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Health, Sex and Coronavirus: How does sexual intimacy change during a pandemic?

March 28, 2020

by Jessica Zucker, NBC News

Are we likely to see the kind of baby boom that tends to follow disasters? Probably. But if you're feeling an aversion to sex, know that your reaction is also typical.


Elizabeth, 24, is a teacher living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She and her husband are currently out of work as the result of the coronavirus that has infected more than 85,000 people in the U.S. and resulted in nearly 1,300 deaths. Normally, both would be working at least 55 hours a week as educators, but now that coronavirus precautions have shutdown a reported 91,000 public and private schools, affecting an estimated 41.6 million students, caregivers and teachers, they are spending their time at home with each other, stuck in a 900-square-foot apartment.


Elizabeth and her husband have found a way to cope, though. Sex, and lots of it.


“We’re both really embracing this as time together rather than using it to stress out,” Elizabeth tells me.(The names of some people interviewed below have been changed for privacy reasons.) “There’s fear in general, sure — there are people that I love that are at a higher risk — but sex has definitely been a distraction for us. It’s finally a moment when we’re not thinking about or talking about this virus.”


As the coronavirus has spread and calls for all Americans to engage in social distancing and self-quarantining practices have increased, how and when Americans have sex is changing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people stay at least 6 feet away from each other at all times, unless they live with a partner or family member. That amount of distance certainly curtails the possibility of physical contact with a relative stranger, meaning dating — casual or not — is indefinitely on hold for many people around the country. And since research has shown touch to be beneficial to both our physical and mental health, these necessary precautions are nothing short of frustrating for those of us who crave that level of intimacy but are being denied it in the name of the greater good.


But even for those spending more time than normal with their partners, the dynamic is more complicated. For some, it is a welcomed distraction, but for others the anxiety of the situation has banished intimacy. Are we likely to see a baby boom that tends to follow disasters, á la Hurricane Sandy? Probably. Sex can be a great stress reliever. But if you're feeling an aversion to sex, whether it be with your partner or yourself, know that your reaction, too, is typical. There is no one "right" way to handle unprecedented moments such as these.


As a psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health, I know firsthand and through the various stories my patients share with me that sex can be complicated and multifaceted. Life circumstances have a way of making their way into the bedroom, but what can occur there can also help us mitigate that stress.


Numerous studies have found that more sex equals less stress, and a lack of sex can contribute to depression and a lower sense of self-worth. So it comes as no surprise to me, then, that when I polled my Instagram community of over 46,000 followers about whether the coronavirus pandemic was helping or hurting their sex lives, responses were split almost down the middle: Fifty-two percent said their sex life had improved, and 48 percent said it was stunted.


“I think being more sexually intimate has created this sense of security,” a teacher and mother of one living in Kansas City, Missouri, who asked to speak with me anonymously, said. “We’re at home, not leaving, and trying to follow guidelines from the CDC and the government and just stay inside and not see anyone, and having that emotional release and the endorphins that come from it makes you feel more secure and grateful for that relationship.”


If you are among those interested in sex, it can be a welcome release amid a near-constant news cycle saturated by the virus and the government’s response to it. Living with a loved one also doesn’t mean you can’t get lonely. As long as the person you’re engaging with is a partner you’re planning on spending your self-quarantine time with — someone who wouldn’t be able to unknowingly infect you, or who you wouldn’t unknowingly be able to infect only to have them leave and infect others — being present in your physical body during the act of sex can be a grounding experience.


“Neither one of us have been exposed to the virus as far as we know, so we don’t have an issue being intimate with each other because the fear of transmitting it to one another seems almost nonexistent,” Megan, 20, who lives in Minneapolis and is engaged to be married, said. “Since we’re both working and going to school, we don’t get to spend too much time during the day together. Now that we’re practicing social distancing, we have more time together, which sometimes means more time to engage in our sex life.”


Still, it is normal and unsurprising that this isn’t a universal experience. “This past week has been so stressful all the way around that it’s tough to put things out of my mind and really connect with my partner,” Nina, 28, who has a 2-year-old daughter and lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, tells me. “We’ve decided to delay trying for a second baby until this blows over. So in a way, there’s less ‘pressure’ on being intimate this month in terms of trying to conceive purposes.”


Women often feel pressured to have sex when they're in a monogamous relationship. And now, the pressure to be busy in a time of forced quarantine has, in many ways, increased that pressure. We're being told now is the time to write that book — after all, Shakespeare was productive during isolation — and to create color-coded schedules for our children and fill every second of our mandated seclusion being productive. But forcing intimacy isn't beneficial — it's potentially harmful. If you want to be left alone and sit still in this moment, it's far better to follow that impulse then to force yourself into being physically intimate.


And the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy is also something to consider. For Elizabeth, who was in the middle of infertility treatments prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and who has been diagnosed with recurrent miscarriages, the potential for the increase in sex to result in a positive pregnancy test is something she and her husband have considered. They fear that if she miscarries again, "I wouldn’t have access to my fertility clinic or the medical care that I need,” she said. “So yeah, it’s definitely a big fear right now, and we’ve talked about using contraceptives again because there’s just so much unknown.”


We are in uncharted territory. Sex may be a comforting constant or completely uninteresting, but know they are both normal reactions in an otherwise abnormal time.


“I think we’re all craving a little bit of control throughout this,” Nina says. “We’re finding more time for bigger conversations, which I think fuels a more intimate relationship. It really puts everything into perspective, as far as what’s important to us, not only now but in the future.”


Read it on NBCNews.com


Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles-based psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive health.

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