There are a lot of conflicting media reports about how the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is affecting people’s sex drives. Some are saying that all of the stress and anxiety is putting a damper on desire, whereas others are saying that everyone is super horny. Which one is it?
It’s probably a bit of both. After all, we know from a mountain of psychological research that two people can respond to the same situation in very different ways, and that the factors that increase sexual desire in some can drive it down in others.
There are a lot of different ways of analyzing the current situation, but one way to look at it is through the lens of Terror Management Theory. The basic idea behind this theory is that when we are reminded of the prospect of our own mortality (i.e., when we are confronted with the fact that everyone will eventually die), we change our attitudes and behaviors in ways designed to help us cope.
Reminders of our mortality are all around us right now. Every day, we are bombarded with news about new infections and deaths from the novel coronavirus, and even though certain demographic groups are more at risk than others, the media has been reminding us that there are people of all ages dying from this virus.
As a result, a lot of us are dealing with a certain amount of death anxiety. Terror Management research suggests that different people are probably coping with this in very different ways.
For example, in lab studies where people were asked to think about the prospect of their own death, psychologists found that this increased sexual interest and desire for some people—but it didn’t do so for everyone. Who was most likely to experience an increase in sexual interest and desire? Those who had a positive body image, as well as those who were more comfortable with physical intimacy.
In other words, the way we feel about our bodies and the way we feel about sex in general seem to be key factors that predict whether people rely on sex as a coping mechanism for reducing anxiety.
This can potentially help to explain why some people are hornier and more sexually active right now, as evidenced by increases in rates of porn consumption on major tube sites.
At the same time, however, it also helps to explain why not everyone is more interested in sex, and why others may be using non-sexual means of relieving anxiety instead.
Another way to look at the current situation is through the lens of the Dual Control Model of Sexual Response, which argues that we all have different propensities for sexual excitation (getting turned on) and sexual inhibition (getting turned off). Put another way, we all have a “gas pedal” and a “brake” when it comes to sexual arousal. However, some people have a gas pedal that is always partially pressed (which makes it easier for them to get turned on), whereas others have a brake that is always partially pressed (which makes it harder for them to get turned on).
For people who are easily inhibited, stressful situations like the one we’re currently in are likely to slam the brake. These individuals will probably find that it’s hard to get in the mood for sex right now unless they can find a really potent distraction or another way to get in the moment.
By contrast, for those who are easily excitable, stressful situations don’t necessarily create the same roadblock—and they could potentially even have the opposite effect. How? We know that fear and anxiety sometimes have the effect of amplifying sexual arousal rather than suppressing it. Indeed, strong emotions are often mistaken for sexual attraction. Furthermore, “excitation transfer” can potentially occur, in which strong emotional states end up amplifying a sexual response. In fact, this is precisely why a lot of people say that “makeup sex” is the best sex—residual arousal from a fight with a partner is probably intensifying sexual arousal in those cases.
If you’re someone who’s easily excited to begin with, I suspect you’re probably more susceptible to these effects, where stress might paradoxically push the gas pedal rather than the brake.
Any way you analyze this situation, it’s important to recognize that one response isn’t inherently better than or superior to another. Whether you’re having more, less, or the same amount of sexual interest right now, it’s all good. You do you. Just remember that we all cope in different ways.
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Taubman-Ben-Ari, O. (2004). Intimacy and risk sexual behaviour – What does it have to do with death? Death Studies, 28, 865–887
Goldenberg, J.L., McCoy, S.K., Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2000). The body as a source of self-esteem: The effect of mortality salience on identification with one’s body, interest in sex, and appearance monitoring. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 118–130.
Bancroft, John, Graham, Cynthia A., Janssen, Erick, Sanders, Stephanie A. (2009). The Dual Control Model: Current Status and Future Directions. Journal of Sex Research, 46 (2 & 3): 121-142.