Article Thumbnail

Sex After COVID: An Investigation

The coronavirus’ wide-ranging sexual side effects are agitating couples and puzzling experts. Here’s everything we know — and what survivors can do

The moment his half-full 737 touched down at San Francisco International Airport, 31-year-old Marco knew something was wrong. The tall, olive-skinned chef and restaurant owner had spent the last few days partying in Tulum for a friend’s birthday, and while he wore a mask “sometimes” while abroad, he hadn’t exactly followed social distancing protocol to a T. 

Still hungover from the gin and tonics he’d spent the weekend sipping, he rubbed his eyes as his head began to pulse with the pain of an oncoming migraine. To calm his nerves, he told himself it was probably just the booze or the dry plane air, but the chills he woke up with the next day said otherwise. A few days later, he tested positive for COVID. 

The next three weeks were “pure hell.” Though he had no pre-existing conditions, he had nearly every symptom — fever, trouble breathing, delirium, cough, diarrhea, brain fog — each of which was just shy of hospital-bed severity. “I think I almost died,” he tells me. “I lost track of time. I literally went insane. I couldn’t smell or taste anything, so I had no idea when to feed myself.” For days, he lay in bed, sweating, coughing and “wasting away.” 

Eventually, his immune system revved up and his symptoms started to clear. But as they did, they were replaced by a strange and unexpected after-effect: Despite having just spent weeks in viral agony with the most severe infection of his life, he was now voraciously and uncontrollably horny. “I’ve always had a high libido, but once my fever dropped and I started to feel better, it just went turbo,” Marco says. He felt like the sort of hormonal teen that plows through a bottle of Juvederm on a school night, and he spent the remaining days of his recovery in isolation emitting tiny moans every time his dick brushed up against the soft fleece of his inner sweatpants. 

His stamina increased, too. Masturbation sessions stretched from five minutes to a burly 20 or 30, and sex with his partners — who started to drop by once he tested negative again — lasted for hours. In between orgasms, his refractory period was non-existent. If provoked, he’d be up and at it again, something he says happened to him a few times while sick with a cold or flu, but never for as long as with COVID. Two months after his recovery, his libido is still on high alert. 

Marco’s not sure he turned into a fuck werewolf because of COVID, but in his eyes, there’s no other explanation. “Nothing else changed in my life other than me getting sick,” he says. “All I know is that my body feels different now than it did before. What else could it be?”

Nearly a year into the pandemic, science is no closer to an answer for Marco’s reaction than he is. Research around COVID’s effect on sexuality is nearly non-existent, and most of what’s been studied revolves around not spreading it during sex (glory holes) and how quarantine impacts libido and relationships (poorly). Save for some limited research around erectile dysfunction — which many experts believe should be added to COVID’s official list of symptoms — little is known about the way the virus affects the sex lives of those who survive it, and discussions are just now starting to be had about the changes to libido and sensation it can bring. 

“I’ve been out talking to folks about the best way to have sex safely during COVID and whether people have less partners in quarantine, but in terms of desire and sexuality in recovered patients, I’ve seen almost nothing,” says Ina Park, an associate professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, the medical director of the California Prevention Training Center and the author of the forthcoming STI history book Strange Bedfellows. “Right now, the medical conversations around COVID’s after-effects are things like, ‘My patient can’t even walk up the stairs without becoming dizzy,’ so it’s just being assumed that if you’re unable to function day-to-day, your sex life is probably suffering, too.”

What we’re left with is a void in understanding and a pressing question surprisingly few people have thought to ask: What happens to your sex life after you get sick? 

So far, the biggest hints have come from online COVID survivor groups where people go to discuss their symptoms, share research and get advice on how to cope. On Reddit and Facebook — as well as in other large groups like the Body Politic — sex and COVID is rarely discussed, but when it is, comments and anecdotes are overwhelmingly focused on the loss of desire and sexual functioning during recovery, or exactly the opposite of what happened to Marco. 

“Lowest amount of mojo my body has ever had,” writes one person on SurvivorCorps, a public Facebook group for COVID survivors and their families. “This is not like me at all. At times, there’s a noticeable loss of skin sensations — can’t even feel temperatures of cold or hot on my skin.” Another person, a 44-year-old with a “great sex drive before COVID,” says her libido is now gone completely. “No desire, always fatigued, always have a sore throat or chills,” she writes. 

And while plenty of survivors report zero changes to their sex drives, sensation or sexual functioning — a 62-year-old woman tells me she “wears [her] younger boyfriends out” and that “hasn’t changed” — many say they’re afraid to have sex just the same. They don’t want to get COVID again, and even though many of them are no longer infectious, they don’t want to risk the freak occurrence of passing it on to a partner. “There goes my sex life,” one woman says summarily.

Paging through these posts, it’s crystal clear that Marco’s COVID-sponsored second puberty is far from the norm. But still, he’s not alone. On an r/sex thread about COVID’s sexual after-effects, redditor offwhiteboxers claims to have experienced a horniness upgrade of his own, writing that since the onset of his symptoms in June, his sex life has “become noticeably better in almost every way.” He credits the virus with bumping his “unusually low” libido into the “pretty average” category, and his “sensation, duration and overall satisfaction” have improved dramatically, too. 

Cindy, a 50-year-old macrame artist in Pensacola who’s been suffering from debilitating long-term COVID symptoms since March, has a husband with the same “condition.” Though he recently broke his back, survived opioid addiction and is currently dealing with COVID-related heart, lung and cognitive problems, his libido has been on “super overdrive” since he got the virus, and he’s thought of nothing but boning ever since. 

“I was so sick that I couldn’t even walk 10 feet to the bathroom, but he was waking me up multiple times a night asking for it,” Cindy tells me. “After about a week of dealing with him and his desire level, I turned to him and said, ‘How is this even supposed to function? My heart is pounding out of my chest. I can’t breathe. I need an inhaler just to do laundry. And you want to have sex?!’”

Her husband, consumed by some sort of invisible sex froth, was stunned by her refusal. “It’s the only thing I can focus on,” he told her. “I can’t put any other thoughts in my head.” 

This, to be clear, was totally abnormal for him. He had low testosterone before getting COVID, and while they’d had “no problems with desire” prior to March, he’d definitely never been like this. Unwilling to put herself in danger so her husband could “get a nut,” she politely asked him to “get the job done himself,” a solution that worked until he woke her up yet again, this time by pumping his hand furiously beneath the sheets of their bed. 

The only explanation Cindy can think of is that the virus might have affected her husband’s testosterone, but since his doctor won’t test his levels, she’s not sure whether they’ve changed. It’s not a crazy theory, though: SarsCov2 has been found in both the testes and the pituitary gland (the part of the brain that regulates testosterone production), and while COVID tends to decrease testosterone and sex drive in men, there’s no reason to think that, in rare cases things couldn’t swing the other way. 

It’s not just men this is happening to, either. Lori, a 47-year-old phlebotomist in New Jersey, says that while her libido had always been high, COVID beefed it up even more. “One day it just hit me that I couldn’t get enough,” she says, explaining that even though she’s still dealing with long-term problems like difficulty breathing, nerve pain and cognitive impairments, she now “gets the urge” multiple times a day (which she tells me is slightly more than before she got sick). Likewise, an audience poll on SuvivorCorps revealed that of the 94 women who responded to an inquiry about “hormonal issues” after COVID, four experienced “higher libido” after they recovered. That’s hardly a boatload, but it’s worth wondering — why would COVID smite some people’s sex drives while simultaneously stoking others’?

One explanation could be the so-called “sick hornies,” a common phenomenon in which people experiencing colds, flus and other illnesses feel preternaturally aroused despite being febrile, diarrhetic and dripping with mucus. On Reddit — where people talk about this a lot — the going theory is that sick hornies exist because the dopamine and oxytocin released during pleasure and orgasm can help kill the pain of being sick. By this logic, people like Marco, Lori and Cindy’s husband are simply tapping into the body’s own medicine cabinet to soothe their aches and pains. Being sick is also boring; when you’re bed-ridden, there’s little to do but fantasize and jack off between naps and Maury reruns, and slipping into that “nothing to do but cum” mindset can make some people extra-horny. In that case, COVID horniness may be circumstantial, just a side effect of the drudgery and isolation recovery entails. 

But while these things might account for some cases of supercharged COVID horniness, sick hornies tend to go away when a person’s symptoms abate. Meanwhile, COVID survivors like Lori and Marco tend to stay horny, which may indicate there are other factors at play. Park suspects that COVID’s apparent (and probably rare) sex-enhancing effects are more of a psychological phenomenon than a physical one. 

“Sexuality is a dynamic thing,” she says. “I could see how some folks who survived what could have been a life-threatening infection could develop a new lease on life and sexuality that makes them feel more free, and like they want to explore more,” she says. “Maybe they’re saying, ‘I survived this, and I’m not going to be afraid to try new things, because something like this could happen to me again.’” 

Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, also wonders whether the temporary immunity that recovered COVID patients have might make them feel as though they no longer have to worry about getting sick or harming someone else in the process. “That might potentially relieve the stress that was previously impairing their sex lives, leading to sex that might feel much better than they’re used to having,” he explains. 

That makes perfect sense to Marco, who admits sex might have felt better after his recovery because he knew it was safe for both him and his partners. “After being scared of infecting someone or them infecting me for like, nine months, it was nice to know that it wouldn’t be an issue,” he says, explaining that he was grateful to worry about less life-threatening complications like chlamydia and expired condoms instead. 

But it’s not just changes to sex drive and sensation some COVID survivors are reporting. Other people like Kay, a 21-year-old college student in Colorado, say the virus has changed the way they and their partners have sex. In December, she posted a (now-deleted) story on Reddit about a curious upshot her and her boyfriend experienced following his recovery. As the title of her post foreshadows, her “fear of being eaten out” was “diminished by [him getting] COVID.” 

As the story goes, Kay, like many people, had been convinced by Summer’s Eve ads and persistent schoolyard tuna jokes that she should be insecure about the way her vulva tasted and smelled. Consequentially, she never really liked receiving oral sex — though her boyfriend loved giving it, told her so and reassured her she had nothing to worry about, it gave her anxiety and she rarely let him try. 

Then he got COVID. His symptoms weren’t severe, but like roughly 80 percent of people who get it, he lost his sense of taste and smell. He and Kay spent a few weeks apart for safety, but when they reunited, they wanted each other so badly that she happily obliged when he asked if he could go down on her. The same old anxieties began to bubble up as he kissed his way down her neck toward her stomach, but when she remembered he couldn’t taste or smell, they instantly abated. The thought of his senses being temporarily impaired relaxed her immediately, and for the first time, she was able to focus not on how it tasted for him, but how it felt for her. 

The pleasure, apparently, was “next level.” “Without this worry, I realized how good it felt and also how much he seemed to enjoy it as well,” she tells me. It also helped that she was able to “kiss him after” and see for herself that she smelled and tasted fine. “It was mostly a mental thing,” she says, confessing that her boyfriend getting COVID was one of the better things that’s happened to their sex life. 

While short-term sensory deprivation could theoretically enhance a person’s sex life if they’re sensitive to taste and smell, Park cautions that things might go south if the senses don’t return. Most often, COVID knocks them out for six to eight weeks, but according to Richard Doty, director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, roughly a third of recovering patients take far longer than that to regain their senses. It’s these people — the COVID long-haulers — whose sex lives might actually suffer from a lack of smell. 

Sexual arousal is a multi-sensory experience, and sensory impairment in general is linked to some sexual difficulties,” explains Lehmiller. “For example, research has found that people who are born without a sense of smell tend to have fewer sexual partners.” This may be because they aren’t picking up on pheromones and scents that play a role in arousal and attraction, he says, but it could also be “due to the social anxiety of not being able to determine whether one has bad breath or body odor.”

To the best of his knowledge, no one’s reported a new lapse in sexual partners due to COVID-related sensory impairment, but if the loss of taste and smell are permanent — as they seem to be in rare cases — a negative effect on sexual functioning and relationships could occur. 

This may be especially true for people whose infections have advanced from temporary annoyances to full-blown, chronic illnesses. Long-haulers — who make up an estimated 35 percent of COVID survivors — can experience debilitating and lasting symptoms like extreme fatigue, chronic inflammation, brain fog, persistent cough, muscle and joint pain, gastrointestinal distress and mental health problems for weeks to months after they’re no longer contagious, and as will surprise no one, none of these things are good for sex. As one woman on SurvivorCorps reports, she still trembles, shakes and feels generally weak afterwards. 

A number of other women in the same group say they experience what they refer to as “sex headaches,” an excruciating and well-documented type of head pain that appears after sex, orgasm or physical activity. Difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat, nausea, problems with lubrication and pain during sex have also been reported in survivor’s groups, which may explain why the same poll from above found that 87 out of 94 respondents said their libidos plummeted since their diagnosis. “Sex is hard when you’re barely able to breathe,” explains Christine, a 42-year-old long-hauler in Portland. “Most of the ways my husband and I liked to be intimate pre-COVID-19 now feel difficult, if not impossible. And I’m sure I’m not the only person who is grossed out by germs now, which makes swapping bodily fluids and kissing unappealing.” 

Changes like these have left many survivors feeling disconnected and demoralized, robbed of a vital part of themselves they felt in touch with before they got sick. “Sex isn’t everything, but it’s such an important part of mental and physical health,” says Cindy. “The thought of sex makes me sick to my stomach right now, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t affected my wellbeing or my relationship.” She wishes she felt “more like herself,” but says COVID’s impact on her sex life has forced her to see both herself and her marriage in a new light. “If we didn’t have such a strong relationship, I don’t know that we would have survived this,” she says. “These kinds of changes can tear people apart.”

Both Cindy and Christine have been sick since March, but even people with mild cases and quick recoveries don’t get off scot-free when it comes to sexual effects. When 32-year-old Dallas insurance agent Natoya Bell came down with COVID in mid-December, her only symptoms were fatigue, congestion and a loss of smell. As such, her sex drive never dipped, but her diagnosis left her depressed and the quality of her orgasms “completely changed.” Though she’d never had trouble coming before, her climaxes became “flat” and “weak” during her recovery, and even now, it takes her longer to get off than she’s used to. “I’ve kind of lost sensation,” she says. “It just feels really different now — I have to go a lot deeper with how I touch myself.” Bell knows it’s common for people experiencing trauma, depression and physical illnesses to experience weak or infrequent orgasms, but she’s scared the effect will last. “This doesn’t feel like me,” she says. “I just hope it goes away.”

Meanwhile, in the penis corner, 30-year-old Brian says he experienced “uncontrollable erections” while he was sick, an effect that sounds nice in theory, but actually “really freaked [him] out.” “It was concerning considering all the damage the virus does to the cardiovascular system,” he tells me. “I’d have heart rate spikes and then erections.” Thankfully, the rogue boners went away after he recovered, but his sex life still isn’t back to normal. “I have the same sex drive, but even standing in place gets me out of breath,” he says. “I have desire, but no energy.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Brian are the people dealing with persistent post-COVID ED. Some experts believe this is the result of how the virus affects the circulatory system — it can exacerbate pre-existing cardiovascular conditions, promote clotting and interfere with blood flow — but others suggest it’s the result of the way it interferes with testosterone output from the testes. 

COVID ED could be psychological, too. As Lehmiller points out, survivors have the mental burden of having had the infection, the stress of isolation and feelings of uncertainty about the future to contend with, all of which can saddle them with depression, anxiety or even PTSD. None of these things make it particularly easy to get hard or get busy. As one man on SurvivorCorps writes, he’s had “no problems” with erectile function but has completely lost his sex drive because of “COVID restrictions” and “germaphobe tendencies.” 

With this in mind, Park believes it’s highly unlikely (though not impossible) that survivors with long-term symptoms are experiencing the same sexual renaissance Marco, Kay and offwhiteboxers are. But she doesn’t totally discount the idea that a small and incredibly lucky faction of survivors are reaping the rewards. “I can’t explain to you why some people’s sex lives appear to improve after recovery, but stranger things have happened,” she says. “In a few years, research will catch up and we might have answers, but studies about sexuality take time, and we don’t have that right now. So, for for now, all I have to say is, ‘Good for them.’”

As for Marco, concerns like these are now a universe away. Glowing from weeks of spirited ejaculation and freshly endowed with brand-new antibodies that keep him perky, he’s not terribly concerned with how he got his mojo back anymore; he’s just glad that he did. He’s not aware of anyone else whose penis has been smote with the never-ending stamina and sensitivity his has, but he’s thankful — if not a bit unsettled — that he’s been blessed. 

“I don’t get it, but I’ll take it,” he says. “Thank the Horn Gods for choosing me.”