In August 2019, Jessica Eaton’s boyfriend talked her into taking a big leap: moving in. The pair had been dating for about a year and a half, shuttling between her place in the Catskills and his in Westchester. Eaton (not her real name) is a single mom to a teenager who was going through a rough patch, and her boyfriend suggested they move in with him for a fresh start in a new school district. “I was reluctant because I’m used to being independent,” she recalls. “But he told me that he wasn’t going to be spending much time at home as he traveled a lot for business. I was willing to give it a try, especially for my daughter.” The first few weeks of cohabiting went well and the affluent community had its perks. Still, Eaton and her teen had their ups and downs as they tried to gain a toehold on their new life.
Then COVID hit. Suddenly, her boyfriend stopped traveling and the nonstop togetherness wreaked havoc on the couple’s romantic life. “When we were dating, it was like a vacation—light and sexy and fun,” Eaton says. “But when you’re having breakfast, lunch, and dinner together and deciding who’s going to take the dog out, it’s different.” Lockdown exposed the fault lines of their relationship, with her boyfriend’s traditional, quasi-1950s views about gender roles clashing with her need for autonomy. Little things drove her crazy. (“The way he flossed his teeth. The way he sipped his coffee. The way he ate peanuts in front of the TV,” she says.) Her teenager started to unravel. And Eaton’s once-lively libido tanked.
“I was always a very sexual person,” she muses. “I really loved and enjoyed that aspect of things, both with myself and with a partner. But [since COVID], I’ve had zero interest in sex. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt this shut down sexually before. I honestly don’t foresee another penis in my future that isn’t silicone.”
A Normal Response to Abnormal Times
It’s fair to say that our pandemic moment will not go down as the hottest era on record (global warming notwithstanding) when it comes to desire and sex. Ever since the height of lockdown a year ago, surveys and studies have probed into the way COVID-19 has impacted our relationships and sexuality, and the news has not been great. A survey last spring of over 1,500 adults by the Kinsey Institute found that nearly half of them said their sex lives had declined. By late April 2020, the rate of couples filing for divorce spiked 34 percent. And while some predicted that lockdown’s forced nesting would spark a baby boom, a year later we’re finding that a baby bust is more like it, with many states reporting significant drops in birth rates. “The majority of us have been in survival mode, and most the time, we don’t have sex when we’re trying to survive,” says couples therapist Alicia Muñoz, author of three books including The Couples Quiz Book: 350 Fun Questions to Energize Your Relationship (2020). “Stress is the ultimate libido crusher—and not just stress but also grief. There’s so much loss. When you’re grieving, the last thing you want to do is get laid.”
Whether we’re coupled or single, gay or straight, living with a partner or navigating a long-distance love affair, many of us have felt the effects of COVID on our relationships in some form or other. For singles, it’s been a year of Zoom dates and public health messages that say your safest sex partner right now is…you. For couples, months of living in our sweat pants and feeling trapped together in the same space have stolen our mojo. “A lot of people are having way less sex, or no sex,” says Sheri Winston, a Kingston-based holistic sexuality teacher and author of Women’s Anatomy of Arousal: Secret Maps to Buried Pleasure (2010) and Succulent SexCraft: Your Hands-On Guide to Erotic Play & Practice (2014). “And one of the first things to say about that is, it’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not broken. Your relationship is not broken. This is a normal, human response to the circumstances. It’s not forever—vaccines are here, and at some point the pandemic will end. So don’t kick yourself or feel bad or blame your partner.”
Not only are we not broken, but we can do something about it—if we want to. There are a jazillion ways to get our juice back, and both Muñoz and Winston have plenty of tips to share. But it’s important to keep in mind that we don’t have to buy into the unrealistic cultural messages that we should be full of desire and having incredible sex all the time. “This is a great time to be loving and gentle with ourselves and our partners, and not put a lot of pressure on ourselves,” says Winston. “Make it something that’s expanding your erotic life. Make it fun. But don’t make it another giant thing on your to-do list.”
For Couples: Fire Needs Air
For married and cohabiting couples, lockdown has taken everything we knew about mating in captivity and multiplied it to the nth degree. The sex expert and psychotherapist Esther Perel, who literally wrote the book on this (2017’s Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic), emphasizes that fire needs air. “In other words, desire needs space and distance, and eroticism thrives on privacy, which a lot of us aren’t getting these days,” says Muñoz. “I don’t want to say that the erotic flame gets snuffed out, because I don’t believe it ever does, but it’s an ember that can’t ignite without oxygen in the air.”
Even if couples can’t get physical space apart from each other, there are ways to get psychic and emotional space so each person can recharge. “For some people, it may not even look erotic, but it’s going for a run and feeling the flow of energy in your body, or taking a bath,” says Muñoz. “Or having the house silent and being able to play your own music. Or going on day trips with other people or alone. It’s about being in touch with your own lifeforce.” Adrenaline, too, can stimulate desire. Winston often tells couples to go to an amusement park and ride the roller coaster, or (more pandemic-friendly) watch a scary movie—”anything that makes you scream with glee.” She also advises couples to be intimate without the pressure of making it sexual. “Have an intimacy date. If sex happens, fine, and if it doesn’t happen, fine. But let’s get naked and cuddle. Let’s give each other a massage or foot rub.” For those struggling to feel spontaneous desire, skin-on-skin activities can open the door to its flipside: responsive desire, which can arise if you set the stage for it. “It’s also going to produce oxytocin, which is that feel-good bonding hormone we all can use more of, and it’s great for reducing stress.”
Meanwhile, not everyone views the pandemic as a limitation—some couples are flipping the script and seeing it as an opportunity to expand and enlarge their sexual repertoire. “We get turned on by novelty, and this is a great time to try something new,” says Winston. “How can we introduce novelty into what might have become a boring, do-it-the-same-way-all-the-time event? Maybe try some roleplaying games, or explore sacred sexuality through Tantra or Taoist practices, which can enhance the ‘trance state’ of arousal.” Adventurous couples can order boxes of sex stuff, including toys and different lubricants designed to inspire experimentation, or books and journals filled with sexual dares to try out. You can even take classes like the eight-week Erotic Blueprint Breakthrough course offered by the sexologist known as Jaiya. “It’s like doing online school but in eroticism and sexuality,” says Muñoz.
For Singles: Getting Creative
It’s not just married and cohabiting couples that are exploring novelty. In fact, the same Kinsey Institute survey that found a decline in sex during the pandemic also reported a rise in people—both singles and couples—getting more creative with their sexual behavior. Sexting, trying new positions, and sharing sexual fantasies are a few of the additions that people reported making, and those who did were three times more likely to cite improvements in their sex life. “Single people are going to be even more motivated to explore things like internet sex or whatever sex-toy technology is out there,” says Winston. One such technology is teledildonics, which bridges the gap for long-distance lovers. Think futuristic meets kinky: “One person has the toy, which could be a dildo or a vibrator, and the other has the controls. So you can be in a Zoom together and play around remotely.”
For Daniel Bridges, a retired media executive in Woodstock, getting creative during lockdown took the form of writing his own porn stories and sharing them with a female friend with whom he’d recently reconnected. “As we were getting to know each other again after 35 years, I began to write these really hot short stories that came right out of my libido, just to test out if we were compatible,” says Bridges (not his real name). “And her responses were like, ‘Oh my God, we love the same things.’ Then, when we did finally get intimate with each other, it was so natural and pleasant because it all fit.” It was the perfect beginning to a socially distant connection that blossomed into more after the pair opened their corona-bubbles to include each other. The relationship was a source of solace for them both through the first several months of lockdown, though it took a platonic turn after some (non-COVID) health issues in his family hijacked his attention. “We were happy with what we had,” he explains. “It meant the world to us at the time, and now we’re even happier that we are each other’s best friend.”
For Parents: Seizing Opportunity
Parents of small children have a whole different set of challenges in the bedroom, and the pandemic has amplified them a thousandfold. Without consistent in-person school or daycare, alone time has been almost nonexistent. That’s the case for Svetlana Agapov, who met the man who is now her fiancé through the dating app eHarmony. A full-time parent and working mom to kids ages 3 and 10, Agapov (not her real name) combined households last fall with her husband-to-be, who has part-time custody of his own kids, 9 and 12. For Agapov and her fiancé, lack of desire is not the problem—but lovemaking is pushed to nighttime-only when their houseful of kids is asleep. Still, they see working at home together as an opportunity to build anticipation and heat all day long. “You have all this time to connect, hold hands, or give each other kisses and check-ins throughout the day,” she says. “So your entire day is this long, extended date, and that leads to the evening. We both have really enjoyed this time.”
For parents struggling to feel sexy (let’s face it, that’s a lot of us), Winston has ideas. “Make it a priority to go to bed when your kids go to bed,” she says. That means instead of crashing at 11 when you’re both exhausted, get under the covers together at 9. She also recommends instituting “sacred Sunday mornings” where the kids can entertain themselves or watch TV while Mom and Dad “sleep in.” And having a lock on your bedroom door is a must.
Wherever you’re at, if sex in COVID times is a no-go, don’t beat yourself up about it. For Eaton—the single mother of a teenager whose libido flatlined during lockdown with her boyfriend—solo sex is the only sex she can imagine right now. And that’s fine. “There are appliances for these sorts of things,” she says. For now, she’s moved back to her own place with her daughter, and she’s channeling her lifeforce energy into other things, like work and creativity. The erotic ember will be there to reignite, whenever she’s ready.