Not tonight, darling: how the world lost its libido – and how it can get it back

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Suddenly faced with spending a lot more time with his wife, Anthony, 44, thought one silver lining of lockdown might be that their sex life would get back on track. “Of course, that was really stupid,” he says now, with a small laugh.

What he had not factored in was the exhaustion of childcare and home schooling, anxiety about the health of their parents – and the small matter of existential dread. “You’d wake up and everything was significantly worse than the day before. And that is really not sexy.” Where once he would go to the gym or meet a friend for a pint after work to decompress, now all life was at home. “Before, you could come back to yourself a little bit. Lockdown took all that away – there are only so many times you can go for a walk on your own.”

If the couple’s sex life was struggling before – a situation many other parents of young children will recognise – then the pandemic amplified it. Before, it was more a case of being out of sync with his wife and failing to prioritise intimacy; with the advent of the pandemic, Anthony found his sex drive declining. “I never realised how much stress and the lack of personal time would affect my desire. Although it sounds obvious, it’s not something I thought about.”

It is a situation playing out in bedrooms all over the world. In research conducted by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University last year, nearly half of the respondents reported a decline in the frequency of sexual behaviour, including masturbation (although one in five people said they had tried something new in their sex life, such as different positions or sexting).

“It’s definitely affecting people,” says Kate Moyle, a psychosexual therapist and the host of the podcast Sex Wellness Sessions. “Generalised anxiety is at a higher level: there are threats to health, wellbeing, jobs, education or medical treatments. We’re not seeing friends or family. That increased anxiety can affect us inside the bedroom: people are reporting being more distracted, or that they find it harder to be in the moment, that they have more intrusive thoughts or more negative automatic thoughts.”

For some people, though, sex may have increased during this period, she says, as a form of stress relief. “It works for them in that way – and that also goes for masturbation habits. For people who find it more difficult to get in the right headspace when they’re stressed, or find it difficult to switch off – which we might do normally on our commute home, or when we go to the gym after work – there’s no escape. We’re parenting, working, relaxing and working out all in the same space.”

For David, 28, the pandemic hastened the end of his relationship, because it highlighted the mismatch in sex drives between him and his partner. “In lockdown, it got down to once a month and that was a problem for me,” he says. “Sex is really important and an expression of intimacy. It caused massive anxiety, because any time I made any attempt to be more like a couple it would lead to me being rejected.”

The couple had one session of counselling and he has continued therapy alone since they broke up, which he says has been helpful. It can be hard, he says, for men to talk to each other about sexual problems. “There is surface-level talking, but when you try something deeper it leads to the other friend opening up.”

If you are able to work from home and live with a partner, for much of the past year you will have been on top of each other – and not in the fun way. “We’re not used to spending all this time with our partners,” says Moyle. “We see all of the worst bits – the bits that we are irritated by, or that we feel are inconsiderate. We get this negative lens, because there’s no escape from each other.”

Moyle says lockdown – and the overfamiliarity it breeds – goes against desire, which is “triggered by a sense of novelty, or not knowing what to expect”. It is what the psychotherapist Esther Perel has described as cultivating “your secret garden” – maintaining some mystery or space. “If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by familiarity,” she wrote in Mating in Captivity, her book about maintaining a fulfilling sex life in a long-term relationship.

Even if they have only been out at work, we may miss our partners; seeing them in a different context – dressed up for the office, preparing to give a presentation, going to volunteer – can spark lust. “If we’re seeing each other all the time in our pyjamas, working at the computer, it’s not exactly a desire-inducing scenario for most people,” says Laura Vowels, a sex and relationship therapist and the principal researcher at Blueheart, a sex therapy app. “It’s going to require a bit more effort.”

Even having more time together for, say, a quickie during a working-from-home lunch break can become a source of pressure. “Some people will think: ‘We should use the time,’ and a lot of them experience disappointment that they haven’t,” says Vowels. People may have done that in the beginning, when it was more of a novelty, “but I would expect that to have worn off, given it’s not new and exciting.”

She is seeing a general lack of motivation. “Everything feels a little bit like a slog. I’m hearing a lot of that ‘just can’t be bothered’ kind of feeling.”

Many people will relate. We are tired. University College London’s Covid-19 Social Study has found that, compared with the first lockdown, about one in three of us are spending less time on hobbies or creative projects, while one in five are watching more TV and films or gaming more. One in three are working longer hours. Happiness levels are lower. Even though sex is good for us – it lowers stress, burns calories and boosts the immune system – it can feel like one more thing to add to the workload.

‘If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by familiarity’ (posed by models).
‘If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by familiarity’ (posed by models). Photograph: Jcomp/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It does not help that we have had to accommodate shifting routines as restrictions change. “Couples may have developed a habit where sex happens on a Wednesday morning when the kids have gone to school, but then the kids were at home,” says Vowels. “Or if kids normally have stuff during the weekend, they don’t have that, because everything is closed, so the opportunities that people had before may not be there.”

For single people, the lack of opportunity to date or meet for sex has been stark – they have been “effectively mandated to a period of celibacy”, as the Kinsey Institute put it – on top of the anxiety and stress that may have annihilated libidos anyway.

Catherine, 23, who is single, says her sex drive has been up and down. She spent the first lockdown at her parents’ rural home. “It was just such a mood-killer and I had zero sex drive,” she says. During the second lockdown, which she spent in London, she went on a few dates and “broke some of the rules, which obviously wasn’t ideal. I ended up sleeping with one person a few times. I hadn’t hugged anyone in months and I think I was just clinging on to that relationship to get that kind of contact.”

When the opportunities to meet people were taken away, her sex drive increased: “It’s the classic ‘If you can’t have something, you want it even more’ thing.”

It has not helped, she says, that the TV she has binge-watched – Normal People, Bridgerton, It’s a Sin – has been packed with people at it. “You’re getting bombarded with all of this sex-driven content and you can’t do anything about it,” she says. She ended up buying her first vibrator: “I was reaching desperate times.” Ann Summers says sales of its premium sex toys went up 160% between November and February; sales of quieter sex toys rose, too, thought to have been bought by people with flatmates or who had moved in with their parents.

In this lockdown, Catherine is following the rules and not meeting new people. She says she is not missing it: using a dating app feels like one more piece of admin. She has had time to reflect on whether she really wants more bad dates and bad sex, too: “Nine times out of 10, it’s not worth it.”

For single people in particular, says Vowels, “this is a perfect time, in some ways, to be exploring your sexuality. It’s about discovering what you like and what you don’t like, so when you’re back and able to enjoy sex with another person – if that’s what you want – then you’ve learned something about yourself.”

If you are unconcerned about your lowered sex drive, and it is not causing relationship problems, “then it’s not a problem”, says Vowels. “Not having sex is a completely valid option, especially during a pandemic. But if someone enjoyed that part of themselves and would like to have it back, that’s a different story.”

There may be an underlying medical issue worth discussing with your GP, but if you suspect it is more a case of reigniting the passion with your partner or yourself, you can take things in hand, as it were. “You might need to use different stimuli,” says Vowels, who suggests trying erotica or sex toys.

Moyle suggests approaching it as a couple: look at a sex toy website together, or listen to a podcast about sex, and talk about it. The idea, she says, is to introduce novelty, “but together, rather than one partner springing it on the other. Treat it as an opportunity to learn something new about each other. I think lots of couples have stopped feeling curious about each other in lockdown. It happens typically in long-term relationships anyway: we assume we know everything about our partner.”

Tech can be a barrier for couples (posed by models).
Tech can be a barrier for couples (posed by models). Photograph: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images

It doesn’t necessarily have to be something “sexy”; it could be something such as cooking together. “That is a shared experience. Talking and feeling closer to our partners can make us more open to sexual scenarios or responsive desire. It’s nice to remember we can have fun, play together.” We may be together all day, every day, but we should recognise that this is not necessarily “quality time”, Moyle says.

Tech can be a barrier – particularly as our working hours have become blurred – so having a phone-free evening, or banishing devices from the bedroom, can help. “Undivided attention is a big part of intimacy,” says Moyle, who adds that it is important to have time apart, too.

Although it sounds mechanical and unsexy, we should schedule intimate time. “We know that responsive desire is triggered, so what we often have to do is create the opportunity to trigger it, rather than just sitting and waiting for desire to spontaneously occur,” says Moyle. “We have this idea that relationships and sex lives just happen and that we shouldn’t have to intentionally nurture them, but that isn’t the case. We do it with everything else in our lives; why wouldn’t we do it with sex and relationships?”

Many sex and relationship therapists talk about the importance of “simmering” – gestures of light arousal without the expectation or possibility of sex. Think of embracing your partner as you pass by and inhaling their scent, rather than cuddling – which, says the sex therapist Stephen Snyder, “depletes erotic energy”. Vowels suggests taking the pressure off. “Say: ‘We can just do some kissing, or cuddling, or some touching.’ Obviously, if it goes further, it goes further, but there’s no pressure or expectation to achieve anything; it’s just time together,” she says.

Anthony and his wife have tried to carve out date-night time, once their children are in bed. (It “definitely was nice”, he says, but not an instant fix.) He thinks practical things – the children being back at school, their parents being vaccinated, life opening up a bit more – will help, “but I don’t expect our sex lives to come roaring back as soon as things are open. I think it is a longer process.”

Others are more positive of a big-bang effect. Catherine is not sure her dating app fatigue will last. “I know that, whenever lockdown ends, me and my friends are going to be straight back out there.”

Some names have been changed

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Not tonight, darling: how the world lost its libido – and how it can get it back

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