Why couples are having less sex during the pandemic — and what they can do to change it

“Not a human being on this planet is built for 24/7 with somebody else,” says anthropologist Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. (Photo illustration by Nathalie Cruz, Yahoo Life)
“Not a human being on this planet is built for 24/7 with somebody else,” says anthropologist Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. (Photo illustration by Nathalie Cruz, Yahoo Life)

Studies show that couples are having less sex during the pandemic, even though experts say the health benefits of sex are exactly what is needed during these stressful times. 

The Kinsey Institute released a study called “Sex and Relationships in the Time of COVID-19” showing that half of the 1,200 participants are having less sex since the pandemic began. 

“There's all this rhetoric around, everyone's watching more porn and everyone's buying more sex toys and then there's going to be this baby boom,” Isharna Walsh, founder and CEO of the sex and intimacy app Coral, tells Yahoo Life.

“But I think the reality of what we're seeing from the surveys and polls that we're running is that people are having less sex and they're masturbating less, but they feel that it's even more important,” she says.

In an April survey of 700 users, Coral found that 66 percent of respondents say intimacy and connection feels more important since the start of the pandemic, but 38 percent say they are having sex less often. Walsh describes tension in many relationships right now during the pandemic, with new sources of stress that she describes as “a pressure cooker.” 

“There's no space from our partner and spaces are often what creates that desire and eroticism. We don't get to see our partner from afar in this current context. So a lot of people are struggling with desire,” she says. 

Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and the chief scientific adviser to dating site Match.com, says the realities of spending so much time with a significant other during the pandemic is simply not natural. She tells Yahoo Life that for millions of years, couples lived in hunter and gatherer groups where the men would go on hunting expeditions and be gone for several days in a row. 

We were not built for 24/7, she says,” “Even in the finest of relationships, you’re going to need to alter your daily habits in various ways that meet this crisis,” she says.

She and her boyfriend found a solution to this problem.

Every day, they come up with a schedule for the day: “We set a schedule. We have our safe spaces. We know when we're going to work. We know when we're going to play. And, we know when we're going to make love,” she says.

Even before the pandemic, Fisher and her boyfriend employed this sort of schedule. She says the routine – and the respect of each other’s time and boundaries — has helped them to navigate. “When I have to walk within three feet of him to go to the kitchen or various other things, I never look at him. I never talk to him. If I want to ask him a question, I say, ‘Sweetie, can I interrupt you for a minute?’” 

And then when the time comes to be together, Fisher says it’s more exciting.

“You just can't be spontaneous right now under the circumstances,” says Chris Kraft, director of clinical services at the Johns Hopkins University. He says that as the pandemic nears the two-month mark, couples who initially enjoyed being together during the stay-at-home orders tell him that things are changing. 

“They're starting to feel very self-conscious about their body image, being healthy, being active, not working out,” he says. “I'm seeing more of that become preventative to intimacy and being sexual for some longer-term couples in the epidemic.”

He says stress and anxiety often decreases sexual desire, especially for women. “Very few women turn to being sexual when they're stressed,” he says. “The stress and the increased anxiety, frustrations, isolation factors are probably harder on female members of a couple as far as affecting their desire.”

And if a couple is raising children, Kraft says sex is a real challenge. His advice: plan, plan, plan.

“I’ve got a couple of couples that’ll be intimate early in the morning because the kids aren't really up. In fact, earlier in the day is a better time to be sexual than later, after they were tired and worn down from a day,” he says.

Walsh says the most important thing for couples to realize during the pandemic is that sex is critical to wellness. 

“Right now, especially when we’re surrounded by health concerns and potentially death, intimacy can feel like an indulgence and pleasure might feel like a priority that doesn't make sense, but it’s incredibly important for physical and mental health.”

Fisher agrees.

“We’ve evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction. One is the sex drive. The second is feelings of intense romantic love, and the third is feelings of deep attachment,” she says. “When you actually get in bed with somebody and have sex with somebody, you can stimulate all three of these basic brain systems ... and they're all very good for you.”

How good? Really good.

Fisher says the benefits of regular sex with someone you love increases energy, focus, motivation and optimism, increases pain threshold, boosts the immune system, is good for heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, promotes sleep, lowers the stress hormone cortisol, increases dopamine (associated with feelings of intense romantic love) and elevates mood. “The reason that it elevates mood is because in seminal fluid are all kinds of chemicals that are very good for the brain,” she says.

“And with orgasm, there’s a real flood of oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is associated with feelings of trust and attachment.”

Fisher says catastrophes like the pandemic push people to assess their relationships and make decisions. “Sex is a very central part of most relationships. If it’s bad, it will get worse. And if it’s good, it will get better.”

Walsh says the Coral app has seen a 60 percent spike in new users in April. She says the app, which includes exercises for partners to increase intimacy, is one way to consciously cultivate and work on our sex lives. 

“I think people are thinking about their relationships. They're recognizing the value of their relationships,  and they're now thinking more about ‘How do I invest in this?’ ‘How do I improve it?’” says Walsh. “I think giving permission to prioritize it is really important.”

Here are expert tips to boost intimacy during the pandemic:

  • Continuity:  Kraft says having sex regularly is critical. “I think the sweet spot is once a week if people can maintain it.” But Dr. Fisher says studies she’s conducted show both men and women believe having sex two to three times per week is ideal.

  • Plan to have sex: “If you don't have kids or you've got the opportunity to get rid of the kids for the night to the grandparents — have a date night. Get dressed up, you look nice, you make an effort to turn all of the devices off and set a mood, to delineate intimate time from everyday time,” says Walsh. Kraft says having planned times for intimacy can also create something to look forward to and can help build desire.

  • Create intimacy: Kraft recommends creating a space to be together in circumstances that might lead to intimacy. “Maybe it's a walk, maybe it's laying and cuddling or massaging and just sort of connecting in bed ... and then let that grow,” he says. Walsh recommends a massage or a bath together with candles. “Something where you can create a bit of space where the pressure is off to allow both people to opt in to coming together in a sensual setting,” she says.

  • Self-care: “Self-care is crucial to manage stress and anxiety,” says Kraft. He recommends meditation, exercise, connecting with friends and family and being playful with each other. 

  • Communicate: Some of the big things that people fight about in relationships are money, children, in-laws and sex. “And if you are in a relationship where you fight about sex, this lockdown is going to be probably more difficult because you don’t have any excuses,” says Dr. Fisher.  Dr. Kraft agrees: “Bottom line is that the emphasis always needs to be on the communication, the talking, checking in about the sex life,” he says.  “Because it really has to be done as a team. ... It can't be one person trying to drive at all,” he says.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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