Sex and the Locked-down City: Intimacy in the Age of Coronavirus

Watching more porn, reading erotic novels and seeking sex as consolation. 'The outbreak of the coronavirus heightens our awareness of being transient beings'

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A couple kiss at the Barcelona airport, Spain, last week. The coronavirus epidemic differs from the sort of national stress that’s caused by war.
A couple kiss at the Barcelona airport, Spain, last week. The coronavirus epidemic differs from the sort of national stress that’s caused by war.Credit: Emilio Morenatti/AP
Shirley Gal

The coronavirus pandemic has brought life to a standstill, but online, records are being broken.

The leading pornography site Pornhub reported that since early March, as countries imposed quarantine measures in an effort to halt the spread of the virus, its traffic has surged, bringing 10, 20 or even 60 percent more visitors than their usual numbers.

And it’s not just pornography (although some of the huge jumps in traffic reflect Pornhub’s generous free upgrade to premium for all its users around the globe).

A couple bored with the government-required national isolation at home due to the spreading coronavirus, sits in window in downtown Warsaw, Poland.
A couple bored with the government-required national isolation at home due to the spreading coronavirus, sits in window in downtown Warsaw, Poland.Credit: Czarek Sokolowski/AP

The CEO of Indiebook, a local publisher and online bookstore, says that since March 15, “we’ve seen a 30 percent increase a day in digital sales. The clear preference is for light reading, with the emphasis on romances with a happy ending.”

Escapism is at its height – but does this affect life itself?

“Epidemics underscore the fragility of our everyday behavior and show how social our body is, and how regulated it is by the state and its institutions, which organize everyone’s social life,” says Dr. Dana Kaplan from the Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication at Tel Aviv’s Open University. “That control is clearly visible during an epidemic: The state doesn’t only track the sick digitally, but also decides who we can come into contact with and at what distance. In other words, epidemics change our contact regimes.”

She relates that after the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2003, studies noted the formation of “communities of fate,” which suggested different contact regimes in difficult times: “One point they make is how wearing face masks in the public space created a sense of shared destiny, social supervision and a feeling of ‘we’re all in the same boat.’”

But when it comes to sexual behavior, “The research literature doesn’t have much to say about the influence of epidemics (that are not sexual diseases).” Kaplan adds that “There is a demographic study on the Spanish flu, which erupted in 1918, and there are studies on the literary representations of the effects of epidemics. But how did people respond sexually? That’s not really known.”

Romance or a one-night stand?

Prof. Gurit Birnbaum believes that an epidemic can have a positive effect on some people’s sex lives. “The outbreak of the coronavirus heightens our awareness of being transient beings and intensifies anxiety about death,” observes the lecturer and researcher in psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “In a study I conducted together with [my colleague] Prof. Gilad Hirschberger, we showed that one of the strategies for coping with the rising tide of anxiety is to displace it from our consciousness through sexual activity. Of course the significance attributed to sex differs for each individual.”

What do you mean?

Birnbaum: “When there is anxiety about death, many people prefer to invest in meaningful sex, the kind that’s rooted in romantic relationships. That kind of sex generates a feeling of belonging, protection and warmth. But for others, fear of death will prompt them to seek out one-night stands. Casual sex produces a soaring feeling of vitality and accomplishment, and also offers a sort of release from tension and anxiety. Generally speaking, people who feel threatened by extreme closeness and the emotional aspects of relationships are more inclined toward this pattern. The link between having multiple partners and a feeling of high self-esteem is more common for them.”

Birnbaum emphasizes that the coronavirus epidemic differs from the sort of national stress that’s caused by war. “It’s hard to predict whether the present situation will push people toward more sexual activity or will instead produce a surge of emasculating anxiety, which will affect both sexual performance and the urge to have sex. You know, it’s not easy to indulge in pleasurable, escapist sexual activity with a cloud of anxiety about being infected floating over you.”

According to a survey published by the dating app OkCupid on March 10, about 92 percent of Americans it polled reported that they were continuing to date as usual amid fears of the coronavirus. The number of sick and dead has spiked in the United States since then, and the survey results are probably less relevant today. But conversations with people on the dating market show that people are still corresponding on the apps, but few of the conversations come to anything.

“The apps are still buzzing, but to say that I’ve had a date since the coronavirus struck? No, and I also don’t really feel like it these days,” says Ran Gil, 42. “In any case, the option at the moment is a date at someone’s house, but this country is super-conservative and women aren’t open to this suggestion, which puts an end to dating.”

A couple hold hands as the coronavirus disease outbreak continues in downtown of Mexico City, Mexico.
A couple hold hands as the coronavirus disease outbreak continues in downtown of Mexico City, Mexico.Credit: GUSTAVO GRAF/ REUTERS

On the other hand, there’s the loneliness. “It’s a terrible situation that increases the feeling of loneliness, anxiety and uncertainty,” says Mor, 37. “All I want right now is someone to find comfort in, and actually, these days I’m willing to settle for any kind of distraction, even a virtual one. I wonder, as time goes by, if I’ll become less picky and take anyone who’s just willing to go on a date in the open air, or that this time will make me realize that I can also be alone, and I’ll start to be more selective about who comes into my life and my body.”

Anxiety as a turn-on

“What’s interesting here is the ambivalence, and the tension between proximity and distance,” says Birnbaum. “On the one hand, an existential threat is sexually arousing, but in this case the object of desire is also the source of the threat. The wish for sex and the dread of anyone who gets closer than two meters from us foments plenty of frustration.”

A couple exercise on Primrose Hill, London, as the UK continues to be on lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A couple exercise on Primrose Hill, London, as the UK continues to be on lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.Credit: John Walton/AP

Anxiety about death can also arouse the dormant libido – “Eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die.” However, this anxiety can actually stifle the sexual urge and even make us aggressive toward our partner. “The stress response is an ancient survival mechanism that is intended to prepare us to cope with threats,” notes Dr. Liat Yakir, a graduate of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s molecular genetics department. “When the response is activated, the stress hormones – cortisol and adrenaline – are secreted, and the brain enters a state focused on eliminating the stress. In this situation, the digestive system slows down, the immune system is suppressed and the sexual urge discontinues.”

“By the way,” she adds, “stress is infectious. We experience pressure that others are feeling, they experience ours, and in short order personal stress becomes national, and vice versa.”

Surrounded by cherry trees in full bloom, a couple stroll along Kelly Drive in Philadelphia this week.
Surrounded by cherry trees in full bloom, a couple stroll along Kelly Drive in Philadelphia this week.Credit: Matt Rourke/AP

So there’s no sex during stressful times?

Yakir: “Stress makes us more aggressive toward the other. Studies have shown that when two rats are placed in a cage and one of them is given an electric shock, the first thing it does is bite the other one. When a baboon is under stress, it looks for another baboon that is lower or equal to it in the social hierarchy and takes its anger out on it in order to calm down. In other words, part of our self-calming mechanism is transferring the stress to another, and in our case it’s our partner who’s on the receiving end.”

What can we do to prevent this?

“Different people cope with stress in different ways, and the solution is to show empathy and understand that we are not all built in the same way. When we talk about and share our feelings and our partner pays attention and shows understanding, our body is flooded with oxytocin, the hormone that reduces the cortisol level and heightens calm and joy. To achieve that, it’s necessary to look into the other’s eyes, embrace, kiss, caress and – most important – to make love. An orgasm produces the highest level of oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine – the hormone of happiness and serenity. The body needs them now more than ever.”

Love at a distance

Lee Reuveni Bar-David, a certified sex therapist and the director of the sex therapy clinic at Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava, doesn’t rule out virtual relationships. “We are living in a crazy time, when the other constitutes a danger but we still crave connection,” she says. “Relationships soothe us and give us meaning, so we keep trying. In some ways, the ability to start a virtual relationship is the embodiment of the technological potential we know from the world of our jobs, for example. From the protected sphere of our home and our pajamas, we can feel more comfortable than when we meet in a cafe, so we shed our defenses and masks and manage to truly talk.”

A couple wear protective gloves as they sit together in a public garden amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Ankara, Turkey.
A couple wear protective gloves as they sit together in a public garden amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Ankara, Turkey.Credit: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

Reuveni Bar-David elaborates: “I’m referring to creating a relationship through the screen where you can see the other person, and not just chats or phone calls. The voice on its own is deceiving – words without a melody. When we see the body language, the face, the home setting, we can get to know the person better and discover what’s behind the name.”

Eran Katz, a clinical psychologist, also agrees that virtual relationships have their advantages under the circumstances. “We yearn for human ties, the need for human communication is biological and imprinted in our nervous system. For people who don’t live with a partner at the moment, that communication is missing.”

Katz acknowledges that “there is an element of a lie” in getting acquainted virtually, “when you create a fantasy for yourself about the person across from you, which could blow up in reality. Still, under quarantine and with the loneliness that goes with it, these ties can offer a lot. Even if over time there’s a high chance that virtual dating won’t lead to marriage, in many cases it’s the best thing there is at the moment.”

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