There are many quarantine firsts I won’t easily forget. There’s the first time I finally baked bread and briefly understood the hype; the first time I attended a big Zoom birthday and realized I couldn’t casually introduce myself to strangers without 17 other people listening to our convo; the first time I jogged with a face mask on and briefly lost interest in working out at all. And then there was the time when, in a few separate calls, my friends jokingly said they were having pretty much nonstop sex from complete boredom — anecdotes that made me suddenly question my own wildly fluctuating sexual activity.
After all, my partner and I had been sheltering in place for weeks. For some stretches of time, I related to my friends who felt horny— particularly when he and I both had freer, calmer afternoons or when I realized he really pulls off the quarantine mustache trend. But in other weeks, and probably far more often since quarantine, sexy thoughts very notably ceased, even when I was by myself. My low libido in those moments made sense to me — I had had my hours cut at the job that reliably paid my rent; I was stressed from scrambling for more freelance work when budgets were slashed; my skin was breaking out worse than it did in high school; and, like many people I know, I started to experience burnout and depressive episodes from this new reality. So why did I feel like I was the only person at home not having a sexual breakthrough right now?
Social psychologist Justin Lehmiller explained to Vox in April that “a higher percentage of people now [say] they’re masturbating and having more sex. But you also have a higher percentage of people saying they’re not engaging in any sexual behavior at all.” A BuzzFeed News/Ipsos survey conducted the last week of May revealed that most people report their sex lives have remained unchanged since shelter in place orders began. Thirty-eight percent of Americans report never having sex in an average week since stay-at-home orders began in early March, compared to 33% who reported the same before the pandemic. But one thing is clear: quarantining indefinitely has majorly upped panic levels for some people — all while greatly reducing them in others, particularly those who are used to experiencing anxiety and depression in their pre-pandemic life. And because sexual desire and stress are often interlinked, it’s natural that some people’s sex drives have either plummeted or, perhaps more surprisingly, reached new peaks.
Because sexual desire and stress are often interlinked, it’s natural that some people’s sex drives have either plummeted or, perhaps more surprisingly, reached new peaks.
“We’re having the most sex we have ever had since we were in college and medical school over 10 years ago,” said Vanessa, a 31-year-old woman married to a physician and mother of two small children in Sag Harbor, New York. “We have sex now once or twice per day and even have had quickies during the day on the weekends —something we also have not done in quite a long time.” Prior to the pandemic, she says they had sex two to three times a week tops, but lately, right before quarantining, were often too tired and could go up to two weeks without it. While her husband had been actually working significantly longer hours now, Vanessa credited her newfound uptick in libido to spending most of the day indoors (save exercise and yard work).
“For some people, that sense of homeostasis and nesting creates this ability to cultivate a desire to have sex,” said Erica Chidi, a doula and cofounder/CEO of LOOM, an LA-based sexual education and wellness center. For instance, people who find themselves in a place of relative stability right now may experience an uptick simply from having more time to rest and take care of their other needs first.
“I think that before, I would have thought that I should just masturbate and get it over with because I have all these other things to do,” said Jessica*, a 35-year-old college professor living alone in Chicago. Prior to social distancing, she had gone on a couple of dates with someone and continued communication after having to quarantine in their respective homes. “We started sexting and sending nudes — I had never done that,” she said. “Weirdly, I think that the fact that I was alone and bored made me explore a bit myself and what I wanted.”
That’s not to say, of course, that a higher sex drive means a person’s not concerned or emotionally affected by what’s going on around them. “I am super worried about other things, like my parents [who] live far away,” added Jessica. “But I don't feel like rushing through my sexual activity will help me get any less stressed, so I am taking my time, I guess.” If anything, sex is known for being a reliable stress reliever, so it makes sense why many people would turn to it even more now.
Of course, every person’s stress levels — and reaction to stress — varies greatly, and in such unprecedented circumstances, it’s easy to have the opposite reaction: a complete halt in horniness. “Smaller amounts of adrenaline and anxiety can heighten a person's sex drive, but too much stress floods the body with cortisol, which has multiple physiological effects that lower libido,” explained psychologist and sex expert Antonia Hall. “So while sex is a fantastic natural stress reliever, too much stress often leaves people with little to no sex drive.”
For Chloe*, a 25-year-old living with her boyfriend in New Jersey, the pandemic has already impacted both her and her partner’s jobs. Her boyfriend lost his restaurant job while she balanced a regular 9 to 5 with a weekend job and tutoring work. “At first, I was thinking it would be all sex, all of the time,” she said, especially since her boyfriend normally worked late-night shifts and was now home more. “I want to excite him, but I'm having a hard time finding the motivation to shake it up and get ‘sexy.’” Not surprisingly, it’s hard to have sex on the brain when unemployment has impacted one person in the relationship. “I am stressed about money, the future of my job, and my overall career path after this pandemic,” she said.
“These are unprecedented times, and having a lowered sex drive is totally normal,” said Hall, who recommended simple, nonsexual connections — something Chloe and her boyfriend have been doing a lot of. After having a lot of sex the first week of quarantine, “We became extremely intimate [with] cuddling, communicating, and just enjoying each other’s company,” she noted.
“These are unprecedented times, and having a lowered sex drive is totally normal.”
“People are still navigating grief [and] shock,” said Chidi, who emphasized that there shouldn’t be pressure around having sex at all right now. “Sex is a desire, not a drive like hunger, thirst, or sleep.” Besides, believing sex needs to specifically involve intercourse or an orgasm — and therefore quantifying how much you have it a week compared to everyone else — mechanizes it in a way that, ironically, can take the sexiness out of sex. As famed sex therapist Esther Perel once said in GQ, “Foreplay starts at the end of the previous orgasm” and can mean a lot of things. That’s why Chidi recommended slowly reconnecting with your body in small ways — for instance, paying attention to the water on your skin when you’re in the shower. Masturbating — whether living alone or even if you live with your partner but want solo time — is another great way to feel yourself, especially, she added, at a time when the safest sex partner is often yourself.
“Because there's so much going on, that turns into ‘I guess I'll just masturbate,’” said Stephanie*, 28, who’s been alone in her NYC apartment ever since her roommate left. “It’s not necessarily because I'm horny, but I'm craving connection,” she noted. “Listening to audio erotica and masturbating is the closest I can get to that right now.” Beyond that, there’s also a feeling of tension-relief: “I think even with running, I do have this pent-up frustration that I don't really know how to release,” she said.
As initially frustrating as having mismatched sex drives may be, Hall said it can actually be a perfect time to open up bigger talks about the relationship as a whole. “Many people find themselves communicating more because they’re sheltered in place together, so any conversations that were being put off are coming to the surface now,” she said. “It's a great time for couples to work through challenges, reconnect, and discover new ways to enjoy each other.” The hidden perk? “There are tons of studies that show that communication leads to a better sex life,” said Hall.
For some couples, checking in with each other more in general has led to talks about sex, too. Rebecca, a 29-year-old woman in New Jersey, had initially been quarantining separately from her boyfriend of six-ish months, who is a hospital nurse who has recently recovered from COVID-19. Despite being away from each other for so long, they’ve grown a lot closer — even sexually. “We have seen a huge uptick in our sex drives,” she said. “Like, an insane amount, which is weird because we haven’t been able to see each other in weeks.”
She credited it largely to the “forced celibate introspection” of being apart. “It’s been an opportunity for us to open up about our intimate needs and talk about fantasies and things we want to do when we can see each other again,” Rebecca said. They have also worked through the fact that they have different communication styles — something Rebecca said, weeks later, helped them even more as life got harder.
“I’ve been researching how to safely and supportively handle a partner with PTSD — which, unfortunately, a lot of hospitalists have developed — and we have set up routines for communication,” she said. “So now intimate communication is bucketed separately from our regular touchpoints, and we’re both trying to keep his head above water until the wave dies down.” Since cases have gone down in New Jersey, she’s been able to invite her boyfriend over to her place to decompress and has scheduled relaxing activities such as hikes, kayaking, and “no-tech” days.
“Definitely continue to keep the lines of communication open,” advised Hall. “Notice what you are doing more of now that makes your life and partnership better and prioritize those things in the future, so when life does pick up again you will have a routine that better supports and nourishes you.” For some, like Vanessa and her husband, the hope is that they can hold onto their quarantine sex routine long after the pandemic is over, even as life gets busier again. She and her husband have “slowed down now a bit, averaging two to three times a week,” with the hot weather making them both more tired than usual. “I’ve actually been conking out on the sofa on average three nights a week,” she said, adding that she and her husband have been taking turns napping every day. However, she still credits their quarantine sex uptick as something that improved their relationship in the long run. “It reminded us that we must both intimately have missed one another very much,” she said. “I think it also has helped us to ease away stress and tension from outside forces with our careers.”
“Quarantine seems to give me both the time and the space to try things I might enjoy without the pressure of also enjoying them for my sexual partner.”
Jessica brought up how, prior to staying at home, she “rarely wore lingerie,” but now puts it on and feels very turned on. “Quarantine seems to give me both the time and the space to try things I might enjoy without the pressure of also enjoying them for my sexual partner,” she explained. Since late April, she’s “decided to break quarantine with a friend” — someone she says she’s not sure she’d be as attracted to under normal circumstances, but who has felt like a safe, fun sexual partner right now. At the same time, she’s continued to grow her “small but beautiful” lingerie collection, and while her current partner isn’t into it, she feels great and like she’s still exploring her desires.
Stephanie has had a similar experience — because she’s on antidepressants and reaching climax can take longer than usual, “taking 45 minutes in the middle of the day and figuring out what I like just doesn't seem like a huge crime in the way it used to,” she said.
For Chloe, even though weeks of not having sex with her partner is “not common for [their] relationship,” she says her bond with her boyfriend has only been strengthened, echoing 81% of the BuzzFeed News/Ipsos survey respondents who felt they could be “completely honest with partner right now.” “I am loving having him around and there to support me as a roommate, companion, best friend, soul partner, and whatever other position I have him filling right now as we're safe at home together.”
More than anything, the main thread running through all of these stories is the idea of flexibility and patience. “Sexuality is complex, with many variables — physically, physiologically, psychologically, relationally — that can add to and decrease desire,” said Hall. A person’s libido is not made to be unwavering or resistant to outside forces, and just because the first few weeks of quarantine might have been refreshingly uneventful doesn’t mean life — and your relationship with sex — can’t change on a moment-by-moment basis. Everything from protesting police brutality to wondering about your future to worrying if you’re sick to fighting with your spouse to getting dumped to balancing work and homeschooling to feeling incredibly lonely can suddenly alter your sexual and nonsexual moods in ways you’ve never experienced before. Same goes for things slowly returning to “normal” as lockdown procedures lighten up: If your reality prior to the pandemic involved working long hours, enduring tedious commutes, and/or raising kids at the same time, a return to a lower sex drive can be a clear sign that your current schedule doesn’t give you the time or energy to feel sexual.
If sheltering in place has taught us anything, it’s that restoring a lust for life — and a lust for lust — requires greater self-compassion and granting ourselves the space to figure out what we want. “Try to focus on ways to take care of yourself that feel good to your body,” said Hall. “With more nurturance, your nervous system will relax.” This time can be a climactic turning point in how we regard our sexual, physical, and emotional wellbeing. It couldn’t have come sooner. ●
*Names have been changed.
Julia Pugachevsky is a freelance writer with bylines in VICE, Forge, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, BuzzFeed, and INSIDER. She's a former sex and relationships editor at Cosmopolitan and love and relationships editor at BuzzFeed.