When the only space you have is between them, what would they have to say about our sex lives?
Nowadays it’s almost impossible to find someone who is not experiencing the (side) effects of quarantine. Right now, most of us are working from home. Movie theaters and restaurants are closed, kids are studying in their own houses, and the simple act of going to the supermarket has its own new logistic. Put simply, everything in our lives has changed – and that includes our sexuality and intimacy. “The current state of our reality, namely quarantine and social distancing (something that will be maintained in the medium term, until an effective treatment and vaccine are available), undoubtedly has an impact on people's sexuality and levels of intimacy in general,” explains Cátia Oliveira, clinical psychologist, sex therapist and researcher at SexLab.
“The levels of anxiety and mood instability associated with different challenges, such as professional changes, economic insecurities, different daily routines, the fear of contaminating someone or contracting the virus, the decrease in social contact and the isolation, the feeling of uncertainty and insecurity regarding the future, are just some of the challenges that we are all facing.” Those same challenges, says Cátia, “may be at the basis of some difficulties, such as lower levels of desire, greater discrepancy between couples when it comes to this or other sexual issues, relational instability and difficulties in communicating on an intimate level.”
With couples and singles navigating through unknown waters, a group of researchers from The Kinsey Institute is already looking into the state of people’s sexual and intimate lives during this pandemic. “We’re conducting a longitudinal study to explore the impact of the COVID-19 social restrictions on people’s intimate lives. We started collecting data in mid-March as ‘social distancing’ guidelines ramped up around the world and we’ve been following-up with our participants every two weeks since then to see how things have changed,” says Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the book Tell Me What You Want.
As Dr. Lehmiller explains to Vogue Portugal, more than 1,500 people participated in the first wave of the study, and the initial analysis has already revealed a few important points. “First, people are reporting a largely negative impact on their sexual and romantic lives, as well as a lower average frequency of sex and masturbation. This suggests that the COVID-19 ‘baby boom’ we’ve heard so much about in the media probably won’t come to pass. However, we’ve also seen that people are incorporating more novelty into their sex lives. About 1 in 5 of our participants reported adding at least one new activity to their sexual repertoire. Most commonly, we’re talking about things like sexting, sending nude photos, trying sex in new positions and locations, and sharing sexual fantasies. So, despite less sexual activity overall, there’s more diversity in the acts people are participating in.”
That same need for novelty and excitement, which hasn’t gone away with social distancing, is one of the factors that can help explain the increase in sex toys sales that some brands have experienced since the beginning of the outbreak. “There may be a need to escape the routine, to break free from this pessimism and fear,” says sexologist Vânia Beliz. “In an intimate sense, playing can be a way to alleviate the tension and conquer pleasure.” In the case of Swedish sex toy brand LELO, the numbers represent an increase by 48% in site traffic, and by 56% in sales. “It’s interesting to watch the correlation between the LELO’s traffic and the spread of the self-quarantine rules,” says brand manager Stuart Nugent. “These are encouraging statistics, as they imply that people are finding intimate ways to ease the stresses and pressures of our self-imposed quarantine. It’s equally reassuring that the gender split of our customers has remained constant: 52% identify as female and 48% as male, which indicates that couples are shopping together as much as they did before the outbreak.”
Despite it all, Nugent adds another point of view: “This leaves us in a complex moral position that we don’t take lightly. On the one hand, we’re incredibly proud to be injecting a little pleasure and color into people’s lives right when they need it most, and when they have the best opportunity in history to do so. On the other hand, it feels a little uncomfortable to be doing so well in such tragic and unsettling times. As such, we’ve taken measures to ensure we’re remaining as fair and public-spirited as we can, through various discounts and through our charitable connections, as well as maintaining the health and safety of our teams in Portugal and across the world.”
In a time when health, safety and social distancing are the number one priority, the New York City Health Department didn’t shy away from declaring that “you are your safest sex partner” and encouraging its citizens to look at masturbation as a safe way to experience pleasure right now. Not only safe but also beneficial.
“Masturbation is associated with higher health levels, as well as a quality and satisfactory sex life. Besides that, it promotes a greater self-knowledge and comfort with one’s body and sexual response,” explains Cátia Oliveira about one of the many ways one can experience their sexuality, either individually or with a partner. “Right now, it can be a useful strategy to maintain sexual desire and satisfaction, especially for those who are precluded from experiencing casual relations or for couples at a higher risk of contamination. Masturbation can also be a way of feeling good in general, which means it can help with dealing with negative emotions and anxiety.”
For those who maintain that desire, masturbation can be a great way of self-discovery and pleasure - and even though that’s exactly what Vânia Beliz believes, she still looks at the opposite situation. “There seems to exist a pressure to have sex, to be productive, to keep doing everything… It’s ok if that doesn’t happen during this period,” the sexologist explains. “That doesn’t mean we’re less in love or less interested. This pressure can translate into frustration and a great level of anxiety.”
As Dr. Justin Lehmiller explains, “for most people, stress and anxiety tend to have a depressing effect on sexual desire. This is partly explained by the fact that, when we’re stressed, our mind tends to keep going back to that stressor. It’s hard to feel desire for sex when your mind doesn’t let you focus on the things that turn you on. It can also make it harder to maintain arousal if and when you do have sex because your attention keeps getting pulled elsewhere.”
Translation? It’s quite possible that we won’t be seeing a quarantine baby boom in the next few months. “I think it’s a mere speculation and something that we will only be able to evaluate in the future,” says Cátia Olivera. Dr. Justin Lehmiller and Vânia Beliz also share that opinion. “I believe there’s a lower sexual frequency, and with all this economic uncertainty, I don’t think that people have the desire to expand their families,” the sexologist says.
Even though the quarantine babies are out of the picture, the unprecedent nature of this situation is pretty real. Despite that, believes Cátia Oliveira, it’s possible to use this time to work on sexuality and intimacy, be it alone or with a partner. “In an era where sexuality has been lived in a narrow way and with unrealistic standards, this is a good moment to invest in erotism, in diversifying sexual behaviors and in a deeper communication, as well as in a deeper level of self-knowledge and a redefinition of how we wish to live our sexuality and intimacy,” says Cátia Oliveira.
For Stuart Nugent, LELO’s brand manager, “if there is any good to come from these difficult circumstances, it’s in the opportunity to reconnect with ourselves, and our partners” – something that Vânia Beliz finds absolutely essential. “When was the last time we shared with the person we spend most time with? It’s important to have a dialogue, to talk about our emotions. It’s normal that our mood changes and it’s good to ask for support if we need it. It’s important to be attentive, especially when it comes to men, since it’s more difficult for them to express their feelings. We don’t know the consequences that all this will bring to our lives. The important thing is that we feel safe while walking through this with someone who supports us and has our back. That’s the best part of a relationship.”
For Dr. Justin Lehmiller, there can also be potential opportunities here. “I’ve heard from some singles who have discovered something new about themselves from this situation, such as the idea that they don’t need a relationship as much as they thought. They’ve learned that they’re much more self-reliant than they ever knew,” Dr. Justin Lehmiller says, while sharing that many couples have experienced an improvement in their sex lives and relationships since the pandemic began. “Some have used it as an opportunity to develop a new intimacy, to reconnect, to get to know each other all over again. Some people have also used it as an opportunity to explore their bodies or a sexual fantasy they’ve had for a long time. I’ve also heard from some couples who were thinking about separating or divorcing before all of this started, but now they’ve reconciled because this pandemic has shifted their priorities and made them realize what’s truly important in their lives. There are all kinds of ways that this unusual situation can potentially have lasting effects that end up improving our sex and love lives.”