How the coronavirus pandemic is changing the ways we have sex

There are public health guidelines for sex during self-isolation, but the pandemic could have a lingering impact on how we think about intimacy

In his 2007 essay collection Sex And Isolation, critic Bruce Benderson analyzes the rise of the digital age and the extinction of the urban space. He recalls spending a prolonged period of time in his New York City apartment in seclusion, one day mutually masturbating with a stranger via video conference on his computer.  

Without “the global noise called ‘life in America,'” he writes, “My life in America has radically changed. In place of countless hunts in the streets of midtown New York for sex, I’ve succumbed to these continuous electronic swaddlings. Naked but cocooned, I stay home, virtually caressing a supposed world in images… Why have I fallen and turned from a courageous voyageur into an armchair voyeur? The answer to that is simple. I have nowhere to go.”

His screens project desire and become his new landscape as his cravings only build upon each other. It’s why, during what has only been a few weeks of self-isolation for most during the COVID-19 pandemic, many have felt such an itch – a horniness, if you will.

“Electronic swaddlings” like swiping right on someone you may not be able to see for months or FaceTiming with a partner who you may not be able to touch for months isn’t enough. 

Touch keeps us healthy and, in fact, functions much like a painkiller.

Countless studies have found that the more sex you have, the less stress you experience in daily life. A lack of it can contribute to depression. Even something as small as a hug can reduce physical and mental tension.

So it’s no surprise that, for many, being apart from friends, family and romantic partners has proved incredibly lonely. Being in an “isolationship” doesn’t help.

“It’s called skin hunger,” says physician and sex educator Dr. Kim Alexander. “That refers to our need for touch. Sex may help us live in the moment instead of worrying about the future. It may help us feel cared for and safe. It may help pass the long hours and be emotionally intimate in ways that our busy lives usually preclude.”

But being apart from your partner makes that kind of intimacy difficult.

Sex tips for a pandemic

According to New York City Public Health, the only public health agency to release sex guidelines during the pandemic, you can contract COVID-19 from a sexual partner who has it. While we know that it is spread through direct contact with saliva or mucus, it has not yet been found in semen or vaginal fluid, but “we still have a lot to learn,” the agency said.

The guidelines recommend avoiding kissing people who are not in your closest social circle, abstaining from rimming (as the virus has been found in feces), wearing protection and washing hands and sex toys before and after sex. 

But as the guidelines put it: “You are your safest sex partner.” The next safest partners are the people you live with. NYC public health also advise people to avoid sex with anyone outside your home and ensure you have as few partners as possible. 

Sex when living apart

So what if you do not have a live-in sex partner or did not choose to quarantine with an early spring fling? Video dates, sexting, chat rooms, phone sex and masturbation are a few options.

The key, says Alexander, is maintaining a form of sensuality, which is what skin hunger is rooted in.

“Sensuality is important for well-being,” she says. “When we’re alone, we create comfort with the sensuality of food, scented candles, nice soap.”

Sensuality can also be a good solution for those craving intimacy but finding themselves disconnected from their partners due to high levels of anxiety. 

Alexander references sex educator Emily Nagoski’s “brakes and gas pedals” analogy to describe this dynamic: “Brakes on means no libido. If you’re not in the mood for sex, you don’t want your partner to approach you for it because that adds a layer of guilt and shame that you’re not fulfilling their needs. For some, the physical vulnerability of sex is what allows emotional vulnerability. So without sex, they feel alone and lost. Just be safe. If you’re not feeling sexual, at least be sensual.”

Paraphrasing Nagoski, she adds, “You might not want to go to the party but, once you’re there, you’ll probably have a good time. So drag yourself to bed, take your clothes off, put your skin next to your lover’s skin and see what happens.”

However, sex educator Samantha Bitty says that despite the number of rules and regulations we put on the table, there will always be those who cannot fight the urge and will come out of their 14-day self-isolation, suffocated by the prospect of no end to the crisis in sight, and decide to invite a hook-up over.

“We’re going to have a lot of people emerging, having communicated with people on dating apps or texted exes, who are still planning to meet up,” Bitty says. “They’re still negotiating risks, thinking, ‘Okay, so I’ve done my time, can I fuck now?'”

At that point, our criteria for sexual partners will also change in terms of living situations, what they do for a living and who they are in contact with. But what will remain constant is the most important criteria: trust.

What about people who live with or can’t resist reuniting with partners who are frontline workers?

“These intersections in our interpersonal arrangements in an urban place like Toronto is something we have to talk about because if we don’t, people are going to make up their own rules,” says Bitty. “They are going to fill in the blanks and do whatever fulfills their needs based on their individual risk assessments. We can’t just talk about ideals and push abstinence.”

Public health’s priority during a pandemic is physical health. But mental, emotional and spiritual health are important too. That’s where self-care comes in, which places a high value on not just touch, but relationships.

As people are being forced inward – literally and emotionally – they’re being forced to communicate in new ways. As Bitty says with a laugh, “Now I’m talking to people about what to do when you see your ex at the Zoom dance party!”

The hope, she says, is that when we come out of all this, we will have gained perspective in regards to fostering intimacy. We might even see a dip in fuckboyery, ghosting and catfishing. 

“Living in a city like Toronto, which is defined by a sense of constant hustle and movement, can be extremely isolating as it is,” Bitty says. “Because of that, particularly as it relates to dating and sex, it is a wasteland at times. If meaningful connection is what we want, we should all be asking ourselves, what do I have to give versus what am I trying to find? Am I just trying to fill a void?”

As we become these reluctant armchair voyeurs, increasingly cognizant of our bodies and the lack of others around us, Bitty says “our understanding of the importance of these things will pivot. The literal trauma of it will inspire us to value connections in a different and hopefully better way.”


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