Disclaimer: The intent of this article is not to imply that social distancing protocols are not valuable, nor undermine the importance of other COVID-19 safety measures.
Well 2020, you’ve been a weird one.
Until now, most people couldn’t imagine a world where staying six feet apart from others, wearing a mask in public, and working from home are the new norm. But now, amidst the spread of a global pandemic, here we are.
The effects of living in a socially-distanced world are perhaps nowhere more evident than in our love lives, where nothing is quite the same as before—both in dating or budding romances, and in established relationships.
Many people have spent months alone, with little to no physical touch. Others are single and dating, but thrown into a whole new arena that brings with it a unique set of challenges. And for those in established relationships, prolonged periods of time in isolation together are testing their limits.
So with no touching, many suffering from intimacy issues, and porn consumption skyrocketing, what impact has COVID-19 had on relationships?
1. Lack of human touch
As humans, we’re hardwired for close contact with each other. Touch is one of our most fundamental needs—an imperative element of mental and emotional health and how humans bond with others. It’s no surprise that the lack of these close interactions in recent months is impacting people in a big way.
Before the global pandemic, we might not have given much thought to the role touch plays in our everyday lives. And we’re not just talking about sexual touch—think a handshake, a hug from a friend, or snuggling up with a date to watch a movie. Humans need even these small physical interactions, and not having them can significantly affect mental health.
Sarah Calvert, a sex and relationship therapist, explains, “Humans are programmed for touch—we have a need for physical contact. Studies show that a lack of contact has an impact upon our physical and mental health because oxytocin, the bonding hormone, serotonin and dopamine are released naturally through touch providing a sense of wellbeing, calm, reducing stress and giving us feel-good feelings.”
Touch is also a key ingredient in intimate relationships, so the lack of it is posing challenges for those trying to cultivate new romances in a socially distanced world.
29-year-old Lilah, a gym instructor from the UK, was single throughout lockdown and started dating again once restrictions began to ease.
“I started dating a new guy and, for the first few dates, it felt really strange not to touch,” she says. “I don’t even mean kissing. The little things, like brushing his hand or a hug—they all didn’t happen and that felt super weird.”
“Because oxytocin is the bonding hormone, it helps to strengthen relationships. We can see the importance of physical contact when babies and young children bond with parents, for example. All types of touch are important—everything from shaking hands to hugging friends, not just sensual touch,” she said.
Still, knowing all of this, though, does not give people the license to break protocol and stop social distancing where it’s required and requested. Be smart and stay safe while also acknowledging your needs for connection.
2. Struggles with intimacy for new and existing couples
The unique circumstances of COVID-19 have also triggered a variety of intimacy issues. For example, some people are waiting longer to have sex for the first time in relationships, and many are jumping right into it—perhaps too soon—because of their intimacy cravings.
Lilah shares, “Normally I have no qualms about when I get physical with someone I’m dating. But with this new guy, I felt really wary and we waited a long time to have sex. It’s probably the longest I’ve waited.”
Sarah Calvert explains how the social conditioning of living during a global pandemic interferes when forming new relationships.
“The external messages that we’ve received over the last few months have been that physical intimacy is dangerous, therefore many people who have internalized that message may find it alien or uncomfortable to become physically close with another. Others, however, may find themselves craving intimacy and may therefore become physically imitate sooner than they would have pre-lockdown.”
Isabelle, a 26-year-old PA from London, said she jumped into getting physical much faster than she would have under normal circumstances:
“I was single and living alone during lockdown and it took an awful toll on my mental health. I moved incredibly fast with the first person I dated when measures were lifted. I was desperate for intimacy.”
On the flip side, relationship expert Simone Bose said that the delays in physical bonding may be an opportunity for people to connect better emotionally.
“Once they both feel safe enough, I’ve noticed people become perhaps more physically but also emotionally close,” he said. “There may have been a lot more talking in advance of touching to work out if someone is worthy of taking the risk. So there is a lot more in-advance bonding. During stricter lockdown, that person may soon become the person that one is more reliant on emotionally as well as physically as they may not be seeing anyone else.”
Sarah Calvert has seen similar effects in her own patients.
“During lockdown I saw couples making the decision to live together perhaps sooner than they would have done ordinarily and for different reasons—to provide practical and emotional support, companionship, to try to work on aspects of their relationship, to save money during financial changes, or even because one had more access to outside spaces.”
And lockdown hasn’t only affected new romances, but existing couples, too.
Shaughna, 32, a marketing executive from the UK, moved in with her boyfriend just two months before the lockdown.
“It was trial by fire. Living together for the first time would naturally have its bumps, but doing so in such extreme circumstances was hard. It took a toll being in each other’s faces 24/7. We argued a lot.”
Simone Bose said that arguing during lockdown is a natural response for couples under stress, and that if done in a healthy way, could be a unique opportunity to work through issues.
“Lockdown can make the most balanced and harmonious of couples argue now and again. It’s a situational external stressor and the circumstances can put people under a lot of mental pressure, making them a little less tolerant than they usually would be, bringing out vulnerabilities that may not usually be triggered.
There is potential to grow through this experience, if you address the issues which you can face at this point, perhaps how to spend quality time together, how to listen and communicate to each other more, how to empathize with one another through this situation…Talking about this with your partner can alleviate the stress. Do this in a non-blaming way.”
Other couples say they’ve found the lockdown to be surprisingly bonding, like 30-year-old Katherine who gave birth to her and her husband’s first child during quarantine. “It was just the three of us for so long and that was intense. But it made us a proper team.”
“COVID-19 has turned our world upside down, but in every crisis, there’s an opportunity,” she said. “For many, this has been a chance to reassess the kind of relationships we’re in and think about what is, and what’s not, working with partners. It’s given us the chance to reflect upon which aspects of our former lives we actually want to return to—the kind of relationships we want and the kind of social contact that nurtures us rather than depletes us.”
3. A surge in porn consumption during lockdown
Porn consumption rose by over 11% in just the first few months of lockdown alone. Concerning? Absolutely. But unfortunately, it’s not surprising.
Some people view porn as a way to self-soothe and find comfort for fear and stress, or they believe that porn doesn’t have a negative impact on people if they’re only consuming it occasionally. But is porn really a healthy solution for people isolated and craving human touch and intimacy? Can the temporary gratification of porn fill the void of lockdown loneliness? The answer is very likely no, and there’s research to show it.
Porn’s harms can’t simply be chalked up to a matter of preference or a case by case issue. While it’s true that porn does affect each person differently and not every consumer will become severely addicted, porn impacts everyone.
Let’s say that louder for the people in the back: porn impacts everyone.
Even those who consume porn casually, it can, at the very least, impact the way they see other humans.
Research shows that when people watch porn, the areas in the brain that light up are those that deal with objects, not people. The more someone is dehumanized, the more possible it is to commit violence against them. And that’s what porn does.
Now, we’re not saying that everyone who consumes porn is going to act out violently. Even so, porn clearly impacts what people desire sexually and can desensitize them to be more accepting of violent sexual behaviors. It can also diminish their ability to connect with a real person in a real relationship down the road.
Given what we’ve learned about the importance of real intimacy on our mental health, it’s easy to see why this is problematic.
It’s also important to note that porn consumption is an escalating behavior. What that means is it’s very unlikely for someone who watches porn to stick to the same stuff forever. Over time, they’ll desire to seek out more porn, more often, and a more hardcore version in order to get that same chemical rush in the brain.
The negative effects of using porn as a coping mechanism are also particularly concerning. Often the very outlet many people turn to for relief, escape, and connection actually leaves them more lonely, depressed, and stressed than they were before. While porn is often portrayed as a sexual outlet, research shows that porn can lead consumers to have less sex and less satisfying sex.
Jay Stringer, a licensed mental health counselor and author from Seattle, Washington, discussed with Fight the New Drug the risks involved with using one pandemic—porn—in an effort to escape the stresses and fears of another—COVID-19.
“Times of uncertainty like the one we’re in naturally intensify anxiety and powerlessness, and with it, the spread of pornography use. We turn to behaviors that provide relief from the difficulties we face, but many of the solutions we find only end up intensifying our original distress,” he said.
Jay Stringer emphasized that porn offers relief and power, but it’s only temporary and deeply problematic for several reasons—including its damages to sex and mental health and violation against women:
“Porn simultaneously overloads you with sexual stimulation while also teaching you to only consider your own sexual desires. Porn is so appealing not merely because it’s ‘erotic,’ but also because it lets you create a world where nothing is required of you. Real sex asks you to know and develop your desires while also learning to study, delight, and call forth the desires of another. Therefore, if you want to limit your sexual potential, porn is the fastest route to do so.”
In his research, Stringer found that when a person lacked a clear sense of purpose, they were 7 times more likely to increase the amount of porn they watched, and that understanding the lack of purpose that drives us to porn is critical.
“Porn invites you to escape the crucibles of your life,” he said. “But when you take its bait, you find yourself hooked into an even greater experience of futility. This the madness of porn use. The very thing we choose to assuage personal and relational problems ends up intensifying them.”
In addition to how porn impacts the consumer, it also inflicts pain on others by fueling their exploitation.
Stringer explained, “In times of crisis, we’re acutely aware of our need for relief, but I fear we’re not always aware of the damage we cause towards others in the process. One of the primary problems with porn is that one person’s relief is another person’s exploitation. The fantasy world created in porn requires a woman (or another human being) to be reduced to an object or commodity. In porn, a woman’s body is used to absorb the anxiety and anger men will not suffer.”
Fight the porn pandemic
COVID-19 has proven a challenging time for the health and happiness of individuals and relationships. The porn industry is clearly capitalizing on peoples’ loneliness and vulnerabilities during a global pandemic, and individuals, relationships, and society are being negatively affected.
While these times are unprecedented, each of us does have control over the impact we’ll allow porn to have moving forward. As we each do our part to care for those around us through social distancing and quarantine measures, let’s remember porn in our fight for human dignity and human health.
For those reading this who feel they are struggling with pornography, you are not alone. Check out our friends at Fortify, a science-based recovery platform dedicated to helping you find lasting freedom from pornography. Fortify now offers a free experience for both teens and adults. Connect with others, learn about your compulsive behavior, and track your recovery journey. There is hope—sign up today.