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It has been almost four years since the world went into lockdown from the Covid-19 pandemic — but don’t be surprised if you haven’t brought sexy back yet.
Sexual function — which includes factors like desire, arousal and pleasure — in men and women decreased significantly after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a January 2022 meta-analysis of 21 studies published in the journal BMC Public Health. And women — even more so than men — struggled when it came to desire.
“I’ve been hearing about this since the first couple of months of the pandemic and it’s definitely a trend that has continued,” said Vanessa Marin, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Santa Barbara, California.
If you and your partner have found yourself in a bit of a rut, there are ways to break out of it, she said.
“Being in a relationship really is like working together as a team to figure out, ‘Hey, what is it that we’re both wanting, and how do we work together to get it?” added Marin, coauthor of “Sex Talks: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life.”
Stress kills sex
Why would Covid-19 create such an ongoing issue for sexual desire? Stress, said Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.
“It makes sense that people experienced a lot of difficulties during this time because you had these major life disruptions that didn’t necessarily go away when the world reopened,” said Lehmiller, who is also host of the “Sex and Psychology Podcast.”
It’s difficult for people’s bodies to find space for sex when under stress, Marin said.
“For the vast majority of people, if you’re under a lot of stress, your body shuts down any pathway to arousal and desire,” she said.
On top of concerns about the state of the world and your family’s health, transitioning to a Covid-19 world of no childcare, working from home and fewer social outlets meant increased stress for many people — but especially women in particular.
“The pandemic brought issues of mental load and mental labor really to the forefront in a way that it never has been before,” Marin said. Mental load refers to tasks that take planning, preparation and keeping track to maintain a household.
It makes sense that women who took on a greater share of domestic labor — all while working from home — would start to feel like intimacy with their partner was another item on the list of things for other people, she added.
And even though things went back to something closer to normal after lockdown lifted, people may have gotten used to how things were. That means many people likely haven’t found ways to reinvigorate their relationships, said Deborah Fox, a licensed sex therapist and clinical social worker based in Washington, DC.
Spontaneous vs. responsive
That feeling at the beginning of a relationship when the desire is on fire all the time is actually an anomaly in the world of sexuality, and it’s OK if you have to change your approach as a relationship goes on, Fox said.
Many people, particularly women, tend to experience what is called responsive arousal as opposed to spontaneous arousal, she said.
Whereas someone who is aroused spontaneously can be interested in sex in many circumstances, people who are more responsive in their desire require a less stressful context and contact with their partner that initiates their arousal, Fox added.
“If you want to have sex on Saturday, start foreplay on Wednesday,” she said.
And it doesn’t have to be explicit. Foreplay could be spending time with your partner watching your favorite show, going on a fun date or even taking a hot bath, Fox said.
To get back into a space where desire is more regular, Fox recommends setting aside time when you and your partner will be physically connected.
Importantly, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s when you will be having sex, and it really shouldn’t have pressure for it to lead there, she said.
Instead, cuddle, kiss or hold hands at that designated time and be open to where it might go. And don’t forget to have fun with it, Fox said.
“That regular sort of rhythm of activity is, is what’s required because otherwise drift takes over,” she added. “And if you’re already drifting from the pandemic, it feels awkward to get back into it.”
How to get the spark back
With an issue as multifaceted as sexual desire, there are many steps you can take if you want to get back in the groove.
First, take inventory of your emotional connection with your partner: Are you feeling disconnected or resentful? Working on those elements of the relationship together or with a therapist could address physical issues, Marin said.
Then look at the quality of the sex that you are having.
“The vast majority of people describe their sex as boring, routine, predictable, and that there’s nothing in it for them,” she added.
You might not know exactly what it is that would bring some spice back, but start by asking yourself and talking with your partner about what you do enjoy in your sex life — following that guidance may improve the experience for you, Marin said.
Lastly, women have to start speaking up about pain.
“The research has shown that 30% of women experienced pain the last time they had sex, which is a really mind-boggling number,” Marin said. “If you’re experiencing pain during sex, it makes zero sense to crave it, so addressing sexual pain is another great starting point for a lot of people.”
She recommends talking with your doctor or gynecologist and perhaps a sex therapist to address any pain you are feeling.
It’s crucial that we don’t respond to sexual difficulties by avoiding them, Lehmiller said.
In his research, there were “a lot of people who dealt with our sexual difficulties just by avoiding sex, because sometimes it’s easier to just not do it and not talk about it than it is to have those difficult conversations,” Lehmiller said.
And the data showed that men were more likely than women to seek professional help for the sexual problems they experienced, he said.
“Unfortunately, I think we’ve sort of normalized sexual difficulties for women,” he added.
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