As Indians, when we think of sex, our minds drift to one word before anything else - "Taboo". Despite the “Kama sutra”, Indian society is extremely conservative about sex and is ambivalent when it comes to discussing it.
Sex is wonderful, pleasurable, and exciting for most — but for others, it is stressful, shameful and anxiety-inducing due to many complex issues. There’s a lot of different factors that influence sexual health:
However, whatever one’s relationship was and is with sex, the pandemic has brought it to the forefront, directly influencing it. The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching impacts on an individual’s life. Many people have lost their jobs, their loved ones, their financial and health security throughout this pandemic. As sex falls under basic physiological needs and is a vital part of many people’s lives, it has also been impacted by the pandemic.
However, the question arises — has the impact of the pandemic on sex been positive or negative? This is a difficult question to answer because though the overall impact has been negative, the responses of individuals to their diminishing sex lives have been quite interesting.
Before we discuss the specific impact of the pandemic on sex, we must highlight what sex is and what the psychological and physical impacts of sexual activity are.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), sex is defined by “the physiological and psychological processes related to procreation and erotic pleasure.” This definition provides some clarity regarding sex and sexual activity, in the sense that it is NOT just physical. Sex is more than just the physical arousal and activity associated with it. It is also about the connection, the emotional bond, and the mental stimulation.
However, this definition is limited. It puts sexual activity into a box, making us look at it only from the lens of procreation. Sex is often seen through a heteronormative perspective, perpetuating the emphasis on procreation and “insertion”. Sex is more about erotic pleasure than procreation. For procreation, there needs to be sperm and an egg, however, sex is not limited to heterosexual couples. There are different varieties and flavours to it.
Sexual health is heavily impacted by social exclusion of subgroups. These groups should be empowered instead. It’s high time we step out of the shadow of patriarchy, which highly values the heterosexual lifestyle, therefore, placing a heavy burden on women and other sexual minorities.
Positive Impacts Of Having Sex
Sex has wonderful physical and psychological impacts. According to a review done by Pennanen-Iire et al (2020), they found that sexual activity was equivalent to mild-moderate exercise. They found reports showing that women who had had emotionally satisfying sexual activity reported having fewer cardiovascular attacks than those who had not in the last 5 years. People who have sex also tend to have a more efficient immune system. Studies have also found that sexual activity and physical intimacy can protect people from mild cognitive impairment, which is the precursor to Alzheimer’s Disease.
Psychologically, sex can bring an improvement in memory and other task-related domains (due to the frequent dopamine flushes). Having sex is related to having fewer immature psychological defences, increased intimacy, and an improved ability to identify and express emotions. It is also associated with love and trust.
How Has Pandemic Affected Sex Lives?
The pandemic, however, has ruined a lot of people’s sex lives. Quarantine has led to a lot of people feeling irritated, angry and other emotions that are indicative of depression. These include hopelessness, helplessness, in addition to lowered self-confidence and self-esteem. The latter symptoms associated with depression have proved to negatively impact one’s sex life.
Studies have shown that around 10 to 40 per cent of people have reported lower sexual arousal. Yet, the pandemic has dynamically impacted the sex lives of regular people. According to the Dual control model of sexual response (Bancroft, 2006), one's sexual response is a product of the interaction between inhibitory and excitatory responses. According to a review done on this topic, evidence was found that easily excitable people were getting more aroused during the pandemic, while those who are more inhibited, parallelly, were getting more and more sexually conservative.
The pandemic has also led to many stressful conditions, like the loss of jobs or the loss of social interaction. These increased the amounts of stressors, which in turn increased anxiety and depressive symptoms in people. Such stressors increase the risk of erectile dysfunction in many. The irritability and fear caused by the pandemic have increased sexual pain disorders or as the DSM-5 terms them, the Genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorders. Many women have also complained about a lowered quality of sex life.
The reasons why there has been a decline in sexual activity are many. We can touch upon two here. Sex therapist, Dr Jamea in 2021 stated that the beginning of the pandemic had improved the sex lives of many couples who were previously too busy in their professional lives. However as time went by, depressive symptoms began to set in and were a serious mood dampener for many people.
They stated two reasons for the same. First, they claimed that being together for that long in such proximity caused the healthy mystery between couples to dissipate. This lack of mystery and being together at all times caused couples to get angry and irritated with each other because of small things. Additionally, the danger posed by the pandemic caused many of us to go into fight or flight mode. As Jamea says “Two zebras won't mate in front of a lion”.
Despite this, sexual relations haven’t stopped for many, it has continued in different forms. Research done in India in 2020 showed that though there has been a reduction in vaginal sex due to the pandemic, anal sex and non-penetrative sexual activities have increased during the pandemic. It is quite wonderful to see how in a country where people shy away from the topic of sex, people are trying new things and are willing to be open-minded.
Additionally, Bumble India reported that one in two conversations on their platform turned into something more than just a date. Online dating showed an increase and many young people in India found out more about what they like or dislike in their potential partners. This surge in online dating and chatting made many people research what certain sex-related terms meant.
How To Reignite That Spark
However, for many, the picture is not so rosy. Many relationships have suffered due to COVID-19 resulting in many couples breaking up due to sexual problems. Jessica Graham (2021) talks about what one can do to metaphorically "get back in the groove". She suggested intentionally touching your partner and having heavy makeout sessions at least twice a week.
Physical touch by a loved one can increase one’s heart rate; even holding your partner's hand or hugging them for longer may help. Communicating with one’s partner is also important, especially communicating gratitude. Telling your partner how much you desire them and how great they look can do wonders to their self-confidence and your relationship.
Other articles find that making a plan to put aside chores to spend time with your partner also helps. You can't plan sex, but you can plan to “set” the mood. Practising mindfulness as you have sex can also be helpful. Research has shown how mindfulness reduces stress and increases one’s ability to focus. During sex, it is important to focus on just that. Focus on the thrusts and the kisses and the sensations. Such focus has also improved the sex lives of many. Finally, research has shown that trying out new things also helps improve your sex life. Bring novelty into your bedroom, try new positions, new situations, and even new toys if you can.
The pandemic and the subsequent quarantines have tested many people’s relationships and their sex lives. The lion, in this situation, has completely ruined the mood of many zebras and has consequently made them run away. Some have stayed together, exploring new and different things, while others have scattered, trying to find shelter instead. However, as aforementioned, there are many ways to find their ways back to each other. All they need to do is discover what works best for them.