“Nonexistent. Mandatory. Lame. Those were the three stages of pandemic sex for me,” said Melanie, a 36-year-old Chicago woman who asked her last name not be used for privacy reasons (“though my husband is well aware of the lameness,” she added).
She’s far from alone in experiencing a massive dip in sex drive during the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2020 study conducted by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University found that more than 43 percent of participants reported a decline in the quality of their pandemic sex life, while more than 40 percent said the quantity had decreased. Turns out, a global pandemic can be a real libido killer.
Stress and Sex Don't Mix
The reasons are simple but powerful. “Stress and depression,” said Jessica Graham, a sex, relationship, and spiritual guide for couples and individuals and the author of Good Sex: Getting Off Without Checking Out. “Studies have found that both can lower libido.”
Cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline can negatively impact our hormonal balance, our desire, and our sexual response, said Dr. Laura Berman, a sex and relationship expert, best-selling author, and television host. “When we feel down and hopeless (as many people did during the pandemic), we aren’t going to have high levels of desire,” Berman said over email. “While it’s true that many people who are depressed or anxious use sex as a way to cope with their emotional distress, that sex is generally very disconnected and spiritless, and not conducive to real intimacy and pleasure.”
Dr. Kate Balestrieri, a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist, and founder of Modern Intimacy, said that the lack of “texture” in our lives was a major mood killer. “We couldn’t go out, so we were in this fishbowl with our partners, and a lot of people got a bit disassociated. They migrated out of their bodies and into an escaped, numbing state with comfort food, gaming, binging shows . . . the things they had at their disposal. Vitality got zapped, and vitality is the wellspring of libido and desire.”
“Being with your partner 24 hour a day can lead to conflict and disconnection,” Graham added. “And that can lead to the lessening of wanting to take your clothes off and get it on with that partner.”
Parents faced the added pressures of home schooling and lack of childcare, combined with the hardship of carving out space for sex when your kids are always hovering. “It was very challenging to even find the time and privacy for sex during the pandemic,” says Samantha, a 38-year-old mother of three (last name withheld for privacy reasons). “We had to get very creative and really utilize the lock on the door, but it was almost impossible to find that alone time.”
Reengaging With Pleasure
After a year-plus of collective trauma, the real question is, can we get our groove back? And where do we even start?
The first step, Graham said, is letting go of expectations of what your sex life should look like. “There’s this idea that your sexuality should go back to where it was before the pandemic, and there’s really no such thing. Let go of trying to get it ‘right,’ and embrace the idea of something new. Sex can be a wild ongoing journey, so lean into that.”
Make an effort to reengage with your sense of pleasure, she continued. “For a lot of us, our pleasure has come from sugar, alcohol, Netflix, scrolling, so reattune yourself to sensual and physical pleasures. You can do that without even having sex. Looking at gorgeous flowers is pleasurable. Having your first sip of coffee in the morning is pleasure. Write down the things you notice, and try to relive those things at the end of the day. Just doing that can wake the system up to pleasure and make you want to move towards it.”
Simply reentering the world is another way to find a path back to your sexuality, Dr. Balestrieri said. "See your friends and family. Have that picnic. Go to the restaurant. Get back into your exercise and wellness routines,” she said. “Do the things that gave you joy and peace in a nonsexual way during the pandemic. Doing that will feel like an infusion that will help breathe some desire back into your bones.”
Once your personal pleasure cup starts to fill, make an effort to spend time with your partner in novel and nonsexual ways. “Start incorporating a weekly date night again,” Dr. Berman wrote over email. “Get involved in an activity you both enjoy, whether it’s yoga or soccer or making art. Take a couples’ vacation and bask in the gift of travel once again.”
A Sexual State of the Union
Most importantly, communicate with your partner about what feels safe and good and what doesn’t. “Naming how awkward it might feel is really important,” Dr. Balestrieri said. “Give yourself permission to have gotten to this place, and know that the collective trauma on the body and brain can take some time to move through. We’re still learning how the experience has impacted each one of us uniquely.”
She suggests couples have a judgement-free sexual state of the union, detailing how each partner feels about what it means to get back to sex in a post-pandemic world. Are there fears about how the pandemic has changed your bodies or life goals and priorities? Is one person more ready for sex than the other? Can you find some middle ground, and what is the cost of that compromise, especially to the partner who isn’t as ready for sex?
“Have a talk about where you are and where you want to go,” Dr. Berman says. “How often are you having sex now? What is the ideal number of times a month you want to have sex? And what does sex mean to you in that context? Does oral sex, manual sex, even mutual masturbation count? Are you looking for more intercourse or all forms of intimacy, including kissing and cuddling? Get clear on what you want to give and receive from your partner.”
Make sure your conversation is not accusatory or combative, and know that it’s extremely common for couples to have different sex drives. “Couples tend to infuse a lot of meaning into their libidos not being on the same page, but desire discrepancy is normal,” Dr. Balestrieri said. “We wouldn’t expect our partners always to be hungry or tired at the same time as us, and sex drive is the same. It doesn’t mean anyone is wrong or broken or not okay.”
These conversations can be difficult, so consider working with a sex therapist or couple’s counselor if you’re struggling to communicate.
Finally, be open to the new. “What if this whole experience leads us to a place where we don’t have to go back to the old ways of doing things?” Graham asked. “What if we can live and love in a new way?”
Trying new things is good for relationships in general and sex lives specifically, she said. “Play with new positions, a new toy, a new kind of lubrication, or a new space in the house. If it feels safe and doable — even if it’s a little uncomfortable — step into the new rather than going back to the old. If we allow ourselves to be open, there are endless new things to try as humans.” Endless possibilities. After so many months of sameness, what could be sexier than that?