The death of a long-term partner can change everything. Your own mental (and possibly physical) health, your sense of stability, even your taxes. But one thing it might leave unchanged is your sex drive. A new study from the UK found that, despite possible stigma around seeking sexual pleasure in the wake of loss, 63% of respondents reported still feeling “a strong desire for sex following a partner or spouse’s death.” The phenomenon is called “widow’s fire,” and it’s a surprising, yet totally normal, side effect of grief.
Aside from how much widow’s fire sounds like a menu item at a pretentious cocktail bar — something with mezcal and orange bitters, mmm — it turns out it’s a natural response to losing an intimate partner, and may even be an important part of the grieving process. The survey, which was funded by a dating app created specifically for widows and widowers, looked at 500 people who were sexually active after the loss of a life partner. The app, called Chapter 2, was designed to help the bereaved understand what “sex, orgasms and pleasure looked like for them,” even as they mourn.
The app’s founder, relationship expert Nicky Wake, told Yahoo! that “widows and widowers having sex seems to be a major taboo in our society. Sexual bereavement is the grief nobody wants to talk about, even though it happens — often.”
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While there’s no rulebook dictating exactly how long a person should wait before hopping in bed with someone new, respondents to the survey on average held out a little longer than a year after a partner’s death to have sex. (Otherwise known as “losing your widow virginity,” which is a phrase I simply cannot condone.) Nearly 60% reported having a higher sex drive than before they lost their partner, and 64% said they’d become more experimental in bed. No disrespect to the dead, but that sounds like a pretty good second chapter to me!
A recent essay from The Guardian explores the role of masturbation and self-pleasure in the months after losing someone. Pauline, 72, said her friends had been shocked when she told them she wanted to buy a vibrator after the death of her husband of 31 years in 2021. There were many things she missed about her late husband, but in particular, she said she craved “the feeling of him, and his solid body.” And as much as she grieved the loss of him as a person, she doubly grieved the loss of their physical and sexual relationship. As a woman in her 70s, and especially as a widow, she said she felt she’d been stripped of her sexuality, despite feeling the same desires she’d always felt, if not even more strongly now.
When Pauline eventually began having sex with a new partner, she said it was better than ever. “I never thought anyone would look at me without my clothes on again,” she told The Guardian. “I’m on the crest of a wave and it’s no holds barred. I’ve always been very inhibited, but now I feel I can do anything I want.”
Grief is a complicated emotion with different lessons for everyone. But if you’re lonely and horny after losing an intimate partner, don’t let guilt keep you from seeking some relief.