For continuing coverage of how COVID-19 is affecting reproductive health, check out our Special Report.
Do you and your partners crave cheese fries at the same time? Probably not.
Sexual desire is kind of like wanting cheese fries. At any given moment you might be really excited for them, interested but not actively pursuing, or staunchly against them. It all depends on context and a number of influences at that moment. Just like it’s totally normal to want cheese fries when your partner wants pizza, it is totally normal for partners to experience different levels of sexual desire.
Since self-isolation became an essential part of our day-to-day lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of questions that I’ve gotten from people on social media dealing with differences in sexual desire is remarkable—but, ultimately, unsurprising.
As a sex educator, typically only about 2 percent of the questions I receive are about mismatched sex drive. Last week, they made up nearly 90 percent.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
The latest news, delivered straight to your inbox.
So, there’s no better time to dive into what exactly is happening here.
How sex drive really works
Your level of sexual desire is affected by two things: Your sexual excitement system and your sexual inhibition system.
As Emily Nagoski explains in her book Come as You Are, the things that excite you are like the gas pedals in your car: They’re the “turn-ons” that make you want to do something. Your inhibition system is like your brake pedal. And there are a lot of different things that can press on your brakes, including housework, childcare, professional stress, body image issues, a history of trauma, and, well, basically anything.
Everybody has things that sexually excite and sexually inhibit them, but when we think about sex drive, we tend to think solely about the things that arouse us.
The state of your mental health has a noticeable effect on your sex life. If you’ve noticed a drop in your or your partner’s sexual desire lately, try asking yourself if there are things in your life that are causing you more stress than usual (like, you know, a global pandemic). Stressors can inhibit your sexual desire simply by making your mind think about other things instead.
You may not be associating those stressors with sex, but your brain could be.
In the United States, we’re taught through movies and television that sexual desire is spontaneous. You meet somebody, and—bam!—you’re horny and ready for anything. You know that scene where two people are making out in an apartment building hallway, then tearing their clothes off, and then you fast forward to the duo tired and satisfied after? Though common onscreen, those scenarios don’t reflect the majority of sexual experiences. Sexual desire is rarely spontaneous; more often than not, it’s fostered.
That means you might have to create a sexy context for you and your partners to feel in the mood. That sexy context could be a lot of different things: Maybe that means wearing clothing or underwear that make you feel confident, or maybe it means that all of the dishes are done.
Regardless of what your context is, the important thing to note is that you can make changes to your environment that open you up to sex. You and your partners each have your own individual excitement/inhibition systems though, and sometimes they just won’t match up.
What to do when you’re craving sex and your partner isn’t
During quarantine, you might find that you’re hornier than usual. For some people, sex serves as a grounding technique. Pleasure can be a means of distraction during otherwise uncertain or overwhelming times, and the dopamine and oxytocin boost that comes with orgasm can make you feel good—even for a little bit. Plus, you might just be bored.
For others, sex is the last thing on their mind. Both responses are normal and okay.
Differences in sexual desire can cause issues in relationships even during relatively low-stress periods. So, if you and your sexual partner are quarantined together and coping with unequal sex drives, conflict may arise.
When it does, remember that a sudden shift in sexual desire doesn’t necessarily mean that your partner is no longer attracted to you. More likely, it means that there are a lot of things pressing on their sexual brakes. The way to alleviate that stress isn’t by confronting or shaming the person; it’s by having an open conversation about what is going on for them mentally, emotionally, physically, and sexually.
Try asking questions like:
- “I’ve noticed that we have (or haven’t) been having sex lately. How are you feeling about our sex life right now?”
- “Since we’re avoiding sex right now, I’d like to find some other ways for us to feel intimate. What are some things that sound enjoyable to you?”
- “I feel like COVID-19 has affected so many parts of our lives—even our sex life. Have you noticed that too? How has it been affecting you?”
Open-ended, nonjudgmental questions.
One important note—the time to have this conversation is not when you’re partially undressed and in bed. Take the conversation out of the bedroom, and you’ll reduce the likelihood that someone feels rejected or pressured to respond in a particular way.
You won’t know how your partner is feeling until you talk to them, so have the conversation even if it feels difficult. You might find that your partner is afraid to initiate sex right now because they’re uncertain if sex is safe. Or, perhaps they’re feeling so overwhelmed by the current environment that sex just isn’t a priority.
It’s essential to note that if your partner says they don’t want to have sex right now, that doesn’t mean you should convince them it’s OK. “No,” “I’m not sure,” and “Not right now” all mean no, so respect that.
If partnered sex is off the table, ask yourself what feeling or outcome you’re seeking from sex. Is it physical closeness? Orgasm? Intimacy? Exercise? Catharsis?
Knowing the outcome you’re searching for can help you pinpoint other ways to achieve it. If you’re looking for physical closeness, maybe cuddling, a long hug, or giving a massage would help. If it’s orgasm, masturbation can be an alternative. Intimacy can be fostered by disconnecting from technology and planning an at-home date. A yearning for physical activity can be fulfilled by doing a live-streamed workout or other safe, physically distant exercises. And if it’s catharsis you’re looking for, try consuming media that you know brings you extreme joy, tears to your eyes, or whatever emotion you want to feel.
No matter which route you take, make sure to continue talking with your partners about your sex life. The number one thing that gets in the way of pleasurable sex isn’t lack of technique, desire, or new toys; it’s lack of communication.