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

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

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.”