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‘Can I Have Sex During the Coronavirus Pandemic?’ The Age of Casual Hookups May Be Over

[dropcap size=big]M[/dropcap]ost nights, after long days of hosting Zoom meetings and going on neighborhood walks with Millie, his mini Goldendoodle, J. Smith finds himself staring into his phone screen, sexting. 

Before COVID-19, Smith, a 28-year-old sales executive who frequents dating apps like Hinge, Tinder, and Bumble, would go on two dates a week. Some weeks, it would be a date every night. 

“I’ve definitely been grieving the loss of my dating life, more than anything,” said Smith, who is quarantining with his mother in Santa Barbara. “And of course, sex.”

As the virus started to ravage California, Smith happened to meet a woman who was, as he put it, “worth possibly getting coronavirus for.”

But after two dates, Los Angeles went into lockdown, and they didn’t know when they would see each other again. Now, to mimic a semblance of intimacy early in a budding relationship, Smith and his partner exchange nude photos and erotic texts. 

Smith is among millions of single people across the globe struggling to maintain sexual intimacy at a time when social distance orders insist on humans staying six feet apart. Until the pandemic hit, more people relied on hook-ups and dating for intimacy than ever before. Now, the collective ache of sex and touch-deprivation is creating new problems for staying-at-home singles.

Marsh teaches another lesser-known method to engage in sexual activity from a distance, a practice called erotic hypnosis, which creates a trance for sexual pleasure using mind-control techniques. Done right, the same neural pathways in the brain are stimulated as during physical sex. 

Americans were already in what some refer to as The Great American Sex Drought; one in four adults reported no sex for the entire year of 2018. Now with nearly half the world under some form of stay-at-home orders, sex and touch experts are concerned about the negative mental health effects that even more sex deprivation will have on Americans. And some believe the pandemic may change sexual culture for good.  

“We’re hardwired for physical contact,” said Brian Mahan, a Somatic Experiencing practitioner in Los Angeles. “That energetic resonance, that belonging. We can’t live without it.”

In mid-March, when New York City Department of Health put out a sex and COVID-19 guide that essentially advised Americans to, as one Twitter user delicately put it, “masturbate or fuck your roommates,” sexually active people who live alone began to panic.  

“I was like: Am I ever going to have sex again?” Smith recalled. 

Sexual intimacy strengthens the immune system, improves sleep and confidence, and is an antidote to pain. People who have less sex experience higher levels of depression and anxiety. 

Orgasms are widely known to be beneficial for health and well-being. Barry Komisaruk, the first psychologist to record an image of a woman’s brain during an orgasm, found that every major region of her brain ignites at the height of climax. It looks like a sunset. Further studies show that vaginal-stimulation more than doubles a woman’s pain threshold.

For adults social distancing without a sexual partner, some experts recommend self-pleasure. And the recent increase in sex-toy sales shows that people are listening.  

“In terms of this pandemic: Yay for masturbation!” said Amy Marsh, a sexologist in Lake County, Calif. 

Marsh suggests many ways to engage in sexual activity with or without a partner while adhering to social distance orders. Sexting, chatrooms, reading erotic literature, and masturbation over Facetime with a partner are among her most common recommendations to her clients.  

“If all you need is a sexual release, then you’re going to find it from jacking off to porn,” Kelly said. “But most people get validated through their sexual contact. It’s the way people feel connected.”

“Physical proximity is lovely, but right now it’s hazardous,” she said. “People are going to have a hard time. They are going to feel lonely. But there are ways out of that.” 

Marsh teaches another lesser-known method to engage in sexual activity from a distance, a practice called erotic hypnosis, which creates a trance for sexual pleasure using mind-control techniques. Done right, the same neural pathways in the brain are stimulated as during physical sex. 

“You can have a very satisfying sex life from a distance with this particular skill,” she said. 

With these tools, Marsh is optimistic that people stuck at home without a sexual partner can stay satisfied, even if forced to rely on imagination “and probably make ample use of your sex toys,” she added.

But Sarah Kelly, a sex and relationship therapist in Austin, Texas, is more concerned about the implications of isolation, stressing that it’s not only about an orgasm. It might not be about sex at all. 

“The grocery store seems much more dangerous to me than this.” 

“If all you need is a sexual release, then you’re going to find it from jacking off to porn,” Kelly said. “But most people get validated through their sexual contact. It’s the way people feel connected.”

Kelly believes self-pleasure and virtual sex do little to soothe the affection-deprived during the pandemic.   

“Now, we’re having this sort of pseudo connection online, which is much less satisfying,” she said. “We’re seeing a huge uptick in depressive and anxiety symptoms because people aren’t having that connection and they’re not getting touched by people.”

Because humans are biologically wired to connect with touch and sex, Mahan, the S.E. practitioner, predicts single people will soon begin to break quarantine: “As time goes on, people will act out and behave in contradiction to what they rationally know they should do.” 

Trisha*, a sex worker, agrees: “Sex is a necessity,” she said. “People are not going to give up their basic needs unless they absolutely have to.”

To supplement her income, the Santa Monica resident exchanges sex for money through  SeekingArrangements, a popular online escort platform that connects mostly young, pretty women with rich, older men.  

..,the days of casual sex, or even kissing, with people you don’t know well—like someone you’ve just matched with on Tinder—might be over. 

Amid the pandemic, Trisha is only seeing one client per week, down from her usual four.  She says this decrease isn’t about health concerns as much as logistics. Most of her regular clients are married; they simply can’t get out of the house. Trisha isn’t worried about her own safety. The one regular client she’s kept through the pandemic is also quarantining at home and agreed to not have anyone else over. 

“I could be naïve about that, but I think he’s being honest,” she said. “The grocery store seems much more dangerous to me than this.” 

And Kelly, the Texas sex therapist, says even the most fleeting forms of sexual connections, like a one-night stand and transactional sex, is about much more than sex. 

“That’s why people do it because they want to feel the connection,” Kelly said.  “So not having that as an outlet is having a huge effect on people's mental health.”

Rather than masturbation and virtual sex techniques, Kelly recommends calling your best friend and forcing yourself to engage in vulnerable conversations. 

“That’s going to bring some satisfaction, even though it’s not sexual,” she said. “The connection fills the need.”

Smith agrees that his erotic texts and nudes have little to do with a sexual release and more to do with staying connected to his new partner. He says he hasn’t even felt the need for increased self-pleasure during this time. 

“It’s an opportunity to find different ways of experiencing pleasure. It’s a way to get in touch with our own body,” she said. “Let this be a time of exploration.”

But for Smith, this era of touch and sex deprivation feels oddly familiar. A decade ago, he moved in with his mother in a forced self-isolation to “get his shit together,” and attend community college. He didn’t have sex then, either. 

“It’s like I’m 19 again,” he reflected. “Except now I have a job.”

But is his new relationship strong enough to survive the pandemic?

“We’ve gotten weirdly close,” he said. “In a way, not having sex as the final goal of the night makes me think about things more long term.”

Sex experts agree on one thing: the novel coronavirus could change the way we engage in sex for good. Marsh says the days of casual sex, or even kissing, with people you don’t know well—like someone you’ve just matched with on Tinder—might be over. 

“There’s going to be a shift in sexual culture,” she said. “People have not yet begun to wrap their minds around this.” 

By culture, Marsh means the ways in which we define sex, and the ways we experience pleasure. For single people, that might mean more sexting, virtual pleasure, and less random hookups. Marsh remembers how things changed after HIV and AIDS consumed San Francisco in the ‘80s and believes the post-coronavirus shift will be just as profound. 

“We’re going to have to do a lot of different things that are unusual and different, that maybe don’t feel like the good old-fashioned, free-form sex,” Marsh said. “I don’t like it either, but I’d rather not die.” 

But Marsh sees this shift as a chance for self-discovery: 

“It’s an opportunity to find different ways of experiencing pleasure. It’s a way to get in touch with our own body,” she said. “Let this be a time of exploration.”

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