Infectious desire: How the pandemic is still negatively impacting our sex lives

It's time to normalize that nobody is in the mood because everything still sucks

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published February 14, 2024 12:00PM (EST)

Wilted flowers and COVID virus shadows (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Wilted flowers and COVID virus shadows (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

When COVID-19 first began spreading around the world, and cities went into lockdown, many people joked that keeping couples cooped up in their homes would lead to a baby boom. 

Instead, the opposite happened: a baby bust. Nine months into the pandemic data confirmed such an event did not occur. While there did end up being a small bump in births in 2021, which was the first major reversal in declining domestic fertility rates since 2007, a substantial decline followed and has been sustained ever since. In May 2023, Brookings reported that birth rates were below 2019 levels again.

But the story of the baby boom and bust doesn't only expose the flaws in the American system when it comes to having and caring for kids. It also provides insight into people’s sex lives and how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic. As renowned sex therapist Ester Perel explains in her famous book “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence,” day-to-day domesticity can feel like a cage; it’s not a natural recipe for improving sex and intimacy.

It turns out that living through a massive pandemic with a virus that’s highly contagious and often deadly, against the background of inflation, record homelessness, multiple wars breaking out globally and eroding abortion access, all while working from home with your spouse, isn’t exactly a libido booster either. Therapists and psychologists told Salon the pandemic hasn’t been great for sex and intimacy. In other words, if you haven’t been in the mood because it feels like everything still sucks — you’re not alone. 

Gigi Engle, a certified sex and relationship psychotherapist and sex expert at the LGBTQ dating app, Taimi, said she believes the pandemic changed sex and intimacy “tremendously.” Initially, when the pandemic first happened, there were two groups of people: “the lockdown horny people,” and those who felt tired from all the chaos and being locked in their home with their spouse and children all day. Indeed, months into the pandemic data revealed that sex toy sales were up.

“People were trying all kinds of interesting things with kink and sex toys and power dynamics,”  Engle told Salon. “Just getting really creative with it and seeing it as an opportunity to explore.”

If you haven’t been in the mood because it feels like everything still sucks, you’re not alone. 

Indeed, there was some sort of novelty around not having to be anywhere for some couples. Dr. Rhonda Balzarini, an assistant professor of psychology at Texas State University and a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, told Salon the loneliness and anxiety people felt at first brought some couples closer in the absence of the other connections people engaged with in their everyday lives. Also, working from home, together, was seen as exciting to some — but the unconventionality of it all eventually faded.

“After a few weeks of the pandemic, I think the energy started to wear off,” Balzarini said, as stressors like kids not going back to school and people losing their jobs occurred. “We entered the stage of disillusionment and depression, and during this period, I think a lot of people including couples began to struggle.”

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One study published in 2021 corroborated that people’s sex lives worsened during the pandemic. Specifically, researchers found that women experienced more of a disruption in their sexual desires than men. Nearly four years later, many people’s sex lives are still suffering from the pandemic. Even the sex lives of young people who are often thought to be out living stress-free lives, especially in an age where hookups can be as easy as swiping right.

But despite what "Euphoria" made us think, multiple surveys have shown that young people are having less sex than their peers of previous generations — a trend that started even before the pandemic. Engle said this is likely because the pandemic is still ongoing and people are still figuring out what their new normal is at the moment. While people can still go out and socialize in person now, they aren’t doing as much as before. Plus, there's fatigue from dating apps and meeting someone online after always being online. This is likely impacting people who are coupled, too. 

“People are still staying home a lot more, which is great in the sense that there's so much more flexibility for a lot of people when it comes to work,” Engle said. “But I do think partners are still for the most part on top of each other.”

It’s okay to not be in the mood right now. In fact, it’s normal. 

Matt Lundquist, a psychotherapist and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy in New York City, told Salon that working from home and wearing the same clothes all day is not conducive to sex and sexuality for many. Plus, outside stressors like inflation and working more hours could be impacting how people feel about having sex. 

“I think that couples tend to have more and better sex when they're getting along well,” he said. “And I think couples bring the strain of economic hardship, job insecurity, having to work longer hours, feeling less secure about being able to pay for college — that strain shows up in the bedroom.”

Surveys on mental health in America have shown a major increase in the number of U.S. adults who have stress, anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Engle said that COVID-19 increased folks’ levels of anxiety. It brought to light our own mortality and many people lost loved ones and saw many of their friends and family suffer. 

“And I think people's mental health has not recovered from that,” she said. “And when we are in that state constantly, your sex drive plummets because your body is telling you that it's not safe, and it's not okay to be sexual.” 

Of course, there's also the physical part of COVID-19. We know that the virus spreads through particles in the saliva, mucus or breath of infected people, even when a person doesn't exhibit symptoms. This still makes sex and dating risky and that could be affecting sex.

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“We're still figuring out what life after the pandemic means,” Balzarini said. “Do we still wear masks? Do we still need boosters? There's still a lot of uncertainty around the COVID-19 situation.”

All three experts agreed that it’s okay to not be in the mood right now. In fact, it’s normal. 

“It's completely normal that we are responding appropriately to the hellstorm of a world that we are currently living in, so there is nothing wrong with having that feeling,” Engle said, adding that for some people they are okay where they are at right now. For others who want to have more sex, the first step is to make their bodies feel safe again."

"But most importantly," she continued, "everyone should have more compassion for themselves right now. I think that there's been this very incorrect notion that like, we're supposed to just be like, ‘oh, this mess is over, I want to have sex again,' and that's not fair or realistic, or how humans work or adapt.”

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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