are the result of a lack of closeness. But … perhaps the way we construct closeness reduces the sense of freedom and autonomy needed for sexual pleasure. When intimacy collapses into fusion, it is not a lack of closeness but too much closeness that impedes desire.

Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused—when two become one—connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.

During this interminable period of intense stress and anxiety, it’s hardly surprising if you find your libido vacillating from one extreme to the other. Sex therapist McPherson said many of her clients had found themselves settling gradually into a new routine after a few weeks in lockdown. As human beings, “generally, we’re pretty resilient,” she says. And when it comes to sex in quarantine, there’s one undeniable upside: “You certainly have enough time to do it.”