Dear New Romantics,

You’re lying in bed with your partner, half watching a true-crime documentary, when you notice them glancing at you with a half-smile and a familiar glint in their eye. You register this as attraction, and you feel excited to be adored in this way — but the excitement is tempered by something you can’t quite explain.

Share on Pinterest
Xuanyu Han/Getty Images

As they shift to scoop you up and seduce you, a conversation sparks in your head. On the one hand, you want to be having bubbly, carefree sex with your partner. On the other, you’re having trouble accessing presence in your body. Arousal at this moment feels near impossible. You start counting back how many days (weeks? months?) it’s been since you’ve had sex, and a sense of guilt comes over you.

And while you don’t have the language to describe the shift you’ve experienced in your body, it dawns on you when this all started: a year ago.

Sex drive, in simplest terms, is the extent to which you crave sexual pleasure. What counts as sexual pleasure is entirely up to you: It can be partnered, solo, in a group. It can involve penetration or not. It can be kissing, dry humping, or oral sex. It can be watching porn or reading erotica. It can be watching YouTube videos of pedicures. Whatever brings you sexual pleasure totally counts!

Sex drive varies person to person, moment to moment, and over the lifespan. There is no “normal.” Some people desire a lot of sexual pleasure in their lives while others desire very little, and some people don’t desire any. Some people experience a higher sex drive at certain times (like when they’re menstruating). And some people experience a shift in sex drive when they transition into a new life stage.

But you tend to have a sense of where your sex drive usually lies. And when you experience a sharp (up or down) turn from your average, it can be jolting and confusing.

And your sex drive can be impacted by a lot:medications you take, your body image, drugs and alcohol misuse, pregnancy and chestfeeding, relationship conflicts, or having a bad day at work. Your sex drive will vacillate depending on where you are physically and emotionally, and that’s normal too. But when your sex drive is impacted in the long term, it may indicate a larger concern.

Sexual trauma is an obvious indicator of someone’s consequent (dis)interest in sex, but here’s an important truth: All trauma can impact sex drive. And guess what everyone’s experiencing right now? A year into the COVID-19 crisis: collective trauma.

Collective trauma is an event that impacts entire communities or societies — to the point that people have to shift, both individually and systemically, to accommodate the impact.

Oppression (racism, colonialism, classism) is a collective trauma and natural disasters are collective traumas. Pandemics are also collective traumas.

The pandemic is impacting everyone, both psychologically and physiologically, in ways that may be difficult to understand — including epigenetically. But as much as it sucks, it also makes perfect sense: People are having cellular responses to a global health crisis! Of course sh*t is going to get wonky, including relationships to sex.

A casual poll among my Instagram followers is a starting point for understanding just how impactful this has been: Among the participants, 91 percent of people voted that they were experiencing a shift in sex drive. Also, 70 percent said their sex drive has lowered during the COVID-19 crisis.

That’s a lot of people.

Here’s the thing: When your needs around sex (whether you need more or need less) can’t be met, it can cause distress. This is especially true if your sexual relationship(s) takes a hit when sex drive suddenly becomes mismatched. This can cause an immense amount of exhausting conflict because for one person’s needs to be met or boundaries respected, the other person has to forgo their needs or boundaries. And, um, that’s not a fun situation for anyone involved.

So, if one partner’s response to this global crisis is an increase in sex drive, while the other’s is a decrease in sex drive — all amidst the pressures already present from being cabin-fevered together — you might be really stressed out right now!

And I really want to validate that. If your sex drive has gone up this year, that is a perfectly normal response to stress. Sex is a natural stress reliever (exercise! hormones!) and a connective practice (that doesn’t necessarily involve Zoom). You are not wrong for craving more sex.

Likewise, if your sex drive has gone down this year, that is also a perfectly normal response to stress! Your body can go into survival mode and kick sex to the “not necessary to function” curb. Feeling disconnected with your body is common when experiencing trauma. You are not wrong for desiring less sex.

Of course, if you’re experiencing a shift in sex drive and you’re not worried about it at all, that’s also normal. A change in sex drive is not inherently a concern. It’s only worth exploring a solution to if it’s bothering you. If it’s causing you distress, here are some things you can try:

  • Sensual touch. Sensual touch isn’t explicitly sexual (although, of course, that’s up to anyone’s interpretation). Think: hugging, cuddling, holding hands — even eye contact! Sensually connecting with your partner can be a great way to meet touch-deprivation needs without the added pressure of sex. And you can try sensual touch solo, too: Self-massage is an awesome way to relieve stress and pain!
  • Yes / No / Maybe list. These lists have different sexual activities to help you self-reflect or communicate with a partner around your desires. They can be overarching, or they can be kink-specific. Review your list with a partner or on your own to determine what your level of sexual comfort is. You could also use it to think about what you’d like to try when sex drives feel more matched.
  • Low stakes sex. Here’s something I loved about being a teenager exploring my sexuality: The pressure was off! I paced myself by focusing on what I was down for instead of what I wasn’t so keen on doing. Try making out with established limits. Move as slow as you want to. Stop whenever you need to. Bonus points if you make it a roleplay. Of course, sex should ideally always feel like this, but revisiting boundaries in a fun way can help.
  • Schedule sex. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to be in the mood right this instant — whenever your partner is ready. This can be true whether your sex drive is up or down. Planning out when you’ll do some sexual exploration can take the surprise out of it. And no, it doesn’t kill the mood. It allows for spaciousness, for buildup — and for the pressure to be off.
  • Non-monogamy. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s worth mentioning: The idea that you have to be your partner’s everything, including their only sexual partner, may cause harm. Exploring alternatives to that structure can be beneficial — including when sex drives (or other desires, like kink or your partner’s gender) are mismatched.

Mismatched sex drive is nothing new. But the collective trauma of COVID-19 is bringing this experience into many people’s lives (as if you don’t have enough to worry about). So if you’re struggling with this (on top of missing movement, on top of Zoom fatigue), know this: You are not alone. And small shifts can make a big impact.

Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.