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“Trying to have sex in the back seat of a small car is no mean feat…That was my last attempt at getting the ride during lockdown.”

By April 24, 2021No Comments

Kate Demolder looks at what the pandemic has done to our sex lives…


“Only be sexually active with someone you live with who does not have the virus or symptoms of the virus. Avoid being sexually active with anyone outside your household. Avoid kissing anyone outside of your household and anyone with symptoms. Consider using video dates, sexting or chat rooms. Make sure to disinfect keyboards and touch screens that you share with others.”

Back in March 2020, the HSE released a set of new and oddly specific rules to combat the spread of COVID-19 by way of sexual activity (quoted above), wiping, cleaning and sexting among them. Two months later, as cases of the virus peaked, Ireland’s sexually active were asked to reduce their coital activity further in a move dubbed by the Irish Mirror as “no nookie outside home” guidance. Jesus wept. 

For a nation whose relationship with sex has been historically fraught with discomposure, there may have been a time when a government sanctioned chastity belt would have been met with praise. But recent changes within the State’s collective consciousness has us desperate for an intimacy that is proven to be good for you. Connell’s chain has a lot to answer for. 

Saying that, despite the global shutdowns impinging on us geographically more so than anything else, it seems that the all-encompassing halt COVID-19 has ushered in has been most felt within ourselves. Suddenly, faced with a lot more time with one’s thoughts – and, more somberly, mortality – erotic thoughts, and all of their bells and whistles, diminished for many. For others, adding insult to serious injury, the desire for sex – and all the trappings of intimacy – became more noticeable at a time when the act itself was forbidden. 

“I’m what one would call “a serial monogamist,” Hailey, in her late twenties, tells me. “Since my teen years I have always been in either a serious, committed relationship, or dating. 

“A few months into the pandemic, my six year relationship ended unexpectedly. Since then, I have had no access to intimacy or sex, and I have been incredibly frustrated. I find myself envious of couples who live together who can have their physical needs met, but then remember that the stress of the pandemic doesn’t lend itself to sexiness, and the general feeling I garner is that even couples are experiencing decreased libido.”

Indeed, the stress of this time – alongside added pressure to be enjoying sex when others can’t – has driven a wedge into bedrooms all over the world. In research conducted by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University last year, nearly half of 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).

For Katie*, the omnipresence of her husband went from novelty to stale quickly. “The first few months of quarantine was a crazy boost. We had sex all the time. By month four it completely dipped,” she says. 

“Movies make out that married couples have sex all the time but I just don’t feel sexy. I’ve been wearing leisure wear and not showering as often, meaning I don’t want to be touched. We’ve gotten along so well and don’t fight or anything but the intimacy is seriously gone.”

For single people, the time to think is wrought with insecurity. And for those who are sexually active, an element of postcoital guilt occurs whether precautions were taken or not. “I don’t think anyone really appreciates how difficult lockdown has been for single people,” Anna tells me. 

“Dating is hard enough, but in lockdown it’s a pure nightmare. I can’t even begin to explain the awkwardness of walking 2km apart, sober, on a first date. It’s a cringe fest.”

Once synonymous with pity and corruption, mercifully, the running trope of the overtly single woman has somewhat recently been flipped on its head. Now seen as a force of power, largely by new media – Samantha Jones, Buffy Summers, Thelma & Louise – the Jan Brady-adjacent roles are now few and far between. In lieu of pity, the single woman – traditionally always characterised by her partner’s social standing – is now often envied for their chic liberté. The possibilities are endless and, at the same time, none of your concern. However, it is this very sense of control that has been taken away from the single woman – and indeed, person – in an uncontrollable time. The spontaneous what-will-happen-today energy has not only been totally upended by the virus, but parachuted into risk territory.

“Dating at the moment is like going on a Bush Tucker Trial,” Allanah shares. “It’s outdoors, it’s uncomfortable and there is nowhere to go to the bathroom. It is impossible to yield a connection in those conditions.”

In May 2020, single men and women in the Netherlands were advised to organise a seksbuddy (sex buddy) after criticism of rules dictating that home visitors maintain a 1.5-metre distance from their hosts during the coronavirus lockdown. In typical tolerant fashion, official guidance from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) amended their original advice to include those without permanent sexual partners, too. They were advised to come to mutually satisfactory agreements with like-minded individuals.

Weeks later, New York City’s Department of Health followed suit, advising New Yorkers to “have sex only with people close to you.” Reaction was varied. While many lauded both states for their pragmatic progression, others felt abandoned by lenient guidelines, worried that casual sexual endeavours – close or not – would fail to keep them safe. 

When Alex* matched with someone on a dating app and finally got to a place where she was comfortable meeting up, expectations were, admittedly, low. “With no hotels open and home visits out of the picture (because of children) our only option was to meet in the car in a field,” she said. 

“Trying to have sex in the back seat of a small car is no mean feat, you need to be pretty flexible. We were going at it full steam, when we heard a knock on the window. Standing outside was a farmer with a gun. He chased us off the field! That was my last attempt at getting the ride during lockdown. Some things just aren’t worth it.”

For Gavin*, meeting people at this time feels unnatural to begin with. “I feel like even if I do meet someone right now,” he says, “they’re only seeing one side of me as I’m usually quite sociable. I’ve also definitely put on weight, despite being very sporty, which has made me feel unconfident.”

The attempt to find a middle ground between total abstinence and wanton indulgence has characterised pandemic-era sex for men like Stan* who “having hibernated away from sex in 2019 in order to recover from a break-up” found himself wanting come March 2020. 

“I’ve not had the one exclusive sex buddy since March last year, more about four ever since. I’ve had to build up trust with those few fellas by chatting to them through the apps and getting an understanding of their priorities to keep COVID-19 free. At the same time, I’m fully aware that this is all largely down to just blind trust with them. What’s their obligation to tell me that they were at a house party or had sex with a random fella the night before?”

Single, looking or simply craving intimacy, such questions are now necessary from a life-or-death standpoint.

“I’ll likely remain extremely cautious about who I hook up with for a time after I get the vaccine myself,” Stan posits, “but then the next thing will be for fellas to prove that they have gotten the jab.”

Shame and low self-worth are a common enough occurrence during the life of a gay man in a straight man’s world, Aaron* (24) tells me. Having contracted chlamydia and gonorrhoea on separate occasions during the summer of 2020, he was horrified to note that the Gay Men’s Health Service (GMHS) services were seriously impacted. At present, they are open for returning GMHS PrEP patients only.

“COVID-19 has not stopped people from having sex,” he tells me. “Intimacy is a natural thing to crave, particularly during what have been some of the loneliest periods of our lives. That said, I cannot shake this feeling of guilt and shame that my actions are irresponsible, that technically the majority of my sexual encounters this year have been illegal, failing to comply with public health guidelines.” 

Aaron is not alone in his feeling of irresponsibility. It is this – paired with retracted social occasions and the popularity of sex-driven content such as Normal People and Bridgerton – that has caused sales of premium sex toys in Ann Summers to rise 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.

“Uptick doesn’t even describe what has happened to my business since March,” Shawna Scott, owner Sex Siopa reveals to me. “It’s just kind of exploded, it’s been pretty much non-stop all year. It’s slowed down a tiny bit now but it’s way busier than I ever was during the pandemic.

“I think maybe we’re exploring a bit more to break the monotony and routine of lockdown.”

For Emma*, who had just moved in with her partner prior to the pandemic, committing to lockdown rules was easy. The honeymoon period had kicked in, meaning they wanted to spend their time together, alone at all times. Then, both of them lost a loved one. 

“One [of the bereavements] brought us really close together,” she said, “and we were in his family home for about a week. But by the time we got home we were too exhausted, mentally and physically, to have sex for weeks.”

Emma’s situation isn’t unusual, given the searing visibility of death this past year. While grief will sometimes cause people to experience a spike in libido as a form of distraction, most will experience the opposite effect. “We tried a few things (moving into the guest room for a change, new lingerie etc) and they worked but it’s hard to sustain that creativity long term,” she says. 

Much like everything else under the cloak of the pandemic, intimacy had to be reinvented in order to comply with COVID-19 restrictions. Many reverted solely to masturbation, while others sought refuge in the bed of another. For Naomi* (28), spending the nights with a man she “didn’t even like that much” stopped the pain of a recent break-up. 

“I spent every evening crying because I missed my ex so much. I was so lonely that I let a guy who I grew to resent come inside me once a week. When I talked to my single friends about it, every one of them said ‘just keep seeing him for something to do’.”

Similarly, Jane* (30) – who broke up with her ex during the first lockdown – indulged in a one night stand just to feel something. “It was crap,” she says. “I haven’t really had sex in a year. I don’t know how sex is going to affect me emotionally when the time does come.”

Ideally, quarantine could be seen as an opportunity to create new fantasies, discover preferences and learn more about sex through podcasts, documentaries, films, and educational materials. “Those who have had the energy to have sex appear to have invested in sex toys, which would lead us to assume that people are enjoying experimenting,” sex and relationship expert, Dr Caroline West says. “But I think realistically, a lot of us are feeling sluggish and anxious – all of that impacts how we view sex. What might help is redefining sex – no big finale or anything wild and exciting. Sometimes lazy sex can be a good thing. Minimal effort is okay in the midst of a pandemic!”

While this is not the time to seek new partnerships in person, it can be the chance to meet new people online –– or create new bonds with those we already know. 

When Johnny* (24) committed to lockdown dating a few months into the pandemic, he found dating difficult and awkward. It wasn’t until his ex-girlfriend – who he had only broken up with because she moved abroad – returned to Ireland, that he attempted to access that level of intimacy again. 

“Being single was so tough. People can be very narrow minded when it comes to dates, they only see dating as going out for dinner or drinks, so trying to be creative can be tough. One of my friends is dating and they’re struggling big time. Most people are just looking for the ride and that’s it,” he says.

Returning to a place of comfort and security at a time when ambiguity reigns is nothing new, albeit traditionally fraught with sensitivities. But for 38-year-old Michael*, physical needs and urges often overtake. 

“It’s rarely a good idea in hindsight,” he says, after hooking up with an ex during the first lockdown. “The majority of my friends are married or with partners and obviously I’m delighted for them all but I’m also thinking about how limited my options are now that I’m getting older. There’s obviously the physical stuff but there’s the emotional side more so. 

“It’s been a year and I can’t get used to total physical isolation at all – nor do I want to.”

Touch deprivation, or skin hunger as it’s sometimes known, is a condition that arises when we have little or no physical contact with others. People deprived of touch often exhibit compulsive overeating, restlessness, drug abuse, promiscuity, and workaholism. Even more shocking, singles deprived of touch have a death rate five times higher than their married counterparts – meaning you can’t blame those who surrender to cravings. 

But what about those who surrender to the touch of someone else’s partner?

When Hayley* started seeing a man she really believed to be the love of her life, her self worth was, admittedly, “rock bottom”. “I realise people will read this and think I’m the lowest of the low, but believe me, you will never hate me as much as I hate myself,” she says.

Head over heels and finally beginning to crawl out from under the clouds, Hayley found herself in the position of other woman. “I know it sounds like such a cliché, but he told me his marriage was over,” she says. “That they shared a house and children but were not a couple anymore, not in love, certainly not sexually active.”

He travelled a lot with work which gave the pair opportunities to be together. Weekends, nights away, both parties managed to see one another, albeit secretly, a couple times a week. “I adored him,” she continues. “This went on for four years. He always gave me reasons why he couldn’t leave the family home, always excuses why he couldn’t get a divorce.”

Lockdown, as it is wont to do, put a stop to everything.   

“He had to work from home. No more nights away. At first I thought it was for two weeks, but the longer it went on and on, the more I began to see the light. Yes I missed the sex, the sex was insane. And yes I missed him, I missed us. I was heartbroken. But I started to heal. I started to see the truth. And I started to begin to like myself again. 

“Lockdown destroyed us but it might have saved me.”

Quarantining is, indeed, making us do crazy things. Self-actualise, among them. For Andrew* (31), his sexual frustration during this time manifested in a myriad of extreme ways. 

“Instagram flirtations with men I’d slept with only once before suddenly became obsessions,” he said. “A boy I’d gone on two middling dates with was now the hero of all my greatest romantic fantasies. The sexual frustration was intense, and the fear I’d lose self-control and put my family in danger led to ritual masturbation (twice a day, whether I was in the mood or not).”

In preparation for this article, I made a call out looking for people to chat to me about how the pandemic has affected their sex lives. Some felt the need to call and vent, many found the forbidden aspect an encouraging turn-on, while others felt they resided within such anxious realms that sobbing over their libido (or lack thereof) was a weekly occurrence. Two groups of housemates underwent sex moratoria – both broken within days – with one group turning to each other to source affection and touch within a controlled setting. 

What became obvious was that these are extreme times and as a result we have at times resorted to extreme measures. Being locked into your home all day isn’t how things are supposed to be, and while we’re at it, neither is fucking near a gunshot-wielding farmer. 

For all the naysayers suggesting that we remain celibate until this is over, I say we take Dr Caroline West’s approach of redefining sex to cater to these strange times. Yes, the spread of disease is something on the forefront of one’s mind right now, but the power of touch – and in these listless times, excitement – is wholly underrated and is, in my opinion, medicinal following a year of being indoors. 

While it is undeniably true that abstaining from any form of sexual intimacy is the safest thing you can do from a risk-management standpoint, one must remember that sex isn’t just about sex; the act can lower blood pressure, improve self-esteem, and reduce stress overall. Perhaps the best thing we can do, from a public-health standpoint, is decrease stigma around sex in general, instead promoting the vantage point that allows for precaution while excusing human error – human desire among it. 

To close, I take a quote from journalist Linda Duits’ recent opinion piece in the Dutch newspaper Het Parool: “Sex is a human right,” she wrote. “Proximity and physical contact are not a luxury, they are basic needs,” she wrote. “If we have learned anything from the AIDS epidemic, it is that not having sex is not an option.”


Photo by Ava Sol on Unsplash