The coronavirus pandemic has shattered the illusion that humans are invincible, bringing horror and uncertainty to people’s lives. By opening the door to existential concerns, the outbreak of the coronavirus has reminded people of their own mortality and increased the awareness that death is inescapable.
To escape this potentially paralyzing terror and to maintain peace of mind, people may use defense mechanisms that are designed to remove the awareness of death from conscious thoughts by imbuing the world with meaning, order, and permanence. In their quest to defend themselves against threat, often people will reach for symbols of immortality. Sex can serve such a function, offering an opportunity to hold on to life in a way that is more meaningful than hoarding toilet papers.
Infusing sex with meanings that transform an animalistic urge to something larger than everyday life helps associate sex with feelings of immortality and thereby buffers death anxiety. Sex, of course, can be viewed in various meaningful ways, such that different people may assign different meanings to sex. For example, sexual intercourse is a means to have children, who may symbolize continuity, lastingness, and immortality; sexual pleasure may be used to attain spiritual enlightenment; and sexual conquests may attest to one's desirability and prowess and may therefore promote self-esteem.
As long as people can find symbolic meaning in sex, they are likely to desire sex rather than to avoid it, when mortality concerns loom. The specific reasons for desiring sex, however, should depend on what sex means to them personally, as demonstrated in one of our studies. In this study, we asked participants to think about their personal death (“ What do you think happens to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead? Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you ”). Then, participants were asked to rate their desire to engage in sex in different contexts.
The findings have revealed that when the possibility of personal death is salient, many people find sex more appealing and experience a heightened desire to engage in it, but only in the context of a close, romantic relationship. Engaging in sex in such a context generates a feeling of belonging, protection, and warmth, which may help assuage death fears. Other people, in contrast, primarily those who feel threatened by intimacy and seek emotional distance in close relationships, react to reminders of death with heightened desire for one-night stands. These people tend to derive a sense of self-esteem and vitality from sexual conquests, thereby experiencing relief from anxiety.
This “carpe diem”—seizing the day—approach is typical in times of war, which make death salient. And yet, the pandemic differs substantially from war and may inspire ambivalence toward closeness and sex. On the one hand, an existential threat might be sexually arousing. On the other hand, the object of desire might be also the source of the threat, primarily among partners who do not cohabitate.
Hence, it is hard to predict whether the present situation will push people toward more frequent sexual activity or will instead produce a surge of emasculating anxiety, which will undermine the desire for sex and interfere with sexual functioning. To be sure, it is not easy to indulge in pleasurable, escapist sexual activity with a cloud of anxiety about being infected floating over you. Future studies will show whether the outbreak of the coronavirus would lead to sexual distancing or to a baby boom.
Here's my TEDx talk on why humans make sex so complicated.
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Birnbaum, G. E., Hirschberger, G., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2011). Desire in the face of death: Terror management, attachment, and sexual motivation. Personal Relationships, 18, 1-19. Research Gate