Is This the End of Sex?
In the age of social distancing, single people have no idea when or where their next hookup is coming from
“Are you scared you’re never going to have sex again?” is a question I’ve been asking anyone who will listen: single friends and those in long-distance relationships, matches on dating apps that seem to grow more pointless by the day, as well as the various exes, past hookups and one- or two-off Tinder dates of yore that have resurfaced in recent weeks as quarantine conditions find us all desperately mining the past for some trace memory of human contact.
Responses have varied. Some have readily matched my own level of catastrophizing, as if they’ve been waiting for someone to ask them that exact question. “100%,” replied a man I went on two dates with last June.
Others have yielded less fully to the fear of a sexless future. “I’ll admit it’s crossed my mind,” said my senior prom date.
Still others have taken it as a chance to show off their comedic side, whether self-deprecating or flirtatious. “I’m afraid of that even when there isn’t a quarantine,” cracked one dating-app match, while another took it as an invitation to shoot his quarantine-violating shot: “I see I’m catching you at a vulnerable time. Can I come over?”
The attempts at humor aren’t entirely unwelcome. The question is, of course, an exaggeration: a legitimate query pushed to a catastrophic absolute. But, in light of all the other dire realities currently defining everyday life that began as jokes and memes mere weeks ago, it’s also a serious question.
The myriad reports on the state of “love in the time of coronavirus,” as multiple headlines have shamelessly put it, tend to focus on how quarantined couples are handling unprecedented lengths of time together. By most accounts, not well. Divorce rates are up, etc., etc. It’s a dated sitcom trope come to life: Look Everyone, Husbands and Wives Secretly Can’t Stand Each Other.
But while adventures in monogamy may be predictably tense right now, the uncoupled among us are facing our own set of romantic woes — namely, the near total end of our dating — and, by extension — sex lives.
As single people, we’ve long been accustomed to not knowing when or where our next fuck is coming from. But in return, we’ve had the thrill of knowing it could come anytime, from anywhere.
We’ve been offered substitutes, to be sure. Dating apps are pushing video dates like their existence depends on it (because it does), sexperts are schooling us in the art of phone sex, and we’re all posting, sending and receiving nudes like there’s no tomorrow (there might not be!). But all the nudes and sexting and jacking off in the world can’t answer the inevitable question: Are we ever actually going to get laid again?
As single people, we’ve long been accustomed to not knowing when or where our next fuck is coming from. But in return, we’ve had the thrill of knowing it could come anytime, from anywhere. That was the deal. But in the age of quarantined isolation, everyone’s next fuck, whenever or wherever it may have been coming from, has been postponed indefinitely. As multiple tweets have put it, “We’re all incels now.”
I’ve always thought of myself as a person with a relatively low sex drive, especially for someone whose job it is to write about sex. Intellectually, sex has always fascinated me, but physically, I can generally take it or leave it. When mascara brands or recipes on mom blogs describe themselves as “better than sex,” I’ve always thought, “Yeah, sure, but that’s not a terribly high bar.”
I never thought I’d be particularly concerned, then, about when the next time I have sex might be. My longest dry spell in six years of sexual activity was a four-month stretch of a long-distance relationship in college, during which time I remember realizing that I missed it much less than I cared to admit. But having the option eliminated for the foreseeable future has the tendency, I’ve realized, to thrust the ways I’ve used (and — some might argue, though I wouldn’t — misused) sex into clearer focus.
As someone who will readily choose giving up sex in most would-you-rather hypotheticals, I’ve occasionally been called to consider what a sexless life would actually entail. While I could be easily persuaded to dispense with the physical aspect, it’s occurred to me that in giving up sex, I’d lose access to an extremely powerful tool.
I’ve rarely turned to sex for physical gratification, but it’s become increasingly clear in recent weeks just how heavily I’ve relied on it as a source of other kinds of fulfillment — whether romantic, financial, social, emotional, or even, in very rare and very beautiful moments, spiritual. After all, if sex were just physical, why would any of us have ever bothered having it at all when we can get ourselves off, usually better than most partners?
“I guess you’re right then,” said a man I slept with once back in November who initially told me the thing he missed most about sex was “the release and mindfulness of it.”
“That’s not what I miss most,” he determined after I asked him if he couldn’t get a similar feeling of release and mindfulness from masturbation. “It’s the connection. The powerful connection to someone else.”
I’m not the only person asking relative strangers these kinds of questions. On Twitter, multiple people have been asking their followers about the last time they had sex, while comedian and writer Ginny Hogan simply begged the question, “At this point what even is sex?”
While many of the people I asked about their fears of a sexless future brushed off the inquiry as a joke or an impossibility, it seems a lot of us have indeed accepted this as the end of sex, though not without a healthy dose of gallows humor.
“If I knew the last time I had sex would be the last time I was having sex I would’ve sexed harder,” tweeted comedy writer Ziwe Fumudoh.
I, for my part, like to think that I did know, and responded accordingly.
One night in early March, as an unmistakable sense of impending doom began to take over the still-crowded streets of New York, I found myself accepting a last-minute date I ordinarily would have turned down, “just in case.” We made our romanticized pandemic anxiety the theme of the night. We drowned our fears in Prosecco and tasteless coronavirus jokes and tongue-in-cheek talk of “the end times.” We made out on the sidewalk and when I went to leave he said, “But it’s the end times,” and put me in a cab back to his place where we had unremarkable sex and pretended it was feverish, romantic, end-of-the-world sex.
The next day, hungover, I took a train out of the city in what many may criticize as a misguided and ultimately futile attempt to escape the worst of the pandemic. I discovered I had a UTI in the bathroom of the New Haven train station. And that was it. That was the end of sex.