Quick sex survey: which of these words turns you on the most? A) Covid. B) Recession. C) War. D) Climate. If you picked E), all of the above, congratulations! Your sex drive is probably in the toilet, which means you have more time to ignore your partner and lie awake
At least you’re not alone — a study published in the Frontiers in Endocrinology journal found that 45 per cent of people reported a reduced libido throughout the pandemic and 40 per cent reported significant increases in low mood, anxiety and stress.
“It’s not a very sexy time right now,” agrees Beatrice Thorne, general manager of Eve Wellness, a health and supplement consultancy that focuses on women’s hormones. Last year Eve conducted its own survey of 1000 people that revealed 62 per cent felt lockdown negatively impacted their sex drive, busting the myth we’re a nation of rabid Romans feverishly producing Covid babies.
Now that pandemic anxiety is merging with financial stress, the inability to get out of our troubled heads and in touch with our bodies is fuelling that correlation with depleted desire, says Beatrice.
Hormonally speaking, chronic stress means the body is simply too busy making the fight or flight hormones, cortisol and adrenalin, to prioritise a healthy balance of estrogen and testosterone, the key hormones that drive our primal need for sex, whether or not we’re at a fertile time of life, and regardless of what we consider our “normal” levels of desire to be.
“If our body perceives we’re in a dangerous situation, it’s not going to see that as an ideal place to bring a child into,” says Beatrice. “Therefore it’s going to prioritise our survival over reproduction.”
Eve Wellness offers testing for those concerned about their hormones, but if there’s one thing Beatrice advises anyone keen to reboot their sex lives outside of taking mood-enhancing herbal supplements such as ashwagandha, magnesium, zinc and, for men, American ginseng — it’s to regularly engage in a four-syllable word starting with M.
“A regular meditation practice works wonders, showing our bodies and our brains we are actually in a safe space. We can produce sex hormones over stress hormones by helping us get into that parasympathetic nervous system state.”
Naturally, it often takes more than a physiological approach if you want to get to the root of the issue.
Verity Thom, a practising psychologist who writes a relationship and sex therapy column for the Herald with her husband and fellow therapist Nic Beets, says our reasons for not wanting sex are as multi-faceted as we are.
She says she’s seeing more young people stalling committed relationships due to larger life pressures, and singles finding it harder to meet potential partners in our fragmented, post-lockdown world. Kiwi women are even getting spooked by patriarchal authorities stripping away reproductive rights overseas.
“If you’re an American woman in one of those states [where abortions are now illegal], you now have a lot of threat to your body, to the autonomy of your body. [Sex] could have an incredible impact on your life. New Zealand women are now going to feel more threat from the global patriarchy. I’m talking to a lot of women here who are very upset, very distressed and very angry.”
The result is that sexual pleasure becomes somewhat of a luxury, a privilege for those who aren’t preoccupied by first-world problems such as the rising cost of living or juggling work with parenting. Even those of us who now work from home can find the time and energy to do it hard to come by.
“Good, deeply connected sex involves openness and vulnerability, whether it’s a hook-up situation or a marriage,” says Verity. “But people are so stressed and under threat. We know that at least 70 per cent of women withdraw to protect their lives from too much threat. They shut down physically. They don’t want touch, let alone sexual touch.”
It’s much less demanding to relieve stress with a quick solo session, she says, than it is to be vulnerable and open in your sex life with another human being. Yet it could be the key to help thread our fractured society back together.
“Having desire for sexual connection and having consensual and pleasurable sexual connection enriches our sense of being deeply connected with others,” she says. “Human beings get such a comfort from communing, so if you let that go or it drops off and is important to you, it reduces your wellbeing, that comfort and steadiness.”
Forging a deep connection with our sexual partners outside of the bedroom is an important way to foster one inside it, she adds, so engaging in small moments of intimacy — a kiss on the neck or a flirty text — is one way to stoke the fires without adding too much pressure to go all the way.
Another solution is to simply prioritise pleasure, says holistic sex coach Melissa Vranjes, whose work with clients involves looking at a wide spectrum of factors, including the mental, emotional and spiritual. Besides confronting any shame or trauma we might have lurking in our sexual pasts, she recommends we set aside the tendency to put the pleasure of others before our own.
Her top tip for women is to slow down and cultivate a relationship with our own bodies and desires, whether it’s taking the time to rub oil into our skin, wearing clothes that make us feel sensual or (perhaps not your typical weeknight ritual) gazing in awe at your vulva in the mirror.
Reigniting a waning desire to engage in sex with a long-term partner comes down to communication, and paying attention to the intellectual elements of sex that might have attracted you to your partner in the first place; not just the physical side.
“A lot of my clients say, ‘Oh no, it’s been too long,’ or, ‘I don’t want to bring it up.’ They should. But having that conversation is important, and saying, ‘This feels really vulnerable and I feel ashamed but let’s talk about why we’re not having sex right now, because one of us is stressed — we have a new baby — let’s just unpack what’s there.’”
The recognition of sex as a stress-reliever is another good reason to get it on, and we may just find it has knock-on effects in surprising areas. Melissa likens desire’s relationship with stress to the popular notion of holiday sex, when we’re relaxed and have more time for pleasure.
“It’s an innate part of the human experience,” says Melissa. “It can bring so much fulfilment into our lives. Sex is not only important for your relationship with yourself and your partner but for all aspects of your life. When you feel confident in the bedroom, which is this really vulnerable place, it will ripple out into your everyday life and you’ll start feeling more confident to use your boundaries with friends and family. It’s a much bigger picture than just getting off or getting satisfied.”