Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, my sexual relationship with my partner has transformed like Autobots and Decepticons. Any semblance of normalcy has melted into oblivion; in its place, there’s a constant yearning for stability. Due to uncertainty and constant stress, we haven’t turned off the lights, cued up the Chilled R&B playlist, and shaken our headboard nearly as much as we did before the world went to shit.
It turns out I’m not the only one. For many Black couples around the country, the last few months — which have been rife with the triple threat of Covid-19, police brutality, and economic uncertainty — have drastically changed sexual frequency, and often not for the better. It’s an odd, almost ironic situation. Being confined to a home with your partner should mean there’s more sexual activity going on, right? Apparently, it’s not that simple.
“Intimacy is emotional closeness,” says sexologist Cindy Alves, a founding member of the Women of Color Sexual Health Network. “Sex drives absolutely get affected by our moods and overall wellness. With or without Covid-19, it’s common for sex drives to vary amongst partners. Our desires are still valid even if shame and guilt have us thinking otherwise.”
In a poll of about 9,000 people conducted by NBC News, 47% of responders said that the pandemic had a negative impact on their sex lives, compared to 24% who reported a positive effect (28% were neutral). In an interview with Insider, psychologist Jean Twenge said the pattern is two-pronged. “If this decline is driven by adults living at home who don’t have jobs, the pandemic is exacerbating that,” she says. “If it’s driven by people not getting together in person and instead communicating electronically, that’s also exacerbated by the pandemic.”
For many Black couples around the country, the last few months have drastically changed sexual frequency, and often not for the better.
Before the pandemic, my girlfriend worked at a salon while I worked from home. Our rendezvous would take place after business hours, once we’d had enough time to crave each other’s looks, scent, and skin. These days, however, we’ve grown comfortable with months of quarantining together in a small apartment, with only rare moments apart to miss each other. It’s definitely put a damper on our desire. “Being stuck in the house with your partner can be fun for the first few days, but after that, the stress can make things at home pretty tense,” says Tammy Nelson, PhD, a certified sex therapist and author of Getting the Sex You Want.
For Jon, a 27-year-old music business professor who moved in with his girlfriend just as mandatory closures were sweeping the country, quarantine life underscored his and his partner’s stacked workloads. “We share some form of intimacy daily, but sometimes life can hinder that,” he says. “One or both of us may have a busy work week, and then start to feel overwhelmed.”
In a new world of Zoom meetings, Google Docs, and constant Slack messages, overworking has become more common than ever. It’s easy for home and work life to merge, causing couples to feel overwhelmed and with little energy left to funnel into a relationship. Instead of trying to stack intimacy on top of that, which could do more romantic harm than anything, Alves recommends recharging with some fun alone, too. “There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing your pleasure — whether you’re partnered or not,” she says.
Keith, 42, who owns a Black hair care brand alongside his wife of 12 years, has found that setting boundaries between time on and off of the clock has been his biggest challenge. “There have been times where we just had to cut everything off and deal with what we need to deal with,” he says. “That’s helped us to be more intimate and conscious of the life that we’re living together, and to just be present with each other.”
To jumpstart the sex machine in the midst of a hellish year, Nelson has a checklist of suggestions. “Take out the lube, light the candles, and talk about what you want,” she says. “Try sharing your fantasies and using some sex toys. Make out like teenagers, watch some porn, and work on making love like you used to.”
Communication has been key for Stacy, 26, who’s been with his boyfriend for two years. “We’ve learned to check in more often and ask where we are mentally, emotionally, and sexually so that we can create more opportunities,” says the brand manager from New York, who admits that sex in his relationship has fluctuated throughout the year. “We’ve been able to find a good balance.”
In light of a turbulent and traumatic news cycle that has turned the nation upside down, checking in with a partner is crucial for Black lovers. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others at the hands of police are hard to deal with when it feels like these same situations could happen to any one of us. It’s been another factor in the out-of-whack sexual rhythm between my partner and me.
Alves cites these traumatic experiences as a primary cause of a decline in intimacy among some Black couples. “White supremacy hurts us all, so of course social traumas will impact the ways we connect with our lovers,” she says. “We are complex beings so how we hold trauma, pain, joy, and pleasure in our bodies will vary.”
For Keith’s household, it’s been crucial to limit how often the news plays in the household. “We had to take a break — really edit that from our lives — because it does affect our psyche,” he says. “If you wake up in a bad mood, on the wrong side of the bed, and you got all those bad vibes, it’s going to hurt your intimacy.”
“Learning of new horrific acts of racial injustice on social media almost daily has weighed very heavily on us,” Jon adds. “But regardless of what’s going on in the outside world — and the news has certainly been frustrating at times — we do our best to not allow it to affect our home.”
So, will these sexual problems persist after the pandemic ends? It’s hard to tell, but Nelson believes that the answer lies in starting the process now. “Use this time to bring your relationship to a more emotionally intimate place,” says the sex therapist. “Have a deeper, more fulfilling, connection by talking about your relationship goals.”
Alves stresses self-reflection as a necessity for treating a dead bedroom, as well as a little inventiveness. “Assess your sexual needs, wants, and desires,” she says. “Dates can still be a thing, even if you’re socially distant. Don’t just live with your other; talk about what kind of intimacy honors your boundaries.”
Admittedly, these can be tough topics to broach; even though both of you might know things have slipped, talking about them can bring up feelings of guilt, even inadequacy. But with many companies already announcing they won’t be leaving remote-work mode until sometime next year, that dual WFH life isn’t going anywhere, and neither are you. If you want to get through this sexual rough patch, it’s going to take the same candor and trust that any other relationship issue does. But the results are worth it — and so, thankfully, is the work it takes to get there.