Sometime in April, my libido suddenly seemed to be hiding somewhere near the core of the Earth. I was in lockdown alone with my partner, and we had way more time and privacy than usual, rare luxuries that I felt I needed to take advantage of. And yet I had no interest in sex. In addition to being frustrated, I was worried; this was abnormal for me. I wondered if I was depressed, or had some deeper, subconscious issue with my partner.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in late February, many people reported experiencing extreme, untenable horniness, and some people even predicted a quarantine-fueled baby boom. Even now, there are stories of people breaking quarantine to have sex. It seemed like everywhere I looked people were desperate for sex, which bothered me even more. What was my problem? Wasn’t my situation pretty good, all things considered?
Part of the issue here is the very concept of a libido or sex drive, says Dr. Stephen Snyder, an author and New York–based sex therapist. The popular understanding of libido — and my own understanding — was that your libido is your enthusiasm for having sex, and that you have some say in that. What I didn’t realize, though, is that libido is not only not a clinical term, it doesn’t really exist. “Truth is, there’s really no such thing,” says Snyder. “We’re not machines, cranking out libido on a steady basis.”
Instead, like the rest of your bodily functions, it’s not entirely under your control. “Try telling your pancreas to stop working right now, or ask your heart to do three extra beats. You don’t have complete autonomy over your body,” says Shan Boodram, a certified sex educator. “It’s not all 100 percent a choice: There are hormones at work, there are nervous systems, there are nerve endings that also have to participate.”
Still, I worried that what I was (or wasn’t) feeling was abnormal, though Dr. Megan Fleming, a New York–based psychologist who focuses on sex therapy, assured me that wasn’t the case. “The number one killer of libido is stress,” she explains. What’s more, while it’s difficult to find a precedent to what we’re going through right now, large-scale disaster and sex haven’t historically gone hand-in-hand. Boodram pointed me to a study recently referenced by the New York Times. It found that following the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China, sexual activity decreased significantly: “Before the earthquake, 67 percent of married women reported they were having sex two or more times a week. One week after the earthquake, that number fell to 4 percent. By four weeks, only 24 percent reported they were having sex two or more times a week.”
Clearly, not everyone is feeling my lack of enthusiasm toward pandemic sex. Maybe the fear feels more like a turn-on for some; maybe sex operates as a coping mechanism for anxiety for others. “Sex is a way of connecting with a partner, and brings a sense of normalcy and feeling in control,” Fleming says. But for others, like me, stress might make feeling aroused impossible: “A lot of people need to be calm to get feelings of arousal, period. Those individuals may not be able to even conceive of being aroused or horny at all during this time; they may not even have a drive to masturbate.”
Snyder put things more creatively: “Two hundred thousand years ago on the plains of Africa, people had sex when there were no lions around. If someone saw a lion, no one got very hard or wet until it went away.”
“Minus the lions, it’s basically the same today,” he says. “Except today we’re so accustomed to feeling safe and comfortable that we think it’s abnormal during a crisis not to feel horny. In fact, that’s how we’re wired.”
He advised me to stop thinking about my sexual response as a “drive,” an engine I can switch on or off at will. “We’re wired to respond or not respond sexually, based on whether conditions are right,” he says, telling me to acknowledge my feelings of stress and fear. “If you’re feeling grief that the world you knew back in 2019 seems forever vanished, give yourself a break.”
Meanwhile, there are little things you can do to reduce stress, like exercise, meditation, or speaking with loved ones. “I ask my clients: What’s one small thing you could say yes to?” suggests Fleming. “I don’t know where that’s going to go, but usually if it feels good, one yes is going to lead to another.”
As for sex itself, Fleming notes that often, low desire leads to something called “spectating”: “So often around sex, people start to feel pressure, they expect to be feeling something and then start asking themselves why they’re not. They’re observing their experience, as if there’s a cartoon bubble above their heads.”
There’s nothing hot about thinking that way, says Fleming, in fact, it’s the kind of neurosis that pushes feelings of arousal away. “Ask yourself: Is there anything erotic about this thought? Because that’s when they get to choose to redirect their attention to something in the moment that feels good.” She also says you can take steps to get in the mood, so to speak, like by reading erotic literature, or thinking about your past peak sexual experiences.
Lastly, she recommends actually making time for sex. “People don’t like to schedule sex,” Fleming says, but notes that without people are going to be occupied with other stuff, “while you can’t command yourself to be aroused, if you block out the time then you can sort of ask yourself in that moment what would feel good. That’s where the creating conditions part comes in.”
“Remember, the so-called ‘baby boom’?” Snyder asks, referring to the mid-20th-century explosion in birth rate. “It didn’t happen until after World War II was over. And that wasn’t just because the troops came home. It was because people were happy again.”