Why sexual activity took a pandemic hit, and what to do about it

In the age of Covid-19, our sexual stock has plummeted.

Ian Kerner is a licensed marriage and family therapist, writer and contributor on the topic of relationships for CNN. His most recent book is a guide for couples, "So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex."

(CNN)When Covid-19 first hit, I stopped getting as many inquiries from new patients for sex therapy.

"Finally," I thought, "people are having sex!"
None of the old excuses -- like working late, dinner obligations, a rough commute -- to get in the way. And with nothing else to do on a Friday date night, why not sex?
    Boy, was I wrong. Our libidos are like the stock market.
      At a high level they go up or down, but when you look closely, there are numerous factors -- physical and psychological -- affecting those fluctuations. And in the age of Covid-19: We're exercising less, eating more, drinking and smoking and vaping to escape the anxiety -- all of which affect our sexual health and self-esteem.
        We might not change out of our pajamas or shower as regularly, which affects attraction. We're largely shut off from the outside world and its external stimuli, and more on top of each ever than ever before. And that's leading to anger, resentment and a sense of relational claustrophobia.
        There's research to support what we've all been feeling: One meta-analysis of seven studies from the United States, China, Turkey, Italy and the United Kingdom examined the effects of Covid-19 on people's sex lives and found a decrease in partnered sexual activity during the pandemic. Other research found that the effects of forced prolonged cohabitation during the lockdown led partners to turn to more masturbation and porn use and less to sex with each other.
          But spring -- and optimism -- is in the air, and it's time for a sex recharge. In my work, I help people fix their sex lives by really paying attention to what works and doesn't work in what I call the "sex script." From the first moments of initiation to the final moments when someone rolls over and reaches for their cell phone, every sexual event tells a story that has a beginning, middle and end.
          My goal is to help couples rewrite their sex scripts, often away from pain and toward pleasure. Prompted by my questions, patients will describe a recent sexual event in step-by-step detail. For example, "So, how did you get started? Who initiated? Of all the things you could have been doing at the time, how did it end up being sex?"
          You can rewrite your own sex script and generate desire, too -- even during a pandemic. Here's how.
          See it as an opportunity. While you might be eager to reclaim your pre-pandemic life, change doesn't happen overnight. "Instead of being critical of yourselves, see this as an opportunity to connect, much like you did when you were first getting involved," suggested sexologist Yvonne K. Fulbright.
          "There is a newness to intimacy, in that we're all slightly different people after the last 15 months," she said. "Don't put pressures on yourselves to rush back to your old routines, but thoughtfully consider how this next chapter of your love affair can be even better."
          Be intentional. "Many of us think of sex as a passive -- or worse, automatic -- function of the body," said sex therapist Emily Jamea. But nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, many people, particularly those of us in long-term relationships, have to be more intentional about creating desire. "Throw off those tired old sweatpants and ratty T-shirts. Replace them with something sexy and sensuous," sexuality educator Jane Fleishman said.
          Another strategy? Schedule a weekly sex date. "This gives you both time to anticipate and prepare for the date and helps to manage expectations around sex," explained sex therapist Juliane Maxwald. "You might think that this is unsexy, but it's a myth that desire is always spontaneous."
          Put your phones away and take the time to spend focused on each other -- no talk about kids, work or finances allowed. And put fun first, Fulbright said: "Activities where you're having a great time and laughing can help you to de-stress and feel a little more randy."
          Make some "me time." You can't feel sexy with someone else if you don't feel sensual and relaxed alone. Fulbright recommends carving out "me time," whether that means 20 minutes of yoga over a lunch break, starting your day with a 10-minute meditation to clear your head, or going for a social distanced walk by yourself.
          "If you're one of the many people who find desire elusive, try asking yourself, 'What could put me in the mood?'" recommended sex therapist Deborah Fox. "Is it relaxing in a hot bath, taking walk outside on a warm evening, or reading some erotica? There's a bridge between where your head is at the moment and where it could be -- you just have to build it."
          Talk it out. If you feel like you and your partner are on two different pages when it comes to sex, you're not alone. In fact, desire discrepancies -- also known as mismatched libido -- are the top reason why couples come to see me. It takes good communication to address that issue, yet "we tend to talk the least about sex to the person we are actually having sex with," sexologist Tammy Nelson said.
          Share the good stuff first, Nelson said. "We always get more of what we appreciate, so start off with telling your partner what you appreciate about your sex life, or have in the past," she said. "Tell them how you want to do more of that thing or you want more of that feeling. For instance, 'I really like how we used to take showers together. I'd love to do more of that.'"
          Try something new. The pandemic has challenged us to do things differently in many aspects of life, from work to school to socializing. "Your sex life is no different in its need for novelty -- with or without a pandemic," Fulbright said.
          Although people had less sex during the pandemic, one recent study found that one in five participants reported expanding their sexual repertoire by incorporating new sexual activities like trying new positions, sexting and sharing fantasies. Not surprisingly, these participants were three times more likely to report improvements in their sex lives.
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            Not sure where to start? "Try engaging in intimacy outside the bedroom or use a new toy or lubricant," suggested sex therapist Kristen Lilla. "Changing your routine can also mean removing sex or intercourse as an option. If you can't have sex, what would you do to physically connect instead?"
            Now, as we emerge slowly from Covid-19 and re-embrace life and connection and try to pick up where we left off, let's not leave our sexual selves behind. Yes, I always ask my sex therapy patients to tell me about the last time they were intimate, but what I'm really interested in is the next time -- and the time after that.