Silva Neves

Silva Neves
Psychosexual, Relationship and Couples Therapist

Saturday 9 January 2021

Sex, relationships and lockdown



This January 2021 is a dark month in the UK. We have been told that the COVID-19 R-number has increased. The rate of new infections broke a new record. There have been more deaths reported in one single day than ever before since the pandemic began. We are plunged into another lockdown. London has declared a state of ‘major incident’ as the hospitals are at full capacity. A dark month indeed. 


Some of us wonder if there will ever be a ‘back to normal’. Has the pandemic changed the world we used to know permanently? We have been hearing about the impacts of COVID-19 on our lives almost every day since March last year, it is now definitely feeling like a ‘new normal’, but an undesirable one. Many people lost loved ones prematurely and under terrible circumstances. Indeed, for them, life will never be the same again. 


Vulnerable people

Many elderly people and those with underlying medical conditions have to shield again. Before COVID-19, we all read reports highlighting a loneliness problem with older people in the UK. Now, in COVID-19 times, loneliness has become the silent killer that will not feature in the virus death statistics. 


We are relationship people, we survive and thrive in connection. Many older and vulnerable people are unable to use technology to see their loved ones, many will only have the contact of a care worker whose face has to be mostly hidden by a mask. These people are losing the very one thing that had been keeping them alive: meaningful human connection. The lack of long-term connection erodes mental and physical health. We need to protect our vulnerable people against the virus and also against loneliness. 


What is the solution? 

We must not forget about them, and we need to continue to find a way to provide human connection for them. Perhaps we need to go back to basics and write letters to them. Or we can make more phone calls. Hearing a loved one’s voice can be as powerful as seeing them. If you walk in the street and you see an elderly person walking on the other pavement, look at them, give them a wave, say hello, or just smile. Every little helps. 


Romantic relationships 

We are worn out. Even the hope of a quick vaccine roll out is not enough to lift the gloom of having to endure yet another two or three months of strict restrictions. Unfortunately, there is no alternative solutions at the moment. Many people are overwhelmed with so much loss: financial uncertainty, loss of employment, daily existential dread, lack of physical space, emotional exhaustion, chronic intense stress and anxiety, a major loss of lifestyle, daily bad news, the pressure of home-schooling. It’s no surprise many individuals and couples are struggling with their relationships. When there is a lot of stress and exhaustion in people’s lives, emotional resilience gets depleted which increases irritation and ultimately lead to arguments. If couples don’t have enough skills to repair their hurt, they can enter a cycle of ongoing conflicts. Over time, resentment can take permanent tenancy in people’s relationships; this is when, for some couples, this trajectory marks the beginning of the end. 


What is the solution? 

Use good communications skills: 

1-    Make your statements with ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ when you speak to your partner. The ‘you’ statement can sound like you’re pointing fingers at them. The ‘I’ statement encourages talking about you, your thoughts and feelings, which is more productive. 

2-    Avoid criticism. Yes, your partner is not perfect. But then again, nobody is. In these difficult times, you can focus on what your partner does well, rather than what they could improve on. A little bit of appreciation for your partner can go a long way in making your couple space warmer. 

3-    Brainstorm.  Rather than criticising, how about brainstorming with your partner when there is a problem. Brainstorming opens up creative thinking and it fosters a sense of team-work. It helps consolidate your relationship. 

4-    Kindness. We can all do with a lot more kindness at the moment. Before you speak, take an extra moment to ask yourself if your words are kind. There is plenty of things you can say to your partner in kindness, rather than bitterness. We do benefit psychologically from being kind to others.  

5-    Radical acceptance. This means to accept your partner’s flaws, and to remind yourself to love your partner how they are today, not to keep wishing they were better. If you really think your partner doesn’t meet your needs at all, perhaps you do need to think about whether the relationship is right for you. Of course, if your partner is abusive, it is important to think about your well-being first. But, often, it is not about your partner needing to change, it is about you being more realistic with the expectations you put on your partner. One person can’t fulfil all of your needs at all times. 



People are facing difficulties in their sex lives in this pandemic time. Some are concerned they’re feeling compulsive with sex, whilst others have seen their sexual desire plummeting.  


Compulsive sex 

The brain chemicals involved in sexual desire, arousals, touch and orgasms are all natural feel-good chemicals, including dopamine (reward), serotonin (mood stabiliser), oxytocin and vasopressin (love, bonding), and endorphins (pain killer). As you can imagine, we can re-balance our physical and mental health system with sex. For many, sex is a major part of their sense of aliveness, excitement and zest for life, which helps with feeling reconnected with themselves, especially during the pandemic (by sex, I mean masturbation with or without pornography, sex with someone in your household or cybersex, to be COVID-safe). 


Sexual fantasies, sexual contacts, sexual distractions and orgasms are all normative ways to self-soothe when there is a period of stress and anxiety. Sexologist Jack Morin proposed that stress and anxiety can be an emotional aphrodisiac for some people. In our society, it is often perceived as ‘wrong’ to masturbate or have sex for regulating emotions, even when people are not that horny, but it is actually a very good way to self-care.


However, if sex is your only strategy to self-soothe, it might start to feel compulsive. The more you encounter unpleasant emotions (at the moment it can be daily), the more sex might feel compelling and out of control. 


What is the solution? 

First of all, don’t feel shame about it, and don’t berate yourself with thoughts like ‘I’m a sex addict’. Stay reassured that many sexology research showed that sex and pornography are not addictive, so you don’t have a disease. In fact, it can even be counter-productive to try to stop your behaviours, especially if it is the only strategy that you have for self-soothing. What you can do instead is to find ways to add new strategies. The more self-soothing strategies you have, the less the sex one will be compelling because you’ll have many more to choose from. Some new self-care methods you can try are: 

1-     Connecting with nature 

2-     Taking a break from social media and news 

3-     Doing yoga 

4-     Allowing yourself to cry

5-     Smelling a soothing scent 

6-     Taking a nap

7-     Having meaningful connections with friends (online) 

8-     Playing with your pet 

9-     Having a quiet moment for yourself

10-  Being kind to yourself, banishing self-critical and self-punishing thoughts

11-  Thinking of gratitude

12-  Playing your favourite music and dancing (at home)

13-  Laughing 

14-  Reading something you love

15-  Imagining a happy and safe place for yourself

16-  Moderate exercise

17-  Finding a good therapist who works with a sex-positive philosophy that is a non-‘sex addiction’ framework.


Low sexual desire

In order to be in a good space for sex, our body and our mind need to be ready for it. Although stress and anxiety can be an emotional aphrodisiac as mentioned above, too much of it can produce the opposite. If people feel significant distress, they won’t feel sexual because the ‘survival mode’ is not compatible with the ‘erotic mode’. Many people describe feeling ‘flat’, ‘lethargic’, ‘tired’ because of the pandemic. Many have also reported gaining weight or not feeling good and sexy. People who feel bad about their appearance and people who experience low energy are likely to have a drop in their sexual desire, sometimes their libido might even completely disappear for a while. 


Many people who contracted COVID-19 are experiencing a long recovery time. For some, it will take time for the body to be ready for sex again. People have described feeling shame for catching COVID-19 because they worry others will perceive them as the ‘careless’ ones, or the ones who didn’t follow the rules. The sound of the cough becomes associated with an infectious disease, people think of themselves as contagious, even long after they are in fact contagious. It is all very unsexy. People with long COVID have an extended period of time struggling with not being able to do what they used to do easily, people can lose their sense of self. 


What is the solution? 

The best way to overcome low sexual desire in these circumstances is not to push it and not putting pressure on yourself to ‘get better’ or to ‘recover your sexuality’. Many people who lose their sexual desire are worried that it will be gone forever, but it is important to remind yourself that sexual desire does return when the physical and emotional balance is right again. With long COVID, it might take a long time, but, paradoxically, the less you focus on sexual desire returning, the easier and quicker it will return. Take that time to pay great attention to your body and listen to it. If it doesn’t want to be sexual, it is telling you it is not yet ready: honour it and be kind to it, rather than being frustrated by it. Compassion, love and kindness to yourself and your body goes a long way. 


Of course, there are some other things you can do to help: for example, make sure you do some moderate exercise – not to lose weight, but for health (serotonin and endorphin get released with exercise, so it’s good). You can be mindful of eating well, not counting calories but enjoy a lovely Mediterranean diet. You can decide to wear your favourite clothes, even if you don’t go out. If you have a partner, make sure you talk openly and honestly about your lack of sexual desire, and make a commitment to each other to be patient, and, in the meantime, find reassurance in talking about your attraction to each other still being alive. 


You can also do things that are sensual rather than sexual: a long bath, a non-sexual massage from your partner, reading erotica, or even sharing sexual fantasies with your partner. Sometimes, these small little erotic things are possible because they don’t require the high energy of sex, but they can reassure you that your erotic world is not completely dead. 

Remember that the biggest sexual organ is the brain, so thinking of some hot fantasies and sharing them with your partner (if you feel comfortable doing so) can make a big difference, even if you laugh about it (sometimes laughing about sex is really good too). 


Whatever your struggles during this pandemic, remember that you’re not alone. Some of us are more privileged than others, but the entire world is struggling. In these strange times, the best thing you can do for yourself is being your own best friend by treating yourself with kindness and not putting extra pressure on yourself to keep achieving more. Take the time that you need to rest, and breathe. 


Silva Neves 



Thursday 31 December 2020

Grief is the domain of relationship therapy




COSRT (College Of Sexual and Relationship Therapists) is the leading UK professional body regulating the specialist profession of psychosexual and relationship therapy. 


Therapists trained in a COSRT-accredited course will have the knowledge and experience working with loss: the loss of sexual desire, the psychosexual issues after an illness like cancer, relationship break-ups and divorce, infidelity, and so on. However, when it comes to bereavement and the particular grief it brings, it seems that our psychotherapy profession becomes split into the specialisation of bereavement counselling rather than relationship therapy when it could, in fact, be both. I argue that the loss and grief from bereavement is very much within the domain of relationship therapy. 


Relationship with love

When someone dies, the grief people feel is individual. The most important factor that shapes the grief is the quality of the relationship with the deceased person. Indeed, bereavement counselling is not only about helping with grief, but it is about understanding in depth the complexities of human relationships.


After a loved one’s death, the survivor experiences the loss of the relationship, the rupture of connection, the sound of someone’s voice replaced by silence, they will  miss and crave their loved one’s touch, their sense of humour, their presence. They also lose their sense of the future which had previously been imagined by the side of their loved one. If the connection was strong, the grief will be experienced as intense. 


Relationship with unloving other

As relationship therapists, we know that relationships are complex and multi-layered. Some people’s death may bring a positive feeling to the survivor. For example, if the relationship was abusive, if the connection was toxic, one’s death may bring relief and a sense of resolution. It may even bring happiness. This is a difficult topic because these issues are seldom discussed and those particular feelings usually come with guilt and shame: 

‘I should not be happy about someone’s death’

‘How should I grieve this horrible person?’

‘I’m a bad person for not feeling sadness’. 

With society’s expectation that bereavement comes with sadness and tears, many people feel the pressure to be inauthentic with their feelings. I think that relationship therapists are very well equipped to dive in these complexities.  


Relationship with sexuality 

For many, the death of a romantic partner is the death of their sex life. This is another taboo area because, again, society tells us that we should be sad about the loss of another but not for the loss of something about us: 

‘I’m selfish’

‘Does it mean I’m a sex addict?’

‘Does it mean I didn’t love my partner that much?’ 

There aren’t any therapists more equipped to help clients in these grey taboo areas than a COSRT-registered therapist. 


Relationship with self 

When someone loses a loved one, their heart can shatter. The relationship with their broken heart is very important. Being present with their experiences and not putting pressure on themselves to ‘get through grief’ requires honouring the connection with their self. People have to allow themselves to move with the flow of their emotions, just as much as they had to move with the flow of their partner’s existence. When the bereavement ruptures a strong connection, the heart doesn’t fully, there will always be a scar, and accepting the scar is honouring the deceased person’s place in their lives. 


The ‘rippling’ 

Existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom says a dead person’s life echoes and influences the survivors long after their death, which then is passed on to the survivor’s survivors. Yalom calls it the ‘rippling’. This is a wonderful thing to think about, not to avoid thinking about the fact that one is dead but more about remembering the power of connection and human relationships. 


After 2020 and for many years to come, therapists are going to see more and more people who lost loved ones, those with broken hearts, those with complex grief processes. We, COSRT relationship therapists, can be at the frontline of the major mental health crisis ahead of us, ready to help the people in much need. 


If you want to be ready and equipped, you can join the short CPD course on grief offered by CICS  (Contemporary Institute of Clinical Sexology).  



Silva Neves 




The harm of the 12-step 'sex addiction' approach




I started the year 2020 speaking with Dr Joe Kort as a guest of his world-renowned podcast Smart Sex Smart Love  about the potential harm of ‘sex addiction’ treatments. 


The notion of ‘sex addiction’ and ‘porn addiction’ has been consistently rejected by the scientific communities worldwide because of the lack of evidence supporting it. A new study published in December 2020 by Grubbs et al. made a ground-breaking independent review finding  that the research methodology used in supporting ‘sex addiction’ and ‘porn addiction’ over the last 25 years was poor, further questioning the validity of the conceptualisation of ‘sex addiction’.  


The ICD-11 (International Classification of Disease) only endorsed ‘compulsive sexual behaviours disorder’ (CSBD) as a psychological condition. WHO (World Health Organisation) clearly states that CSBD is completely different from ‘sex addiction’ and these two terms must not be interchangeable. 


This is important because clinicians offer treatments that are congruent with what they label the condition they are attempting to treat. A therapist believing in ‘sex addiction’ is more likely to offer a treatment through the primary lens of addiction, despite the science not supporting it. It is when clients can be in danger of inappropriate treatment because their sexual behaviour struggles might be seen through the therapist’s own window of morality, rather than through the evidence-based knowledge of modern clinical sexology. 


Despite the science, there are still fierce disagreements and much confusion amongst clinicians. What is important to me is to alert the public affected by sexual compulsivity that they have choices about their psychological treatments. 


If you struggle with unwanted sexual behaviours that cause distress, please know that the ‘sex addiction’ conceptualisation is not the only way to think about your problems. A ‘sex addiction’ treatment and 12-step support groups are not the only choices. They are not the scientifically approved choices either. 


Why do I keep talking about it? 

Because I am concerned. 


As a result of the podcast with Dr Kort, unfortunately, I finish the year 2020 having heard stories from numerous people in the UK and Europe telling me about being traumatised by 12-step support group programmes, and by ‘sex addiction’ treatments. It is heart-breaking to hear so many people who originally struggled with sexual behaviours ended up feeling worse after their treatments. The common self-report from the victims of such treatments is feeling more shamed and more depressed about themselves and their sexuality than before. It is the dark unspoken side of the ‘sex addiction’ conceptualisation. 


Many sexual practices that are non-monogamous, unusual, or even extreme may actually be functional and harmless, but may be wildly misunderstood by therapists who have poor knowledge of the current sexology science and therefore might unduly pathologise their clients, which creates more harm for them. 


I heard on numerous occasions that people practicing BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) were told that they were ‘addicted to BDSM’, which is grossly inaccurate. 


Many were told to be afraid of their sexual thoughts and fantasies as they were ‘triggers’ to avoid when in fact these were normal processes and responses to common sexual stimuli. 


A majority were told that watching pornography was bad, a piece of advice that is not clinically supported by the large body of research which found that pornography in itself has no impact on people’s mental and sexual health. 


All of the misinformation mentioned above – and more-  perpetuated by the ‘sex addiction’ ideology only encourage people to be erotically avoidant thus creating more problems for them. Many of the strategies employed by the people subscribing to the ‘sex addiction’ concept are in danger of doing accidental ‘conversion therapy’. 


‘Conversion therapy’ is the practice underpinned by the belief that sexual behaviours must conform to a strict concept of heteronormativity. Sexual behaviours outside of that heteronormative ideology is deemed a ‘disease’ that must be cured, or something undesirable that should be changed. In its original form, ‘conversion therapy’ is typically a practice attempting to ‘cure’ homosexuality. ‘Conversion therapy’ is now considered unethical in the UK and it is banned in some other countries because of the significant psychological harm that it inflicts on people. 


As you can imagine, within the wide spectrum of sexuality, many people who self-identify as heterosexual and who also have specific kinks or fetishes may be in danger of ‘conversion therapy’ disguised under the 'diagnosis' of ‘sex addiction’. For example, many people practicing BDSM consider it as an integral part of their sexuality. If a therapist calls it an ‘addiction’ and attempts to change it, they might be doing accidental ‘conversion therapy’. I call it ‘accidental’ because I believe that most ‘sex addiction’ therapists in the UK want to help clients with the best intention, however, due to poor or inadequate clinical trainings, they might not be aware that the therapy they offer can cause harm, and they might not know what to do differently. 


People struggling with their unwanted sexual behaviours actually need the opposite interventions. They need help to face their erotic world, being fully erotically-aware whilst learning to manage their emotions. They need support in examining the functions of their sexual behaviours and what the underlying precipitating and maintaining issues are, instead of staying focused on stopping the symptoms. With thorough erotic-awareness, and a sexology-informed treatment, sexual compulsivity dilutes and people can start to make the right choices for themselves and the partners they choose to commit to.



A psychological treatment is not supposed to induce shame and depression. I heard many people tell me that after a 'sex addiction' 12-step programmes and/ or therapy, they felt suicidal for the first time in their lives. Some became acutely fearful of their erotic world, fantasies and ability to relate to others, freezing in sexual situations. To me, this is not a good outcome of therapy or support groups. Many of these people spoke to me in confidence. Although I have permission to write this blog, they would not speak up about their experiences themselves because of shame. Many told me that they were blamed for not following their ‘sex addiction’ programme.


If it had been one or two people reporting such things, I would really not think much of it. But the great number of people telling me similar stories is concerning. In our psychotherapy field, the terms ‘sex addiction’ and ‘porn addiction’ are not challenged enough. 


There are many unheard voices who are alerting us of the great potential of harm, I think it is important that clinicians continue the conversation Dr Kort and I had, and to continue challenging the ‘sex addiction’ field, because, after all, we all have to be held accountable for the therapy we offer, and all of us must uphold our first ethical pledge: First, Do No Harm. 


If you’re a therapist wanting to learn how to treat compulsive sexual behaviours efficiently, safely and ethically, please contact CICS , the only UK Institute offering a Diploma level course teaching the sex-positive, evidence-based treatment going beyond the reductive ‘sex addiction’ thinking. 



Silva Neves 

Wednesday 23 December 2020

There's no naughty list on cancelled Christmas, or is there?




This year’s Christmas’ Tesco advert ‘there’s no naughty list’ evokes something profound faced with adversities: emotional soothing through ‘treats’. We have all seen movies with a break-up storyline in which the heartbroken character reaches for the tub of ice-cream or the chocolates in the middle of a pile of tissues. Most of us have been socialised to receive ‘treats’ when we’re feeling down. It is therefore quite normal to discuss comfort eating without raising an eyebrow, especially in the challenging times of a global pandemic cancelling Christmas. 


However, it is quite another to discuss soothing ourselves on a bad day with sex. By sex, I mean a variety of activities: masturbation, watching pornography and masturbation, cybersex, sex with committed partner, sex with casual partner and so on. If you say you ate a whole box of chocolate on the cancelled Christmas Day, people would understand and you would probably receive empathy. But if you say you spent the day masturbated to pornography or logged on a cybersex website, you would probably not receive the same empathy; many might even think there’s something wrong with you, maybe you have some dark sexual sickness, like ‘sex addiction’. Indeed, when it comes to sex, there is always a ‘naughty list’ and it is not the sexy kind. 


The fact is that soothing difficult and painful emotions through sex is just as good a method as comfort eating and it is one of the many common and functional reasons why people have sex. Yet, it is not talked about because we are not socialised to think that way, and it is loaded with shame. 


This usually festive period is going to be very difficult for many people. We are told that the beginning of next year will be equally hard with maintained restrictions. It is not a surprise many people will have turned to sexual activities to soothe themselves. The problem is that they do it in shame, thinking it’s ‘wrong’. For many people, the sense of ‘wrongness’ is reinforced by their partner when they find out about it and take offence that the sexual behaviours did not include them. Some sexual activities can indeed constitute a breach of their agreement and be a betrayal causing chaos in the relationship. But often, it is just about misunderstanding. For example, many people watching pornography do not do so because they’re unhappy in their relationship, yet it is often perceived as a threat. 


This January, I’m convinced many people will call therapists asking for help for their ‘sex addiction’ or ‘porn addiction’ because of the shame they feel for soothing their emotions with sex rather than the ice cream. 


If it is you, before you make a call, consider this first: watching pornography, masturbating, cybersex or any other consensual sex is not bad or harmful in itself, according to numerous sexology research. In fact, there has never been any adequate evidence that sex and pornography are addictive, which is why the notion of ‘sex addiction’ and ‘porn addiction’ has been consistently rejected by scientific communities. 


There is no denying that some people struggle with sex and pornography, but it is not because of an addiction problem, it is because the sexual behaviour is the only method they have to soothe themselves. Just like food, if your only way to feel better is to eat chocolate, you could be eating a lot of chocolate in challenging times, to the point that it might feel out of control, like an addiction, but it is not. The best way to resolve these issues is to add more soothing resources, not to take away your existing one (adding more resources and becoming fully aware of your erotic processes will automatically reduce the compulsive feeling of the sole existing resource). 


The ‘sex addiction’ and ‘porn addiction’ programmes are primarily focused on helping you stop unwanted behaviours. There is hardly any good clinical evidence that these programmes are effective. They actually often have poor outcomes, just like diets have poor outcomes, because if you stop doing the one thing that makes you feel better, you will have a strong sense of deprivation, and you will struggle to stop for the long term (by the way, ‘food addiction’ is also a myth). When you ‘fail’ at the addiction programme, you will feel more shame, blame yourself for it, and… feel worse about yourself. In this pandemic time, nobody deserves to feel worse than they’re already feeling. 


If your sexual behaviours did betray your relationship commitments, you might definitely feel bad and guilty for hurting your partner. There are many ways that you can learn about your behaviours in a non-shaming sex-positive way so that you can make better future decisions that are aligned with your sexual desires, relationship commitments and values. I recommend psychotherapists who are educated in sex-positive, evidence-based modern sexology such as the graduates from CICS

(The Contemporary Institute of Clinical Sexology). 


You can also contact me, I’ll be very happy to point you in the direction of good therapists. 


But for now, if you want some extra tools for soothing your unpleasant emotions and navigate this difficult Christmas, you can head over to my Instagram page: @silvanevespsychotherapy; I posted Self-Care tips throughout November during the second England lockdown (#SelfCareNovember). 

These tips are obviously good all year round, in any difficult circumstances. Here’s a summary: 


1-    Connecting with nature 

2-    Taking a break from social media and news 

3-    Yoga practice 

4-    A cup of tea 

5-    Crying 

6-    Soothing scent 

7-    Sexiness 

8-    Sleeping 

9-    Connection with friends 

10- Pets 

11- Quiet 

12- Baking

13- Kindness 

14- Gratitude 

15- Doing nothing 

16- Masturbation and orgasms 

17- Know your people 

18- Music 

19- Laughing 

20- Accepting bad days 

21- Reading 

22- Comfort food 

23- Sex

24- Talking to yourself 

25- Swearing 

26- Water 

27- Happy Place 

28- Breathing 

29- Exercise 

30- Therapy 



Don’t despair. Your out-of-control sexual behaviour is not an addiction or a disease. It can be resolved with permanent positive change with the right treatment. If sex is one of your ways to soothe yourself, make sure it doesn’t breach the trust of your partner, and indulge, in moderation. 


Take care of yourself in these challenging times. 


Silva Neves  


Monday 30 March 2020

Re-thinking sex since COVID-19

This week the deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries has announced that the UK lockdown could last six months. As we are currently in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, there isn’t any scientific data yet on how this might impact people’s sexual and relational lives, but we already have plenty of anecdotal information that can help us make some hypothesis. Sexologists debate whether there will be an increase in sexual activity and therefore create a new baby boom, or if the opposite will occur as the acute anxiety about the uncertainty of life is going to be an erotic killer and produce more depression and less sex. 

What we do know at this moment in time is that pornography viewing has increased, which is not surprising. Pornography and masturbation are good and efficient ways to soothe unpleasant emotions and it can also be a good distraction when people suddenly have more time. Dr Justin Lehmiller, a psychologist and sex researcher has previously noticed that the use of pornography reflects the events of the time, for example, there is more views of Christmas-themed porn around Christmas time. Lehmiller observes the same phenomenon applies to COVID time with many people searching for coronavirus-themed porn. Lehmiller explains that it can be an eroticisation of fear as it is common for strong emotions to be perceived as sexual desire or sexual arousal. Our ability to do so may be a mechanism to own and process the fear rather than being overwhelmed by it. COVID-related sexual fantasies can also be a way to process our fears. 

Sexologist Jack Morin writes that one of the emotional aphrodisiacs is anxiety and one of the cornerstones of eroticism is what he calls ‘overcoming ambivalence’. A well-documented psychological process informs us that we tend to feel more sexual when faced with death in a subconscious drive for survival. It will therefore make perfect sense that sexual arousal and activity become more prominent in COVID times. 

However, I wonder if there is a threshold in which the eroticization of COVID stops. It is now obvious that it will take a long time for the world to recover from this pandemic. As the death toll rises and more people become distressed at losing loved ones, careers and finances, our fear will turn into crisis survival with a fight, flight and freeze position which inhibits the erotic system. 

Our nation is being hit by a wave of grief because of the loss of the life and freedom we used to enjoy. There are different facets of grief. We can see denial every day with people not respecting social distancing. Bargaining is another aspect of grief when people think it won’t be that bad. They are perhaps the ones who find it easier to be erotic in these challenging times. Anger is also a common emotion of grief; and there is depression, one facet of grief that is anti-erotic. People will respond differently to their grief, and they will fluctuate between different states from one moment to the next. It is therefore not possible to predict the impact of people’s sexual and relational lives. Will there be a baby boom or not? Who knows? 

The Government has enforced a lockdown when it is only permitted to leave our house for essential things such as food shopping or exercising. Having sex is not one of them. Couples living together can continue to have sex with each other if they have no symptoms. If there are symptoms, the recommendation is to refrain from sex and not leave the house at all for two weeks. As the rules of self-isolation apply to household, the same goes with people who aren’t couples and sharing a home. I wonder if flatmates might develop a ‘new way’ of living together, where cuddling each other could become a form of ‘friendly comfort’. Human touch is so central to our well-being. 

However, for people who are single, this can bring complications. Not having sexual contacts for six months can be a big ask. This is when technology is a great resource: consensual sexting and webcam sex are good alternatives. 

Dr Markie Twist writes extensively about digisexuality as an emerging sexuality. It is a term to describe people being primarily sexual through the use of technology. I think that COVID-19 is going to bring forth this sexuality as a legitimate one rather than an ‘alternative’ one. 

I am starting to hear many anecdotal stories of what is happening amongst the single people who self-identify as gay men. They report their hook up apps going off the charts with people wanting to meet for sex. Most of these are an attempt to fantasise about meeting but not interested in acting on it for safety. Another cornerstone of eroticism according to Morin is ‘violating prohibition’. The fantasy may be to violate the Government’s prohibition and meet others for the ‘non-essential’ sex. That particular fantasy has taken shape with a specific sexual practice called ‘gloryhole sex’. According to gay men using hook up apps, the invitation for ‘gloryhole sex’ is on the rise. This sexual practice previously belonged to a gay sub-culture of ‘anonymous sex’, but now it may become more mainstream. We know that the virus is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets and touching contaminated surface. There isn’t any evidence at this stage that the virus can be transmitted sexually with intercourse. Kissing is obviously a major pathway of transmission. Technically, if we stay away from one’s mouth and we wash our hands properly it is possible to have sexual intercourse safely. As long as there is no oral sex, and it is only intercourse, separated by a door or a sheet, not breathing into each other’s face, ‘gloryhole sex’ may indeed be a form of safe sex from coronavirus. The ‘gloryhole sex’ fantasy that currently appear on apps has some grounding in reality thus making it even more titillating: ‘we can really do it if we wanted to’. 

I do not condone breaking the Government lockdown rules. I do not recommend people leaving their house to meet strangers for sex. But as gay hook-up apps seem to be currently very active, we can take a moment to try to understand this phenomenon. The LGBTQ+ community has a trauma history as it was a population that was pathologized by authorities prohibiting sexual practices that were normative and natural for them. In the UK, gay people can now live with good human rights, but homophobia is still rife. It is therefore easy to understand that this particular community is more inclined to rebel against Government’s sexual prohibition because of past ostracization. Having said that, from the anecdotes I hear, the hook up app users have good common sense, they don’t act on their fantasies and don’t put themselves and others at risk. But the ‘gloryhole sex’ fantasy is going to become more arousing for gay men now, perhaps. 

It is worth noting here that masturbation has always been and will always remain a wonderful way to find sexual fulfilment in solo sex for heterosexual people and members of the LGBTQ+ community, across all genders, and is the safest form of sex for single people in coronavirus time. 

As a psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist pondering on all of this, I’m concerned about how we, as a profession, should listen, understand and assess people’s sexual behaviours during and post-COVID. 

The psychotherapy world pre-COVID was already divided between psychotherapists pathologizing some sexual behaviours that other psychotherapists believed to be normative. It is now more important than ever to re-think sexual behaviours because it will change and it will have different meanings. Some therapists judged some sexual behaviours like watching pornography, sexting, webcam sex as ‘problematic’ because they were perceived to be anti-intimacy. These behaviours now have become more mainstream and normalised as they are more popular ways of being intimate and sexual with others. As people become more comfortable with technology, these behaviours may remain some people’s primary way to be sexual post-COVID, thus seeing a growing population who may self-identify as digisexuals. Some sexual practices and fantasies such as ‘gloryhole sex’ may also be more mainstream after the pandemic. 

The crisis of COVID-19 will pass, but the world will somewhat be different. I invite practitioners, especially psychosexual psychotherapists and those of work with people who have compulsive sexual behaviours to find different ways to assess clients and be even more careful not to pathologise them unnecessarily. 

As a psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist practicing with a sex positive framework, I cannot ignore the observable new ‘trends’ in sexuality through anecdotes, so far, and I remain open to think of human sexuality with a different lens in a COVID world, and post-COVID world. I also encourage my colleagues to think of their clients’ sexuality in broader ways and with an open mind. Nobody knows the lasting impact of the virus on our world and our lives, but we need to prepare ourselves for understanding our human sexuality differently and supporting our clients the best we can through their grief, loss, trauma, relationships and sexual behaviours. 

Silva Neves