You don’t need this article to tell you that coronavirus has been wreaking havoc across the world and in seemingly every facet of our lives. We’re seeing lives lost with many more seriously ill, businesses facing closure and unemployment sky-rocketing. Many of us have had to adapt quickly in our work lives, juggling Zoom meetings and deadlines from oftentimes chaotic family homes, alongside waving goodbye to our social and dating lives.
It comes as no surprise, then, that sex, fertility and contraception have also become subject to disruption in complex and challenging ways.
Many couples have found themselves isolating together without the contraception they need to enjoy stress-free sex, whilst the economic and psychological strain of living through a pandemic has created new doubts for those planning pregnancies. With the NHS experiencing greater strain and resources being redistributed to accommodate the rise of Covid-19 casualties, sexual health services are struggling to meet people’s needs. Alongside all of this, for many of us, the fear of contagion alone has certainly “killed the mood”.
Accessing Sexual Health Services
When the UK government announced social distancing legislation on 23rd March, couples were faced with an ultimatum: either move-in together spontaneously and most likely prematurely, or wave goodbye to intimacy for an indefinite period. For those who chose the former option, Covid-19 might indeed have accelerated their sex lives, particularly given that we’re all stuck at home for both work and play. But how have people been staying protected during all this extra sex, given that the NHS has asked people to avoid unnecessary contact and “use [their] GP surgery’s website, use an online service or app, or call the surgery” for consultation?
The Independent recently published an article investigating this very issue, stating that “sexual health services are shut or are operating skeleton services” due to the impacts of coronavirus on NHS staffing. The article goes on to quote statistics from The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, claiming that “86% of clinics could not offer the most effective long-acting contraceptive choices of a coil or an implant, and only two-thirds could still fit a coil for emergency contraception”. Not only do emergency measures postponing non-urgent consultations cause issues for those hoping to receive surgery, but many women cannot renew their prescriptions simply because they do not have up-to-date blood pressure tests and other qualifiers. In an official coronavirus website update, the sexual health clinic Border announced that, if you “cannot get injections… from your GP” then it may be necessary to “switch you onto the pill instead if no appointments are available”. Every individual undoubtedly has their reasons for choosing any given contraception method, be they cost, comfort, convenience or lack of side-effects, but against the backdrop of a global pandemic, those reasons do not guarantee a choice for many.
“Increase in the ‘pull out’ method”
Whilst it’s bad news for those who rely on clinical admission of contraception, with many supermarkets and convenience shops, such as the Co-operative, reducing service hours in the wake of Coronavirus alongside government orders to shop “as infrequently as possible”, condoms and other single-use contraceptives are also notably less accessible. In her article on the increasing popularity of “the pull-out” contraception method reported amongst sexual health clinicians, Kate Wills suggests that the resurgence of the “most fallible” and “messiest” contraception method might indeed reflect people’s lack of access to other contraceptives. Wills asserts that, much like similar periods “nine months after natural disasters or big sporting events”, a “corona baby boom” is on the cards for the UK. It certainly adds up that couples isolating together are more likely to be sexually active exclusively with each other, so S.T.D.s might not be a great concern, but are Brits really just “winging it” with the risk of unplanned pregnancy due to coronavirus?
If that’s a trend that has emerged due to disrupted access to contraception – disruption which the NHS is yet to fully overcome- then – how might the UK’s pregnancy rate be affected by the government’s attempts to ease lockdown? As Rachel Martin points out in her article for The Metro: “The introduction of support bubbles from Saturday 13 June mean that couples who live apart but on their own will be able to visit each other at home… [sex will] now be ‘within the rules’ for the duration of lockdown”. Coronavirus is not just impacting our sex lives right now, but the reintroduction of social contact will inevitably spark new enthusiasm for sex, potentially without adequate planning and preparation.
Not in the Mood
Whilst many people will be glad to reunite with their partners after lockdown, for others, the state of anxiety induced by our current climate is a certain turn-off. Perhaps it’s just the strain of being around each other 24/7, but some couples have reported reduced libido. One sharer professes how she and her boyfriend have “been struggling to connect emotionally during sex” due in no small part to the fact that “lack of desire goes hand in hand with depression, anxiety, fear and other common feelings associated with what we are going through”. We are all worried about our health, our loved ones and our financial security right now, but that takes an especially difficult toll on our ability to connect intimately with others because intimacy is the very thing putting us at risk right now.
“Lack of desire”
Government guidelines on frequent handwashing extend to the bedroom, advising that people avoid certain oral practices and wash thoroughly before and after sex where possible. This newfound fear of contagion during sex could be killing the mood and it might indeed be here to stay, with Tinder reporting a massive reconfiguration of dating culture. Despite an overall drop in paid-for app usage and far fewer people meeting up, Tinder has seen a 15% rise in matches and 10% more people speaking through the app, many of whom are using video dates to avoid the risk of infection. People are not ditching dating altogether then, but they are investing in new ways to take health anxiety out of the process.
Just as many predict the pandemic to spark a rise in unwanted pregnancy, the opposite problem is all too real for many couples living under lockdown. NHS fertility treatments, like seemingly everything else, are disrupted or otherwise on hold, meaning some couples will be pushing back their plans to start a family. What’s more, the same anxieties which niggle at people’s libidos (e.g. anxieties about the future as well as financial and physical health) only cause greater complications for anybody wanting to get pregnant. Will the baby be at greater risk? Will pregnant women receive the healthcare they need in the immediate future? Will economic uncertainty take away the opportunities parents hope to give their children? One New York fertility doctor has reported being inundated with queries about freezing eggs. Much like pasta and toilet paper, fertility itself is a precious resource; the kind that coronavirus has taught us not to take for granted.
There is enough to be said, then, for the ways in which coronavirus is impinging upon our sex lives. But what can we do about it?
The upshot of all this may well be rooted in our very inability to take what we have for granted and re-organise our priorities accordingly. Just as Covid-19 has allowed us to realise the potential of remote working across a variety of sectors, perhaps it will also allow us to better identify where and when medical care is necessary, how to use services most efficiently, and to appreciate them all the more when they resume. Perhaps lockdown has provided some with time to reassess their choice of contraception and maybe even discover one they prefer better. Most profoundly, however, it has made us cherish the intimacy we’ve missed and those that provide it, and that is a lesson which is always worth relearning.