A lot has changed in the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing, quarantine, school closures, working from home, not working at all (not to mention fear about the health of you and/or your loved ones), as well as… libido.
Are people experiencing the “quarantine hornies,” or is sex entirely off the menu? The answer is yes; both; all the above.
Shifts in stress and anxiety, as well as big life changes, can have an effect on a person’s libido in either direction. From a biological perspective, eating, sleeping, and exercising habits all affect sexual appetite. Getting more sleep now? Sexual desire might increase. Can’t go to the gym anymore and don’t work out as much? Sexual urges might decrease. Eating lots of food, but not the healthiest kinds? You guessed it, potential passionate-feelings buzzkill.
A psychological concept called Terror Management Theory provides another explanation for why this libido change can occur in either direction. This theory says that when we are reminded of our mortality, we alter our behaviors. Though the creators of this theory didn’t specifically relate it to libido, the connection makes sense. Basically, “Life is short! I need to have lots of sex!” or “Life is short! There’s no time for lots of sex when I have so many other things to worry about!”
Anxiety can also affect libido in a bi-directional manner. Think of it like Goldilocks and the Libido-Bears of Anxiety. Too much or too extreme anxiety can decrease sexual desire drastically, whereas just a little bit, juuuuust the right amount, can increase it (no anxiety at all, of course, has no effect). It’s also possible to alternate between both ends of the libido spectrum!
While anxiety, Terror Management Theory, and lifestyle changes are some broad explanations for libido changes during the pandemic, you may be wondering if there are any other, more specific reasons. There are.
“Where on earth did my libido go?”
- Survival Stress: There are so many causes of stress right now. There’s relationship stress (of the familial, platonic, sexual, and romantic kinds), for one. There’s also school stress. Adapting to digital learning or making the decision to take some time off from school are both really difficult. Motivation and focus might suffer right now, further increasing stress. Plus, there’s work stress. The loss of a job—part-time or full time, for either you or your parents— is always stressful, let alone piling everything else happening right now on top. Pair this up with a pandemic and health concerns, and “survival stress” occurs. When this happens, the body essentially goes into fight-or-flight, and the only thing that matters is getting through the stressor—sex be damned.
- Mental health struggles: Many people are experiencing mental health changes during this time. Previously controlled depression might now be spiking. Panic could be appearing for the first time. Generalized anxiety might be rearing its head. If you’ve lost a loved one during this time, there’s processing, grief, and mourning. All these things can drop a sky-high libido down to the sub-basement.
- Pregnancy, contraception, and other sexual health concerns: if you do have access to a sexual partner*, fears about pregnancy or STIs could stunt libido. Expired IUDs or Depo-Provera shots might not be easy to renew right now. Perhaps you’re out of PrEP and don’t want to risk going to a doctor’s office or pharmacist for more. Maybe there are access issues for reproductive health care. Either way, worrying about getting pregnant or contracting an STI isn’t exactly a turn on.
“Why am I in the mood all the time?”
- Physical contact changes: Even if you weren’t sexually active with partners before lockdown, you likely experienced other forms of physical touch from romantic partners, friends, and family. Now, without access to partners and friends, that physical contact is lacking, and quarantining with family might have you cringing at the thought of giving them a hug. This prolonged lack of physical contact can cause an increased desire for physical intimacy, which may include sexual intimacy.
- Sex or masturbation as coping mechanism, distraction tactic, or stress reliever: Whether it’s a solo session with a hand or toy, or a sexy video chat or phone call with a partner, sex and orgasms release feel-good hormones which can be helpful in periods of high-anxiety. If you’re experiencing pandemic-induced anxiety (think back to the Libido Bears), the body might know it needs something to relax, and you might be getting turned on more as a result!
- Schedule changes: Before the pandemic you may have had classes, a job, sports, clubs, religious obligations, and a social life. If you were really busy, you could have simply lacked the time to always be in the mood back then. Now, with many things cancelled or put on hold, there’s more opportunity for you and your body to feel aroused. Similarly, with the removal of many obligations from your plate, your stress levels might have decreased, which can increase libido.
“What do I do about it?”
- Whether you don’t currently have a partner or a safe way to be with one, or don’t want to masturbate all the time, you can channel your libido energy elsewhere. Finding something that fully occupies your mind can be a great distraction from unwanted arousal. Play a game, paint a picture, work on a puzzle, read a (non-sexy) book.
- Meditation can also be useful. Meditation can improve willpower, self-awareness, patience, tolerance, and the ability to refocus attention. Becoming more in tune with the senses through mediation can be helpful in redirecting them. This practice can also help you become better at experiencing sexual feelings and subsequently letting them go.
- Though certain kinds of exercise increase libido, exercise can also be used to tone down your arousal or release those feelings. High intensity exercise can be a great option, because it can decrease or answer libido, distract you from arousal, and make you way too tired to even think about wanting to have sex.
“I don’t like that my libido has changed. I want it to go back to the way it was. What do I do?”
- Don’t guilt or shame yourself. If you normally enjoy a high libido, but now don’t want to be touched with a ten-foot pole, it’s okay. You’re still you, and you haven’t done anything wrong to bring this upon yourself. Your libido will return as the world settles into new normalcy and life becomes less scary and unknown. Likewise, if you never felt like you needed much sexual contact, but now are always itching for a release, know that you didn’t all of a sudden become sex crazed, and you’re not doomed to a life of constant horniness. Things will even out.
- Pandemic or not, fluctuations in libido throughout life are extremely common. Age, diet, life changes, and many other things factor into sexual desire, and this will remain true during periods of life other than this one. Lockdown may have intensified libido changes for many people, but that doesn’t mean there will be need to worry if desire fluctuations happen again down the road when the pandemic is over. This also means that libido changes right now for some people might not have anything to do with the pandemic at all! It could just be one of the many perfectly normal libido shifts that occur throughout life.
- Talk to someone you can trust. That person can be a romantic or sexual partner, friend, relative… really, anyone you’re comfortable with. Just talking about what you’re experiencing can minimize distress. If that doesn’t work and you have the access to mental health care, counselors—especially those certified in sex therapy—can be a great resource to help you work though these changes. Many counselors are offering teletherapy right now, so you can keep yourself and your family safe while still taking care of your mental and sexual health. Scarleteen’s direct services are also available to you.
- Masturbate! Solo-sex can be helpful whether your libido is unusually low or unusually high. Masturbation can help release some sexual tension if your libido is higher than normal; likewise, if your libido seems to have flown off to a distant country, taking some time to really get yourself aroused, and doing so on a somewhat regular basis, can help bring your sex drive back up naturally. It’s kind of like a positive and negative feedback loop in one. This practice can be valuable whether you’re single or in a relationship with someone you no longer have physical access to.
- If you have a partner*, finding other ways to be intimate (sexual and not) are super important and useful right now. Besides phone calls and video chatting, try writing each other a poem, or making each other a picture. Work out together in your own separate homes. Pick out a movie to watch at the same time. Make playlists for each other and listen to them simultaneously. Cook a dinner together on video chat, or order from the same restaurant. Intimacy building is an important part of all relationships, and adaptations in how we do so may lead your relationship to become even stronger!
*You are your safest sex partner. This is true always, but especially right now.
If you are having sex with a partner you don’t live with, there are risks associated with participating in in-person partnered sexual activity. We know that COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets found in saliva and breath, making kissing a particularly high risk for transmission, and heavy breathing during sex can exacerbate spread. Though scientists currently think it’s unlikely for the virus to spread through semen or vaginal fluid, there may be a possibility for transmission through contact with fecal matter, making oral-anal contact a potential mode infection. Remember that trauma can lead to risk taking, and many people are experiencing trauma right now due to the pandemic, so intentionally prioritizing proper sexual precautions is of utmost importance. If you do have sex with someone outside your household, be safe.
- Avoid kissing and unprotected oral-body contact, especially oral-anal contact.
- Try mutual masturbation. Self-pleasuring together from a distance is significantly safer than up-close body-to-body activity.
- Use barrier protection always, and contraception if needed. Focusing on COVID safety doesn’t mean standard sexual health practices should take a back-seat.
- Talk about COVID the same way you would any sexual health topic. Does either partner have any symptoms? Has either been tested recently? What was the diagnosis? Safe-sex conversation skills can be truly beneficial for this situation.
- Minimize the amount of partners you have during this time. If you are going to have sex, limiting your number of partners can be truly helpful with preventing spread of the virus.
- Make informed decisions about your partners. Have they been social distancing or quarantining? How many people live in their household? Though risk is still high regardless, risk significantly increases if one or both people have not been following social distancing guidelines.
- Wear a mask. Though masks don’t work perfectly in close contact, they can still help minimize spread by containing droplets. If you’re going to be having sex, taking every precaution you can is important. Though it may seem strange at first, incorporating masks into sex can be a fun and adventurous new thing!
- Shower before meeting up and after parting ways, and wash your hands for twenty seconds immediately prior to and immediately post sexual activity. Cleaning your body and hands can remove any droplets that may have landed on your skin during un-masked alone time or from contact with your partner.
In the end, it’s important to remember that these times are difficult for everyone. You’re allowed to have feelings about what’s going on, and you’re allowed to be nervous about libido changes. But know that it’s all normal, and it’s okay that these changes are happening. People all over the world are experiencing the same things you are. And it will get better.