Early in the pandemic, many coupled patients in my therapy practice mentioned sex less than usual. It was crowded out by all the other existential concerns and emotional problems. But as the world starts to reopen and spring is in the air, their interest in sex — and concern about the pandemic’s effect on it — has picked up. “I wonder if we’ll ever have regular sex again,” “We got out of habit and I don’t know how to bring it up,” and “I just don’t feel sexy after all we’ve gone through — but I’d like to” are common laments I hear.
Research indicates sex has suffered during the past two years. A 2022 review of 22 studies, including 2,454 women and 3,765 men, found a decrease in sexual activity and higher rates of sexual dysfunction during the pandemic. Another review of research from 18 countries, conducted until April 2021, showed that women experienced lower sex frequency as well as a decline in sexual satisfaction.
Many factors have contributed to this compromised sexual functioning. Biological reasons include the facts that “people experienced more stress and fear, less exercise, worse diets, more drinking and smoking, and increased use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications,” said Ian Kerner, relationship and sex therapist in New York City and the author of “So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex: Laying Bare and Learning to Repair Our Love Lives.”
Furthermore, rates of anxiety, depression and relationship conflict, all of which adversely affect sex, have gone up during the pandemic. Gail Guttman, a relationship and sex therapist in the D.C. area, added that being stuck at home with a partner and kids and having no privacy also have contributed to worsening sexual functioning.
Research indicates that a robust sex life is associated with higher individual and couple well-being — and that can be especially important during stressful times. A January 2021 Italian study, for example, found that both women and men who had sex during the pandemic lockdown exhibited lower depression and anxiety.
With infection rates falling, mask mandates lifting and experts designing road maps that will hopefully leave the pandemic in our rearview mirrors, now seems like a good time for couples to reinvigorate their sex lives. “There is an opportunity here to not just get back to normal, but to improve things in creative ways,” said David Ley, a psychologist and sex therapist in Albuquerque. This seems especially important given that the frequency of intercourse and other partnered sexual activities was falling even before the pandemic.
Here are steps that Ley and others recommended to help couples find their way back to each other physically.
Decide together that sex is important
If a couple wants to rekindle their sex life, it needs to be a mutual decision, followed by action. “People might think things will just get better on their own. But we need to prioritize sex if we want to see a change,” said Cynthia Graham, a professor in sexual and reproductive health within psychology at the University of Southampton, in the United Kingdom.
How do you prioritize sex? First, assess whether your relationship’s level of trust and goodwill toward each other provides a safe base for rekindling sex. “Being able to unite and together work on improving your sex life, instead of seeing it as ‘me vs. you’ problem, is a good start,” said Ley.
Then, make space for sex in your life, working together to identify and overcome barriers. Some couples might discover that helping each other lower stress or reduce fatigue — perhaps with a reallocation or reprioritization of responsibilities — is what’s needed. Others might find that reviving their emotional intimacy is a prerequisite for being physically intimate; one way to do that is to take turns answering the 36 questions in this study that were shown to increase closeness.
What is particularly important is to let go of any presumptions about your libido, the way sex is supposed to go or what will constitute sexual intimacy on any given night. Expectations that you’ll feel burning desire, experience fireworks in bed and achieve simultaneous orgasms — ideas typically fueled by unrealistic media portrayals — often backfire, as sex educator and researcher Emily Nagoski details in “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.” It is interesting that a significant number of older people report having satisfying sex lives because they learned to let go of assumptions and accept their bodies.
“You should replace sexual desire with willingness to show up and go through the motions which are pleasant for both of you, and might get you in the mood,” said Kerner. “Just being truly present goes a long way.”
Talk about sex
There is a paradox in our society: Sex is seemingly everywhere, all the time — in shows, videos, podcasts, magazines and ads, among other places — but couples at home avoid conversations about it. Many of my patients express high anxiety about the thought of bringing up anything pertaining to sex when talking with their partners, especially if they anticipate any disagreement. Mirroring my observations, a 2017 study found that couples feel much more anxious before conflictual conversations related to sex compared with other subjects.
Other research suggests that individuals in relationships also are reluctant to engage in sexual self-disclosure. “There is so much discomfort, shame, and fear of rejection that stops people from talking about sex,” said Ley. “And yet, the only way to improve your sex life is by discussing what optimal sex looks like for you and what’s standing in the way of achieving it. Sexual goals, preferences, fantasies and differences in desire levels can all be communicated and negotiated with empathy and kindness.”
Graham explained that sexual communication is strongly related to sexual satisfaction and that “there is a reciprocal relationship between sexual communication and desire.” So heed the advice of the 1990 song by Salt-N-Pepa, “Let’s Talk About Sex”: “Don’t be coy, avoid, or make void the topic / Cause that ain’t gonna stop it.” If you find yourself at a loss about how to broach the subject, any collection of sexually intimate questions — which can be found on relationship and wedding sites, and even Oprah.com — could give you some ideas. Be mindful to tailor your disclosures and questions to yourself and your partner.
Ignore the myth of spontaneity
Another cultural script that hurts our sex lives is the idea that — if you love each other — desire should appear out of nowhere, leading to hot, spontaneous sex. It turns out that only about 15 percent of women experience so-called spontaneous desire (the percentage is higher in men), and the rest have desire that is responsive to context, such as erotic materials, a sexy whisper or sensual smells. Imagining such things can increase desire, too.
So, there is nothing wrong with planning sex. “People are resistant to sex dates, but I remind them that sex was actually never completely spontaneous,” said Guttman. “When you were dating and thinking sex might happen, you’d put on nicer underwear.”
Kerner suggests picking a night to have sex, and then “living the whole day in a pro-sex way.” Imagination is your limit to what this could look like.
Increase novelty and play (not just in the bedroom)
Imagination is also crucial when it comes to brainstorming and engaging in activities with a partner in a way that broadens your sense of self and perspective of the world. Novel, surprising, and challenging activities have been shown to enhance sexual desire and satisfaction. So, be creative and join a Mediterranean cooking class together, learn to dance salsa or act like tourists in your own city.
After two years in raggedy leisure clothes, with limited interactions with the outside world, even dressing up and going out for a nice dinner (maybe in a new restaurant with a cuisine you’ve never tasted before) will feel adventurous and exciting. Even better if you make it a surprise.
If you want an additional boost in libido, try activities that get your and your partner’s heart-rate pumping. Hiking, biking, running or roller-coasters could do the trick.
The common theme here is to allow yourself and your partner to step out of a goal-oriented, “responsible citizen” role for a bit. “The main advice I would give is: Play!” said Guttman. “Whether you go to a bar and pretend that you’re meeting for the first time, or you go on a little adventure to a sex toy store, in-person or online, what matters is being playful and laughing with your partner.”
Finally, “you can experiment with things that can enhance arousal,” said Kerner. “Pick [sexual] scenarios you think your partner would like and suggest them. You’ll be surprised how often they appreciate that. Or together enjoy some erotic literature, sexy podcast or steamy Netflix show.”
Now is our chance to rekindle passion and create better sex lives than before the pandemic. “Sex therapists all over the country that I supervise are noticing a sexual parallel to the Great Resignation,” said Ley. “There’s an explosion of interest in trying new ways of relating to each other and re-sparking.”