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How the ‘Frenetic Lust’ of Coronavirus Panic Is Changing Sex

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and people are banging their way through their bucket list

As soon as the first cases of coronavirus began to crop up around his Portland home, 34-year-old Liam had a morbid realization: If he didn’t come clean to his wife about the sexual desires he’d been hiding from her now, he might not get another chance. He might, as he says, “Die, repressed and unfulfilled, a man afraid to go after what he wants.”

He knew, of course, that the chances of that happening was low, but that didn’t matter. There was something about the vastness of the virus’ devastation and the uncertainty of his future in its wake that got him thinking about mortality in a way he’d never had to before. If coronavirus was coming for him, he thought, didn’t he want to go out living the kind of life — and having the kind of sex — that made him feel most alive? “I’d always felt the urge to tell Kate [his wife] that I wanted to be dominated and controlled,” he says. “But as soon as I felt like I was running out of time, all the fear and confusion I had about that sort of went away and I felt this sort of primal urge to make this happen. It was a very now-or-never thing that opened my eyes to how badly I wanted this.” 

A sexual awakening like Liam’s actually falls right in line with what we know about near-death experiences and other traumatic life events like assault, serious illnesses or, you know, a pandemic that crumbles the global economy, which is that a brush with mortality can redefine people’s priorities, lead to more open and honest conversations and result in behavior that values bucket lists over boredom. And while few people would call the one percent mortality rate associated with coronavirus a “near-death experience,” the anxiety, uncertainty and loss of jobs, social lives and culture that surrounds its spread has been enough to cause some people like Liam to take the question of whether they’re getting what they need more seriously than before. 

Likewise, there’s a strange, but well-documented relationship between panic, fear and arousal that grips some people in times of crisis. As journalist and war correspondent Chris Hedges noted in his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, there’s often a sort of “frenetic lust” and an “eroticism that races through all relationships” during periods of chaos and upheaval. But while destructive, global events like war or pandemics tend to leave most people too stressed or distracted to channel their feelings into something as seemingly frivolous as sex, they can also have the opposite effect, leading even the most sheltered or conservative people to “give themselves over to wanton carnal relationships.” 

Certain redditors in the throes of corona anxiety are proof positive. In a r/AskRedditAfterDark thread about how COVID-19 has affected people’s sex lives, one man says his “wife has been giving it up all weekend” and that “anxiety like this gets [him] laid.” Sadness can do it too, it seems — as a recent article in The Observer examining the phenomenon of funeral hookups explains, “Mourners seek solace in different ways: some cry, some eat, some screw.” Others desperation-sext all 14 of their exes to kill the loneliness of isolation. 

A 2017 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine attempted to explain why, concluding that there are just certain cases in which “sex is imbued with meaning as an antidote to the fear of death” and that “death anxiety can act as a powerful catalyst for change.” To illustrate their point, they introduce 51-year-old Patricia as a case study. “Although she described her husband as being a very good man, she found her marriage happy but dull and unfulfilling (i.e., lifeless),” the authors write. “As she became more acutely aware of the passage of time and her own aging, she was plagued by thoughts that she had yet to live the life she craved. The theme of running out of time became palpable, and her attempts to repress those feelings exploded in the form of panic attacks. Eventually, her efforts to suppress her desires for freedom, independence and the life she coveted gave way to the surge in sexual feelings that made her feel alive, vibrant and free.” 

The thing that made her feel most alive? Affairs with other men. 

All this raises an interesting question: What kind of sex does a person have when they believe their time is running out? Assuming they have a physical or digital partner to have sex with in the first place, do they ask for what they need, pull a Patricia and go after it anyway or do they freeze in the headlights, stay the course and take what they can get?

The answer to that question depends on who you ask, but for some couples like Liam and Kate, coronavirus — and quarantine that comes with it — has been nothing short of a small sexual revolution. Laid off, holed up and with little to distract them other than the daunting possibility that life as they know it will never be the same, they’ve been passing the time with frank conversations about the state of their relationship they may not otherwise have had; ones that have been explicitly and uncharacteristically focused on the state of their sex life. 

“Are you happy?” she asked him one night last week over the awkward silence of a quarantined dinner. It wasn’t an usual question — they checked in regularly — but, as Liam recalls, the arrival of the virus gave it a heavier weight than it had before. It made it seem, he says, like “if I was going to say something, this would be the time to do it.” Figuring that total reconstitution of his daily life left him with little to lose, he replied that yes, in general, he was happy. Sexually, however, he felt numb. “I want to know what it feels like to lose control,” he admitted to her. “I want so badly to please you and feel your power over me.” He wanted, he explained to her, to be dominated. 

He’d never brought it up so directly. In the past, he’d tried slyly asking her what she thought about submissive men or how she might feel if she had total control over him, but she seemed uninterested in continuing the conversation and says she “never knew he was actually serious about it.” But that night, something about the way he said it felt different and more urgent. “It was kind of hot to find out he wanted something that badly,” she says. “I think we both realized that we might never have the opportunity to explore ourselves like this again.” They had the time, and as Kate says, the “drama and intensity of all this was making me feel passionate in a way that I hadn’t in a long time.” 

She told him she’d give it a shot, they planned out what they both wanted to do, and the next day, they had the kind of sex neither of them knew it was possible to have in their marriage. And while Liam’s certain that coronavirus wasn’t the sole reason that happened — and keeps happening — he says he’s “amazed” at how the urgency it imparted seemed to catalyze the conversations needed for the pieces to fall into place. “I feel so seen,” he says. “It’s pretty strange that it took a devastating global virus for that to happen, but I’ll definitely take it.” 

For other couples like 44-year-old David and his longtime girlfriend Claire, it’s not the kind of sex they’re having that’s changed over the past week or so, it’s the frequency. “We’ve always been pretty in tune with what we want,” he says over Instagram DM from his home in San Francisco. “We know what we like, we’re good at giving it to each other and we’re both pretty experimental, so there’s nothing new that either of us were dying to try.” The problem, he says, was the amount of time they had for each other. Both of them worked long hours, and when they’d come home, they’d be exhausted, running on empty and/or too distracted to fuck like they really wanted to.

But now, he says, they’ve got all the time in the world. While the virus has rendered them both jobless and they’re “scared shitless” about money, they both recognize that as the disease sweeps through the nation and upends familiar patterns of life, there’s nothing to do but wait and take solace where they can (which, in this case, is their bedroom). They, like Liam and Kate, have been using the time to reconnect and fuck gloriously at a rate only surpassed by their younger selves when they met 18 years ago. When asked what kind of sex he’d have if it was his last day on earth, he says it’s exactly the kind he’s having now: once or twice a day, with lots of fondling, cuddling and making out in between. 

The only problem? Both admit to instances of distraction or ennui during sex. “We’re having way more sex, but there have been times where it’s felt pretty disconnected,” David says. “My mind goes from her to ventilators to her to losing our house to her to like, bodies being piled up in Italy. It’s actually been kind of tough to get hard thinking about this stuff, and it creeps in when we’re having sex in a way I wasn’t expecting.” Thankfully, they’re both in the same headspace with that, so they’ve been particularly forgiving of each other when one gets that far-off look in their eyes.

Not everyone is getting closer to their partner during corona-crisis, though. Interestingly, others seem to be using the pressure and uncertainty of the pandemic to either initiate new affairs or become further entwined with people who fill a void their existing relationship can’t. On Reddit, one user posting in r/adultery recommends people use coronavirus as a wake-up call that they’re in unfulfilling relationships and that there’s a good reason they’re having — or thinking about having — an affair. “You should use this time to evaluate your life very carefully,” one post reads. “COVID-19 is actually a gift you had no idea you needed… Here is a perfect opportunity to face the reality of your situation.”

In the comments, that realization hits another user like a ton of bricks. “Now, we’ve been home together for a full week… a full 168 hours together and still no sex,” they write of their significant other. “No affection, no playful comments, no sweet words, etc. I’m so over this BS. I just want to be quarantined with someone who wants to fuck me silly all day everyday, is that too much to ask?”

That feeling of being stuck inside with someone who isn’t satisfying them sexually has some people reaching out, looking for someone that will, and the fora of Reddit are blooming the springtime flowers of people dying for an escape from the soul-crushing mundanity of a dead bedroom. “Handsome, Intelligent. Seeking a NYC area Female who would be interested in using my physical desires to manipulate me for her whims,” writes a redditor in both r/naughtyfromneglect and r/onlineaffairs. “Online only, until at least the coronavirus thing chills down.”

Even singles sequestered in quarantine appear to be having some bucket-list cybersex. Manuel, a queer 27-year-old locked up in his New York City apartment, says he’s been talking to a lot of older Daddy figures on Grindr, something he was always into but never pursued as a serious dating strategy. “I’ve never told anyone this, but I’ve always wanted a sort of sex-father in my life,” he says over FaceTime, where he’s been going on “dates” with the kind of men he used to pass over in his pre-virus life. He’s been getting kinky with them, too. “I’ve always really been into father-son fauxcest porn and erotica, but I’ve never felt comfortable going there with the people I’ve dated or hooked up with,” he tells me. “I didn’t want to freak anyone out, but honestly, I just don’t care anymore. I’ve just been putting what I’m into on the table right off the bat and seeing who bites. New York is the ‘Italy’ of coronavirus cases.” In other words, he might as well get it while he can. 

At the same time, for every person or couple whose sexuality has been ignited by the intensity of the coronavirus epidemic, there seems to be another who’s seen zero change from the baseline. Many of them are too discombobulated to even fuck at all, which is understandable, given our country’s collective realization that it’s going to be rocks and twigs instead of toilet paper for the foreseeable future.

“My live-in boyfriend is too busy nerding out to all the coronavirus news and stats to put out,” says a poster on Reddit. Another user talks about being excited to spend three weeks with their partner indoors, but being subsequently crushed by the “tidal wave” of bad news coming in and how remarkably unsexy it makes them both feel. “How do you keep the spark alive in the face of this?” they ask. 

If you’re Jules, a 37-year-old freshly fired retail worker in Texas who says coronavirus has completely killed the vibe with her girlfriend, you don’t. For her, the anxiety and low-grade potential of death — or at least the “death life as [she] knew it” — doesn’t fill her with “frenetic lust” or “erotic energy” at all; it just makes her want to “neutralize” herself like a “house plant” so she doesn’t have to think about sex at a time like this at all. The kind of sex she wants to be having while the world burns? No sex, please. 

Marcus, also 37 but a few states north in Colorado, says corona-stress has been so real for him and his partner that he feels guilty even asking him for sex right now. “I don’t know, it just feels trivial,” he says. “I’m not even going to bring it up to him because it’s going to exacerbate everything else we’re dealing with.” The kind of sex he really wants to be having in the midst of all this craziness is mindless, primal and raw, but right now, he’s willing to put that aside for his partner, who he says takes care of his emotional needs. And those take priority for him — just as was the case with pre-virus sex, sex in the time of corona is just a much lower item on the to-do list for some people than it is for others, impending doom be damned. 

“Maybe the National Geographic-style sex will come later when there’s a vaccine or something,” he says. 

Until then, we have Tiger King for that.