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Quarantine horniness, explained by a sex researcher

It’s still a bad idea to sleep with someone new, even if both of you have been social distancing.  

Two people (in Italy) kissing with masks on!
Photo by Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In 2012, the immortal chanteuse Britney Spears sang about the erotic thrill of the apocalypse.

“I can’t take it, take it, take no more. Never felt like, felt like this before,” she sang, voicing a deep, roiling desire to dance with someone she’d just met. “C’mon get me, get me on the floor. DJ, what you, what you waitin’ for?”

Spears suggested her lust was so enthralling that not even global annihilation could get in her way.

“See the sunlight, we ain’t stopping. Keep on dancin’ ’til the world ends,” Spears continued. “If you feel it, let it happen. Keep on dancin’ ’til the world ends.”

The reality of our current apocalyptic scenario — the coronavirus pandemic — is a lot less sexy than the sweaty, bare-skin-pressing-on-bare-skin circumstances Spears envisioned. Quite the opposite. People living in 42 states (and counting) have been told to stay home, following the leads of countries like Italy and Spain that have gone on full lockdowns. Government officials have begged people to not just remain indoors but also to cut off any physical contact with others.

The aim of this restrictive measure is to reduce the spread of the virus, not letting it jump from person to person. And sacrificing physical contact for the global good means that interactions with people you don’t share a home with now exist primarily online over texts, Zoom calls, direct messages, and social media.

Through social distancing, we’re cut off from most physical contact with our friends and family. We’re also meant to keep away from people we were having sex with or want to have sex with, unless we already live with those people. And all the people who were having or were interested in having sex with us can’t pursue those aims, either.

In Spears-speak, everyone you want to dance with ’til the world ends is now off-limits. But that has neither stopped people from irresponsibly hooking up (or claiming to be), nor kept some from pursuing and being pursued.

While there are directives from health officials — New York City has a widely circulated memo about how its horny residents should refrain from hooking up and send nudes or video chat instead — I wanted to ask experts about why some people’s sex drives are even more stimulated than normal during a time where we can’t tap into those desires with other people. I also wanted to know: How risky is it to act on those sexual desires with someone, even if they’re also self-quarantining?

Being hornier than usual right now is perfectly normal. So is not wanting to have sex at all.

In the first week of social distancing, I noticed a few more green circles popping up on my Instagram feed than usual. Green circles are the platform’s way of indicating that you’re on someone’s “Close Friends” list, seeing a post made for a specific set of eyes decided on by the user. On my Instagram feed, these Close Friends posts usually come from gay men sharing thirst traps, a particularly randy brand of photo or video — usually shirtless, sometimes featuring underwear — that’s designed to get attention. The goal is to get the viewer to slide into your DMs, usually sending a reply involving the fire or eyeballs emoji.

The question became clear: Was the lockdown on physical intimacy driving up the frequency, and thirstiness, of these private posts?

Instagram told me on March 23 that although there have been upticks in use of the platform’s “live” feature since March 16 (when the first US quarantine measures went into effect), it didn’t have specific data on whether there has been a dramatic change in frequency of “Close Friends” posts on the platform during the past month or so of worldwide quarantine measures.

Without a solid answer and nothing more than anecdotal evidence, I asked the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, which studies human sexuality and relationships, for its take. Kinsey is in the middle of conducting a study on how the pandemic has affected people’s sexual relationships, and its researchers have found that the number of people engaging in sexual behavior online has increased, as well as the number of people who have completely disengaged.

“When you look at the data, you actually see movement at both ends,” social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at Kinsey and author of Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire, told me. You have a higher percentage of people now who are saying [that] they’re masturbating and having more sex. But you also have a higher percentage of people saying they’re not engaging in any sexual behavior at all. And the people at the low end and not having any behavior — that increase is much bigger than the increase at the other end of the spectrum.”

Lehmiller says experiencing a lack of sex drive is tied to the distress of the situation. The death tolls ratchet up constantly, horrific stories come out of hospitals each day, projections talk about hundreds of thousands of deaths, and it seems inevitable that by the end of the pandemic, each one of us will know someone that’s been affected by the disease. Not being in the mood is completely understandable.

But that same apocalyptic scenario can trigger arousal too.

“There’s a whole body of research and the theory is called Terror Management Theory,” or TMT, Lehmiller said. “The idea behind it is that when we face the prospect of our own mortality, it leads us to cope, or it leads us to change our attitudes and behaviors in a way that it’s designed to cope with that existential threat.”

And for some people, TMT manifests itself in sexual interest and desire, or adopting new ways to express themselves sexually. Those expressions could be sexting, sending nudes, or initiating video chats — all of which can spin off from a single thirsty Close Friends post.

“Something we’re seeing in our data is that people are incorporating more online sexual activities that maybe they’ve never done before into their sex life as a way of getting some sexual fulfillment and also connection with other people,” Lehmiller told Vox. “So it definitely does seem to be the case that there is more sexting, for example, going on right now. And more sending of nudes and other things like that.”

Our social etiquette and norms have also changed.

Many people may now have much more privacy to send a sext or DM at any time of day. Nights and weekends — times when Lehmiller says we’re most likely to engage in sex-seeking behavior — are now almost indistinguishable from afternoons and weekdays, blurring the lines of when it’s appropriate for us to start flirting and thirst-trapping. And there are now a lot of people home during the day to receive and reciprocate these messages.

These different factors can really do a number on the way our sex drives respond.

I asked Lehmiller why my circle of gay friends and several gay men I spoke to in particular seemed to notice more thirst traps on Instagram and DMs than they did before. The research that Lehmiller is doing at Kinsey, which surveys more than 1,000 participants, found that gender or sexual orientation wasn’t a determining factor in whether someone was expressing themselves more during the pandemic, he said.

“The people that are most likely to experience that increased in sexual desire are people who already are very comfortable with their bodies and have a positive body image,” Lehmiller told me. “If you’re somebody who was embedded in a network of people that had a level of interest in sex to begin with, you’re probably seeing even higher levels of sexual interest coming out right now.”

Why it’s so risky to sleep with someone right now, even if they’re social distancing

I spoke to a number of people for this article, and found that, although Lehmiller said gender and sexual orientation wasn’t really a factor in sexual behavior, the gay men I interviewed seemed to be the most frank, candid, and innovative when it comes to their online sex lives. A 31-year-old New Yorker whom we’ll call Andrew told me about a 32-person Instagram group DM he participates in where nudes are exchanged.

“It started as a, ‘Can I send you nudes during these trying times?’” he told me, explaining how the massive DM chain began as a poll. “And a ‘yes’ vote was basically consent for receipt and I got a lot of yeses, so I thought, wouldn’t it be fun?”

The group is so popular, Andrew said, that there’s apparently a waitlist to get into the DM chain.

Hunter (whose name has been changed to protect his privacy), a 24-year-old from New York, explained that he too has been sending out more nudes and posting flirty Close Friends Instagram stories because physical intimacy is off the table.

“I started doing it naturally just because of the circumstances, but it’s reinforced by seeing so many of my peers doing the same thing,” Hunter said. “I think we’d all rather spend our time flirting and complimenting each other instead of thinking about sickness and death.”

Hunter and Andrew are actually following the New York City’s public health directive, which encourages “video dates, sexting or chat rooms” as opposed to meeting people online.

And they, like their fellow New Yorkers, have been asked to socially distance themselves for more than three weeks now. Theoretically speaking, that’s longer than the reported incubation period for the disease. But it’s important to keep in mind that just because people have dutifully followed self-quarantine measures and think they might be okay to go out to see someone once in a while, it doesn’t mean that they no longer pose a risk to each other.

It’s simple: Sleeping with someone who doesn’t live in your home is still a risk, because at this point, anyone outside of your own home could stand as a health risk to you right now.

“Social distancing reduces your risk greatly, and it reduces the risk that you pose to others greatly, but it’s no guarantee that you didn’t get it when you went to the grocery store three days ago,” Anna Muldoon, a former science policy adviser at the US Department of Health and Human Services and PhD candidate researching infectious disease and social crises at Arizona State University, told me. “Every time you leave your house, there’s some level of risk. When people say they’ve been self-quarantining for two weeks, very few of them actually mean they’ve had zero risk of exposure in two weeks. And the other thing is, on your way to that [sex] date, you’ve got to get there somehow, and that’s another exposure risk.”

Muldoon said perhaps someone living in your neighborhood or even your building could be the least worst choice to sleep with for someone who absolutely can’t hold off. (Muldoon does not recommend sleeping with a neighbor, emotionally speaking.) She said that people who go to the same places that you’re going to are generally exposed to the same level of risk as you.

“Humans are going to do human things, and sex is a very human thing,” Muldoon said. “I think that if you’re in a situation where it’s like you’ve talked to the person long enough that you really believe that they’re following all the precautions, and you’re in the same neighborhood having to walk the same streets, or go to the same grocery store anyway, your risk is relatively similar. I don’t love the idea, because you are increasing both of your risk, but you’re probably being exposed to the same things.”

The thing to keep in mind if you do decide to have sex during these troubling times, experts say, is that it’s not just your health you’re going to worry about. You’re making yourself responsible for someone’s health and vice versa. It’s a personal call as to whether that’s a decision you want to make. It’s absolutely fine and even a better decision that’s backed by doctors and health officials, if you don’t want to expose yourself to other people right now — or if you just want to fire up Instagram, send some consensual nudes over DMs. Or even if you just want to keep your love life to text-only for now.

“This is a moment that we’re all learning to develop deeper relationships again. It’s a kind of weird experience,” Muldoon said. “We had all adjusted to sort of a really fast trajectory into sleeping with people and really sped-up forms of dating, and this thing is forcing us to go back to old-school getting-to-know-you things.”