Not having sex for months on end made one young woman re-evaluate her relationship with her body, her confidence and led her to a major realisation about how she felt about herself.
As part of the restrictions put in place to fight the spread of Covid-19, many people couldn’t have sex for a certain stretch of this year without breaking the law.
So for single women – or those in the early stages of a relationship, or hoping to enjoy something more casual, or those indulging in all the other delightful options we used to take for granted – the pandemic has seen a massive change in how we have, and view, sex.
I was lucky enough to spend the UK spring lockdown with my lovely housemate. We have shared all kinds this year – grief, fears for the future, frustration at political blunders, elation at political victories, countless bottles of Malbec. Despite having great company at home, something was missing. There wasn’t a single sexual encounter in sight throughout the initial lockdown period. And this fact took its toll on me in an unexpected way.
The insecurities creeped up on me, initially. Taking a second, third, fourth look in the mirror at my face, my legs, my hips and questioning, fixating. Silently, mentally chastising. As someone who has had pretty healthy confidence levels throughout my adult life – and a good relationship with my body – this was really disconcerting.
At first, I put it down to having way more free time on my hands, lockdown and all. But eventually, I was forced to admit it was probably something more. “Honestly, it’s because you haven’t had some male validation in a while. Once you can go on a few dates and have sex again, all of this will change,” my friend told me one Friday night when I confided in her.
I feel uncomfortable admitting it, but she was right. Lockdown lifted bit by bit, and I resumed some form of the dating and sex life I had before. I sat more comfortably in my body again, and my imperfections again became just a part of me, not a reason to question how sexy I was.
That shift didn’t sit right with me. Why was it that so much of my confidence in my own body and sexual identity was tied up with whether someone else was able to enjoy it?
“Humans are social creatures and so the desire for interaction and connection is totally natural, [but] problems appear when the desire for connection degenerates into the craving for validation,” Jonam Ross, a life coach and co-founder of dating and relationship coaching service Love With Intelligence, says.
He believes that this reliance on sexual validation could come from “a place of uncertainty…You seek the answer from [someone] on the outside,” he states.
Once I’d put my finger on the problem, I realised how gendered it was. So many women I knew, as well as those whose lives I consumed through books and films, lived so much of their sexual experiences – and validation – at least partially through the approval of their partner, straight women especially.
“Women often feel the need for sexual validation from a partner because traditionally, society has seen sex as something women do to keep men happy, ensuring their worth as a woman,” Nichi Hodgson, dating expert and author of The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder, tells me.
“These old patriarchal conceptions of who gives and takes sex and what it means to femininity to fulfil a man’s sexual desires still very much underpin our thinkings on relationships and sexuality.”
Bearing these particular obstacles for women in mind, as lockdown 2.0 rumbles on – and the future of casual sex remaining unclear – what can we do to ensure that our self-worth stays intact if our sex life needs to remain on some form of sabbatical?
According to Jonam, when you seek validation during a time of “doubt and uncertainty”, feedback from another person can become unhealthy – a “life support machine we can’t afford to be separated from”. But if we find this confidence and assurance from others at a time when we are more at peace with ourselves, “filled up with internal validation and self-knowledge”, this will inform our sexual identities in a much healthier way.
So if the wonderful glow you can get from sex with a partner is better received when you’re at peace with yourself, it may be worth using this slight pandemic “pause” as a time to check in and improve your relationship with your body and your expectations of it.
Relationship therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari suggests “reclaiming your sexual identity on your own.” “Think of your body as the home of your soul – celebrate it and the pleasure it offers you. I also recommend looking at yourself naked in the mirror,” she tells me. “Learn to be comfortable with this – appreciate and adore yourself as you are.”
Lily Allen’s candid words about sexual identity and masturbation in an interview with BBC’s Newsbeat last month also called out a “co-dependent attitude to pleasure”, dubbing it “archaic”, opening up the conversation further when it comes to solo sexual identity.
“We’re perfectly capable of doing it ourselves,” she said. While her words may have been chosen for the issue of female pleasure specifically, they can easily be applied to how women often view their sexual validation, with some form of co-dependency.
It’s also important to acknowledge here that craving and enjoying a sexual experience with a partner IRL is no bad thing. It’s just better to make sure it’s not the only activity that brings you confidence and validation. “I’ve realised this year that in regards to missing a body next to you in lockdown, which I absolutely did and do, it’s also important to remember that sex with a partner isn’t always all it’s hyped up to be. It can be disappointing,” Anna, a 26-year-old writer says.
“I’ve decided that it’s fine to want both. External validation and attention and appreciation through sex is a completely different thing to loving yourself and backing yourself.”
It took being unable to have sex with another person for an extended period – no excuses for doing it or not doing it, and no messing around – to realise how tied up my own validation was with somebody else’s approval or body. Now I realise how important it is to work on my relationship with my body – to look after it and to appreciate everything it does for me.
While there’s no denying that sex is important – it can be experimentation, it can be liberating, it can be one of the very best things in life – the importance of owning your own confidence outside of what goes on between the sheets is a lesson I will carry through this lockdown, and into the post-pandemic party era that will inevitably follow.