Sometime last summer, just a few months into the pandemic that has now lasted over a year, the horny tweets arrived. First half-joking, and later quite serious, single people publicly bemoaned their sexlessness, the natural and practical result of a society being encouraged to stay home alone. One Twitter user joked that her pent-up sexual energy could power an entire city. Another despaired that this was the longest he had gone without sex since losing his virginity as a teenager. Partnered people favorited these tweets — in sympathy, sure, but in solidarity, too: They weren’t having much sex either but lacked the single person’s excuse. Unceasing access to the person with whom one normally has sex did not, it seems, encourage married people to have more of it.
There’s plenty else to feel very bad about, and for some (including people on the ace spectrum), sex may not rank; for others, however, an inactive sex life or a low libido has been a source of considerable stress — and a crisis of confidence in one’s sexual future. An optimistic approach may conceive of a sexually charged, free-spirited golden era, but for more socially anxious types and people in long-term relationships, it’s hard not to worry about any lasting damage. At the risk of invoking a winky bike-riding pun, what happens when you lose a year of practice?
For single people
Let me first state the obvious: Not everyone who is single has abstained from sex throughout the pandemic. There are, of course, ways in which unpartnered people can (and have!) met their sex-and-intimacy needs with minimal risk. One popular approach, according to Matt Lundquist, a psychotherapist and founder of Tribeca Therapy: rekindling with an ex. “I think [hooking up with an ex] felt safer and more familiar for some in the context of COVID but also the world being scary at large,” he says. “Emotionally, it felt safer.”
If cuffing season — the rush to settle into the winter months with a steady dating partner — is a thing, COVID likely cranked up the pressure. “I think some single folks have been settling down who wouldn’t typically settle down, just because they don’t want to engage with multiple people,” explains Courtney Watson, a licensed marriage-and-sex therapist in Oakland. A single friend I’ll call Aneesa was retroactively sorry that things had fizzled with a guy she met in February of last year, just in time for lockdown — partly because finding someone new and compatible has become even more labor-intensive than usual. While she met a couple of people for dates when the weather permitted, the very distance required to reduce viral transmission has proved detrimental to measuring chemistry. A guy she went on a walk with surprised her by trying to hug her at the end. She couldn’t tell if she liked the woman with whom she shared a park picnic in a platonic way or a romantic one. She isn’t entirely unwilling to meet strangers (she hates chatting endlessly on apps) but has found it impossible to create conditions that are safe and sexy for both parties. Or, as she puts it: “The people I would want to bone tend to follow CDC guidelines.”
Cal too went through a breakup in February 2020, albeit with a boyfriend of seven-plus years. “I was just going to take some time and concentrate on myself,” she told me. “And then it was like, No, you’re going to take a LOT of time for yourself.” By the time she felt ready to date, dating wasn’t really an option, or at least not a low-stakes one. “Human touch, something that was always a source of comfort or a way to express affection, has now become something dangerous,” she says. This past January, after months of solitude, Cal ultimately decided to get on a plane to hook up with a guy she knew from law school. (“It was a terrible trip,” she says. “We don’t talk anymore.”)
For better and for worse, COVID-induced solitude has also forced a good deal of self-reflection — perhaps especially in people living alone. A woman I’ll call Jules told me she worries that she’s using COVID as an “excuse” not to work on her romantic life: “I’ve already started thinking, Fuck, what if I get vaccinated and I’m still too shy to go on a date?” In the meantime, she says, she has noticed herself judging people who are dating despite the pandemic. “I see myself starting — out of anguish — to become a little puritanical and policing the way people are trying to date right now, and I hate that about myself,” she explains. Meanwhile, Jules has embraced sexting — a practice she had previously eschewed.
“Sex is good, and for most people, being without sex is a loss. But for some people, it’s been a useful opportunity to reevaluate how they organize their sex life and dating life, which aren’t necessarily the same thing,” says Lundquist.
Indeed, some of the women I spoke to expressed a desire to cross items off their sexual bucket list as soon as possible post-vaccine. Partly, it’s about vengeance: “COVID stole my ho phase,” a woman named Anna told me. Aneesa expressed wanting to secure a bona fide one-night stand, as did another person I’ll call Maria. “When I get vaccinated, I do think it’ll be sort of a party situation,” she says. “I’ve never had a one-night stand, and one month into this, I was like, I’m going to do it.”
For partnered people
Single and partnered people are often at odds over who has it harder, and for most people in relationships (especially ones with kids), it’s hard not to envy the single people a few hours of their alone time. Although the reasons couples and single people aren’t having much sex right now differ, they do share a desire for some balance between time with and time without their loved ones. In the absence of space — and external stimuli — couples are suffering from a deeply unsexy sameness in their everyday lives.
“Part of what brings a vibrancy to sex is difference and randomness and chaos,” says Lundquist. “Part of what couples build on energetically, which they then bring to their relationship in lots of ways, is the vibrancy of the world. And the world has become a lot less vibrant.” As a result, says Lundquist, many romantic partnerships are suffering from a “vanilla quality,” perhaps both figuratively and literally.
“Everything is very boring,” a married woman I’ll call Laura told me. “We’re only working and then coming home. Our experiences are all the same. There’s no novelty.” While Laura was initially stressed by her decreasing desire, she was relieved when she talked to her husband and learned that he felt the same. Because they were able to communicate honestly and have found other ways to connect, Laura is confident their sex life will pick back up again. “We’re just not feeling our best right now, so we don’t force the issue,” she says.
In other couples, however, desire (or a lack thereof) may be more mismatched, which can add stress. A woman I’ll call Emily started dating her girlfriend about a month pre-pandemic and saw their sex life suffer earlier on than she would have hoped. “We started having less sex last summer, and it never really picked back up,” she says. “It’s largely due to her poor mental health, and it’s sad for me.” Emily knows her relationship isn’t the only one suffering a sexual downturn, but if anything, that makes her feel worse — as if her “needs are unreasonable,” she says.
Stress is a well-documented libido killer, says Watson, and it’s all too easy to end up in a vicious cycle. “If you have major stressors in your life, they can show up while you’re having sex, and that can impact your ability to enjoy your time,” she explains. “Then you might not want to have sex to avoid having those thoughts, and that can turn into performance anxiety.” The longer couples go without sex, the more likely one or more of the partners is to think they should have sex, and that, of course, is stressful. “Any time there’s a should involved, that doesn’t help with sex,” Watson adds.
There are, of course, other ways for couples to maintain a romantic connection if and when sex isn’t of interest. “Intimacy and sex are not synonymous, and fortunately, couples can tend to their partnerships wherever they may fall on the spectrum of sexual activity,” says Ori Nelsen, a sex therapist and founder of the San Francisco Intimacy and Sex Therapy Centers. Nelsen suggests nude (or partly nude) cuddling, which promotes the release of oxytocin, as well as eye contact made within two feet of each other. For single people and for partnerships in which libido is mismatched, Nelsen also reminds them about solo sex, or masturbation. (Not that anyone has forgotten; Pornhub offered customers a free month early in the pandemic, which they availed themselves of and then some.)
Above all, Lundquist says he tries to remind patients that their diminished sex lives aren’t a moral failure. “I think it’s important for people to keep in mind that we’re not meant to live like this,” he says. “Most of us are better at this than we were six months ago, but that doesn’t make it any healthier.” The good news, however, is that none of the experts I spoke to expect any real lasting or long-term damage to be done by this sexless year. Vaccination is imminent; spring is coming. Summer 2021 may be among the horniest yet.