Lockdown robbed us of lots of things; the pub, the office, the club – and, of course, physical contact. While we were allowed to be more than hands-on with any love interests that we might have been bubbling with, lots of us might have felt less than inclined to peel off the two-week-old tracksuit from our partner’s back.
A drop in sex drive – brought on by an unnatural amount of time cooped up indoors with the same person/people for months – was unsurprising. However, what’s more concerning is the inability to get back in touch with that desire now we’re able to. Worldwide research suggests that, on the whole, both self-pleasure and sexual intercourse with another person were on the decline during lockdown, citing factors such as stress, financial uncertainty and anxiety. It’s not just a lockdown trend, though. Increasing amounts of young people aged 18 to 35 are self-labelling as “demisexual”: they’re not celibate but not asexual either, just a lot less interested in getting it on without connection.
Why might a young person lose their libido or register a dip in their sex drive even though the world is opening back up again? This is a group who, on paper, should be fitting in quickies with benefit-buddies from one of the surplus hook-up dating apps millennials are all apparently addicted to. Whether you’re single, bed-hopping, loved-up or retired, a nosedive in sex drive can be down to myriad things.
Kate Moyle, a psychosexual therapist and host of The Sexual Wellness Sessions podcast, says it’s about unpacking desire. “What we know about desire is that it is context-dependent and responsive, which means that it isn’t protected from what’s going on in the rest of our lives. We talk about desire as the want to be sexual and arousal as the body’s process of preparing to be, and being, sexual; it’s important to know that we can have each without the other.”
Moyle is keen to dismiss the idea of sexual desire as a natural by-product of being a human and instead urges us not to see sex as a motivator or a drive. “If someone is struggling with sex, e.g. it’s making them anxious or they are struggling with sexual difficulties, dysfunction or pain, they’ll be less likely to be motivated to do it more and we see a pretty logical drop in desire.”
She also spotlights the obvious modern stresses and anxieties that we know can impact our sense of self: busy lives, relationship or communication challenges, mental health and body confidence. Unsurprisingly, technological habits can exacerbate the concerns on that list. “Social media can create unrealistic expectations and performance pressure and anxiety, which can inhibit sexual desire,” Moyle adds.
Instead of accepting a low libido, we should attend to it like we would our mental or physical health. If you’re in a couple, working on things like physical touch could help. “What experts talk about is fostering greater sexual currency, which, in a nutshell, is increasing the activities that you would only do with your partner,” Moyle says. “This includes more sensual touch, eye contact or kissing, and really leaning into that. Couples can often get stuck in patterns when it comes to their sex lives and this helps to create shifts by having sensuality and those moments without them needing to go anywhere, which can be a trigger for responsive desire.”
For people looking to have better solo orgasms, it’s all about connecting with your body properly, something we all struggle to find time for. “Even engaging with yourself in a non-sexual way but exploring different types of touch, whether in bed or in the shower, building a positive relationship with the self, is a good place to begin,” Moyle adds.
Simone, 33, from Streatham, has been with her partner, who she met on Tinder, for two years, the majority of which has been spent in lockdown. While the couple are happy, she admits that her sex drive has dipped. “I have always loved sex and it’s been a huge part of my life,” Simone says. “I am also not much of a relationship person. I have wondered if it is being in a relationship, or is it me, or is it the pandemic?”
Like many of us this year, Simone has struggled with work stress, coupled with family matters. “I know I am stressed and I feel spread very thinly – none of which are conducive to shagging.”
Adam, a gay man living in East London, was high on dating apps after the first lockdown lifted. “Guys were so up for it,” the 28-year-old says. “We’d been living indoors, [were] paranoid, and [only] with flatmates or family members. I was so incredibly horny that I found it difficult to focus on work.”
Then something happened. “After we went back into the second lockdown in January, I was so low,” he adds. “I had been working in a bar and I was made redundant. The last thing I was thinking about was getting laid.” Not only was Adam concerned about where his next pay cheque was coming from, it also sparked some latent health anxiety. “I think I’ve always worried about my health and my housemate got really unwell with Covid. Morale suffered – it’s not exactly an aphrodisiac.”
Simone would historically have categorised herself as someone who was in touch with and immersed in her sexual identity and preferences. “Urban Tantra, The Ethical Slut, Esther Perel, open relationships, whatever – I was into it all,” she reflects. “Now, I don’t want to even read books or listen to podcasts about sex, when previously I was so engaged. It makes me wince a little bit.” Adam related to sex being an integral pillar on which he fashioned his identity. “Sexual interactions were where I got a lot of my sense of self, and maybe it’s not such a bad thing that I’m discovering who I am outside of that too, but as a young gay man I was proud of my virility and honestly just really enjoying it,” he adds.
Simone’s level-headedness means she’s not stressing out too much and is giving herself the space not to be hard on herself. Adam, meanwhile, isn’t so at peace. “I’m not sure I’ll feel myself again until my sex drive reappears. I’m just trying to drink less and exercise more, which is hard now the pubs are open!”
It’s an age-old maxim, but Moyle believes that communication is key, both with yourself and any sexual partners. “Talking is the best way to improve sexual wellbeing,” she says, adding that desire, like stress, comes and goes and is not “spontaneous consistently across your lifetime.”
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and at a loss, Moyle recommends listening to Rethinking Desire with her guest Dr Karen Gurney on her podcast and looking into the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists. “It’s a brilliant directory of psychosexual therapists within the UK who are specifically trained and qualified to have exactly these conversations.”