– Liezl van Rooyen.

An issue that has not received substantial attention in the time of COVID, but is relevant and seems to surface in more honest conversations these days, is the status of sexual relationships and more specifically, libidinal changes in this time.

Some evidence suggests a surge in online erotic toy sales in the UK, Colombia, Denmark and elsewhere since lockdown measures have been put in place, as well as increased requests for contraception, and condom production shortages in New Zealand, as reported by Charlotte Graham-McLay for The Guardian.

A recent small-scale Turkish study cited in the International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics found an increase in women’s sexual desire and frequency of intercourse during the COVID-19 pandemic (but interestingly, a decrease in the quality of sexual life).  These findings may be explained by the lifestyle changes prompted by sheltering in place with people having more free time at their disposal, and the fact that some people use sexual activity as a form of stress-relief.  Indeed, it seems that some are making full use of being tied down by lockdown measures.

Unfortunately, a majority of people may be affected by lowered libido, and thus, less frequent sexual activity, which in turn, is likely to elicit and compound other personal and relational issues. If it seems that “social distancing” has also become the norm between the bedsheets, and if your grocery-store cloth mask is not replaced with a less conventional black satin version in the bedroom,  your experience is more collective than you might think.

An Afrikaans patient shows some humour about their (lack of) sex life. Screenshot shared with the patient's consent.

An Afrikaans subject shows some humour about their (lack of) sex life. Screenshot shared with the subject’s consent.

In one of the first studies on sexual behaviour during the pandemic, a recent Chinese study conducted with a convenience sample from the epidemic area, suggested that 44% of participants reported a decrease in the number of sexual partners, and 37% reported a decrease in sexual frequency, with low sexual desire and unsatisfying partner relationships apparent contributing factors.

One of the most obvious biological explanations for lowered libido in a time of acute stress, relates to the classical “fight or flight”-stress response, whereby the central nervous system reacts in response to a psychologically and/or physically harmful or threatening prompt. On a primal level, the body is prepared for survival, not procreation in this arousal state, and the preparedness for a “non-essential” function like sex, is diminished. It is an evolutionary, adaptive response to attend to the “tiger outside the cave” rather than to ignore it in an amorous moment. Chronic stress, as is the case in living through the COVID-pandemic, causes excessive cortisol production, which not only compromises immune system functioning, but also lowers libido significantly.

Meeting the demands of a global pandemic is constantly requiring a mental and emotional preparedness, processing and resilience, which occupies a great deal of psychological energy.  The healthy sexual arousal cycle requires a relaxed mental state relatively free from preoccupation with home-schooling, the grocery list, or the Zoom presentation your company’s future depends on.

Furthermore, couples are spending unnaturally extended periods of time in each other’s company.  Apart from fuelling (understandable) irritability and pre-existing relationship stressors, there is a certain demystification that occurs when people co-habitate without the distraction and breaks in routine and monotony introduced by life outside the home environment. This demystification is an expected occurrence in long-standing relationships, but often affects libido negatively as it implies routine, desensitization and familiarity devoid of the healthy privacy and mystery that generally enhances a sexual relationship.

With these inevitable, albeit temporary changes in mind, how do we negotiate libidinal changes in this time in a way that is respectful and doesn’t compromise either party’s sexual needs?

  • Acknowledge and accept that all aspects of life are affected by adjustment to COVID-19, and that it makes sense to adjust one’s expectations in this time.
  • Consider the effect of physical activity and health, medication, hormonal changes, and substances like tobacco and alcohol, and take responsibility for adjustments.
  • Take care to pay attention to intimacy in its various forms. Intimate connection may be maintained without sexual intercourse in times of acute stress, but still requires awareness of and atonement to the mental state and needs of one’s partner.
  • Communicate openly about the needs and expectations you may have in your sexual relationship in this time and seek professional guidance if this seems difficult.
  • Take care to maintain a healthy degree of individuality (and personal privacy) in your relationship in order to cultivate a sense of mystique.