Silva Neves

Silva Neves
Psychosexual, Relationship and Couples Therapist

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