“For lots of us, lockdown has been a time of sexual self-discovery”

Posted by for Wellbeing

Stylist explores the flipside of the so-called sex recession, and speaks to the people making the most of being alone.

Welcome to No Love Lost, where we explore everything from attachment theory to sexting, to unpick how our experiences of relationships and dating have been changed and challenged during lockdown.

Much has been written about the global ‘sex recession’, with studies showing that – for reasons both practical and psychological – we’re having much less of it right now. It makes sense: social distancing and a very stressful year will do that to us. But there’s a flipside to this coin.

The recession stories focus on a pretty small part of the sexual spectrum. Yes, it’s true that partnered, in-person sex will have inevitably taken a back seat if you’re single, but the unprecedented boom in sex toys, online communities and sexual wellness brands suggests many of us have been putting all this alone time to good use. The past year has been a period of slowdown that’s prompted us to look inwards and reflect – and naturally, that’s extended to getting to know ourselves and our bodies a little better.

“For women especially, lockdown put the brakes on the idea that we’ve got to look for someone else to have a fulfilling sex life and made us think, ‘Actually, I’m going to do this for myself’,” says Lucy-Anne Holmes, author of Women On Top Of The World and speaker on the WOW UK Festival’s Sex In Lockdown panel. “We’ve long had this script of sex that’s penetrative and heterosexual, but of the hundreds of women I’ve spoken to for my book, most said that was their least favourite part of sex.” 

Her fellow panelist Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, co-founder of Adventures From The Bedrooms Of African Women, agrees it’s high time we stopped thinking of sex as a two (or more) person job. “Masturbation is a form of sex we still tend to disregard,” she says. “But a lot of times, myself included, we can have the best solo orgasms and really lacklustre experiences with somebody else. You can absolutely have amazing sex on your own – and by necessity, more people are realising that.”

The proof is in our online shopping baskets. In the first two weeks of lockdown alone, sales of adult toys jumped 25% across the UK, while luxury vibrator brand Lelo has seen a 40% rise in orders over the past year and searches for ‘sexual wellness’ on Cult Beauty rose by a huge 850% in March. Globally, health organisations have encouraged self-pleasure as a sensible way to get our kicks in lockdown, and New York City recently told single residents concerned about Covid-19 restrictions that “you are your safest sex partner”.

Of course, the major shift to solo action has largely been out of our hands, but more of us than ever are clearly recognising the importance of sexual self-care and the effect it can have on our overall wellbeing. “Orgasm is the new apple a day,” sexologist Megan Stubbs recently told NPR. “It can help boost your immune system, boost your mood, decrease pain, reduce headaches, help you sleep better, give you better-looking skin, put a smile on your face – there really are no drawbacks.” When you consider this joyful list alongside studies showing that 78% of us feel happier and less stressed after an orgasm, it makes total sense that we’d see a spike in free, feel-good fun during a global pandemic.

And particularly for women, non-binary and queer people – historically the least encouraged by society to express our sexuality freely – being at home, in a safe space where we can explore on our own terms, has prompted some very positive developments.

Taylor Larbert, 28, has certainly seen the benefits. “Being trans, lots of my conversations and experiences connected to sex have been quite difficult or traumatic in the past,” she says. “But in lockdown I’ve come to have a really loving relationship with my body and my sexuality: I’ve had the space to figure out what I like and what I don’t, and I feel infinitely more powerful than I did a year ago.”

Hers is a story playing out across the country, as people use the time to tap into their true desires and try new things. The stay-at-home order has forced many sex-positive communities and events to go completely virtual – and this has actually caused numbers to skyrocket.

“It’s been a massive time for self-discovery,” says Emma Sayle, originator of the ‘zorgy’ (Zoom orgy) and founder of sexual empowerment platform Killing Kittens. “I’ve seen it first hand: there’s been a huge surge in people joining our virtual workshops. Beginners’ guides to kink, BDSM and tantric massages have been sellouts, so we’ve had to run more to keep up with demand.”

“We’ve also been finding that more than 50% of people coming to our events are first-timers; people who never would’ve dared to come to an IRL sex party or erotic workshop before Covid. But because they can engage from their own sofas, free to close their laptops at any time, it has opened up a whole new world for them to explore, join in, ask questions and find like-minded people.”

Poet, playwright and performer Dr Jessi Parrott makes one very important point though: for queer and disabled people especially, a lot of these markers of our new ‘pandemic sex lives’ are not really new at all.

“Having to navigate different avenues for sexual expression – online, for example – is something marginalised groups have long had to do, because the spaces for us to be together physically have often been quite fraught,” they say. “When your bodies and minds don’t fit with a stereotypical ideal of sexuality, expressing yourself sexually is quite a radical thing in itself.”

For Parrott, an extended period at home has brought them closer to themselves, though. “During this past lockdown, I’ve come to understand that I’m non-binary and that has changed my relationship with my body in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible. I’ve often had quite a clinical, detached relationship with my body and put that down to being disabled, but actually that was a lot to do with this form of dysphoria I’d been experiencing – and so these past few months have been revelatory and really lovely. I’ve realised that until you’re properly at home in your own body, you can’t necessarily experience pleasure and full sexual liberation.”

And that’s the crux of it: we deserve to spend time getting to know our innermost truths, wants and needs, to lavish the attention we tend to offer sexual partners on ourselves, too. Granted, many of us just don’t have the desire or mental space to focus on sex right now – and that’s OK – but as Holmes points out, it can be a vital part of taking care of both our body and mind.

“Having your own sense of sexual identity and making space for it is so important,” she says. “Sex is one of the best ways to connect to our body and listen to it. To ask, what do I need right now? Do I need to be caressed, do I need healing, do I need tension release?

“We’re so conditioned to focus on being desirable, but this is the perfect time to ask yourself what you desire. Take this time to think about what you really want – and then dare to go towards it.”

Lucy-Anne Holmes, Dr Jessi Parrott and Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah will all appear at the WOW UK Festival, which runs from 1-21 March. Visit thewowfoundation.com for info and tickets.

Images: Getty

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Meena Alexander

Meena Alexander is Stylist magazine’s features editor.