Along with indoor dining and international travel, sex is due to make a comeback as the summer of love apparently, belatedly, unfolds around us. The forward-moving vaccination programme brings hope for a normal life.
Post-pandemic sex and relationships, however, appear to have undergone a significant shift, depending on the age group, but how our post-pandemic sexual behaviour will pan out is not all that easy to predict.
There is a disparity in how we have experienced intimate relationships over the past 18 months. There were those of us in committed relationships who witnessed a rising stress culminating in a low sex drive brought on by the upside-down world. Many entered the pandemic as singletons and are now exiting while still single having missed out on a couple of years of flirtations with the potential of cementing long term relationships.
We're not expecting a sexual revolution as such, but the effect the opening of society will have on relationships means adjusting not only our expectations but our practices
The crisis cut short liaisons which were never given a chance and, after living in limbo for too long, dating is back on the cards filled with an added anxiety. And there are the teenagers who are now in their twenties and, well, are raring to go with the potential for casual sex to make a 1920s roaring return.
We’re not expecting a sexual revolution as such, but the effect the opening of society will have on relationships means adjusting not only our expectations but our practices. With both the physical and emotional effects of post-pandemic sex likely to come to the fore as we eventually drop statistics on intimacy, it’s safe to say the pandemic has not been conducive to a healthy fulfilling sex life for many of us, single or not. The issue for many now is how to navigate not only new relationships but those sticky sexual exploits in what feels like a new world.
What about physical first dates?
"People are emotionally fatigued with online dating, the chatting, texting, being ghosted and the emotional whirlwind that comes with romantic first encounters online with potential love interests," says Orlagh Gahan, couples and relationship psychotherapist. "Not having the opportunity to physically date all through lockdown has left many singletons isolated. We are going to see a huge boom in traditional real live dating again with more and more people moving towards professional matchmaking services."
Gahan is conscious of the overwhelming emotional burden caused by dating websites, particularly for those committed to finding real love. She suggests we be ourselves as much as possible on dates.
“Arrange morning and daytime dates around hobbies and interests you both enjoy,” says Gahan, “or new experiences which will bring out your natural persona rather than dates focused on alcohol and the pub culture. Keep first dates short, but long enough that you give each other time to come out of your shell and loosen up. Romance and chemistry can take time to develop, and first dates are pressurised situations so go with your gut and intuition.”
What about intimacy anxiety?
“The intensity of emotions, fatigue, anticipatory grief can obviously affect our sex drive and all types of romantic intimacy,” says Gahan. “Many of us are in a state of recuperation meaning it will take time to readjust. A sex positive approach promotes proactively addressing blocks associated with body image, sex, intimacy and sexual health, fears and anxieties around sex while also learning more about the subject. When we feel good and positive about ourselves we are naturally more open to connection and in turn romantic intimacy.”
A pandemic addition to our intimate connections and potential intimacy anxiety is disease anxiety. There are those of us who are innately concentrated on how Covid-19 can find its way into the bedroom with lab tests showing SARS-COV-2 has been found in saliva, faecal matter, and semen. The anxiety can be so overwhelming that some are holding off until the pandemic is over to get frisky, which at this stage is a guess at best. Instead of waiting, ground rules can help alleviate the anxiety.
The awkward conversation in an early relationship doesn’t always make for great foreplay but the longer we keep our opinions silent, the harder it may be approach them. Gahan suggests we don’t be afraid to have real in-depth conversations about sex at the beginning of a relationship as “couples can benefit from talking about sexual intimacy, consent, values, sexual health and attitudes about sex and relationships.”
What about low libido?
Low libido is a common occurrence with the overreaching anxiety brought about by the pandemic. But the truth is there are many different factors which affect libido and the desire for intimacy including relationship health.
“We need to move beyond the overly simple and disempowering concept that libido is either high or low,” says Gahan, “and cultivate a mindset more focused around sexual health and healthy sexual attitudes, understanding and practicing what it means and feels like to be a sexually healthy human being with the understanding that libido fluctuates.
“I would encourage people, particularly women, to educate themselves about the different aspects of sexual intimacy, sexual health, and also the very curious and intriguing arousal process. Get to know your own body and build on body confidence, learn about romantic intimacy, and find safe empowering ways to talk openly and honestly about how you feel about sexual intimacy.
To improve your libido, get sex positive, talk about feelings, fears, and needs around sex, understand intimacy at a deeper level, feel good about your body again, get out and exercise and feel fun and joy in simple things, love and look after your body and you will feel more comfortable bonding with your partner.”
What about practising safe sex?
The rules of safe sex have not changed because of a pandemic. They may have shifted however as we are more conscious of who we hook up with considering the risk of Covid-19 transmission in unvaccinated people remains relatively high. It is as vital as ever to take precautions when starting a sexual relationship to protect yourself from STIs, HIV and unplanned pregnancy. See sexualwellbeing.ie for more info.
Have the conversation. Talk to your partner about whether or not they have tested positive for STI's. Discuss safe sex practices and sexual history. Have a chat about consent, and help each other understand your comfort-levels, boundaries, and your likes in the bedroom.
Get tested if you have any symptoms of sexually transmitted infections. Contact your local STI clinic or GP. In today's world, add in a Covid-19 test if you have any coronavirus symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath, fever, or changes to your sense of smell or taste. and self-isolate from your partner if possible.
Practice safe sex by using condoms and birth control. Avoid alcohol or drugs which can inhibit our awareness and result in high-risk sex. Keep an eye on your body and that of your partners for any changes such as a rash, sore, blister, or discharge which may indicate an infection.