Scaring Our Pants Off – Stress and Sex in the Time of Pandemic
This is not the blog I planned for today. I was planning to publish an interview with Melanie Davis, the author of an excellent new sexual education program for older adults. I look forward to running Melanie’s interview when the time is right. In the interview, Melanie explains that one of the main benefits of that program compared with reading a book is the interaction and face-to-face contact involved. Well, suddenly face-to-face contact is forbidden.
Here we are, siloed at home, sheltering in place, waiting for the other shoe to drop. For now, what seems most relevant is to talk about stress and how it affects our sexuality, and how sexuality in turn affects our stress.
In this strange moment, with a pandemic going on, with your routine disrupted and horror stories all over the news (not to mention what has happened to your retirement plan), stress is the main course on the menu. Maybe it comes and goes, maybe you cycle through the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, Acceptance: rinse and repeat). But stress is built into our days and nights now, and it is well documented that stress lowers women’s libido. At the molecular level, we make more of the hormones that help us fight or run away (such as cortisol) and fewer ‘sexy’ hormones (such as testosterone, in both men and women). And that makes sense, doesn’t it? The people who were snuggling when the saber tooth attacked didn’t pass on their genes.
But this pandemic is not a saber tooth tiger. You can’t drop a boulder on it, and you can’t run from it. Unless we are physicians or researchers, we fight corona virus by staying home. We fight it through the full body equivalent of wearing a condom: by staying out of one another’s space. It is a weird battle. This is not the enemy for which evolution has shaped us; we are made to fight danger or to run from it. In this battle, the cortisol we make does us no good. In fact, getting stressed and sitting still is bad for our health, as many of us know from our days in a high-pressure desk job.
What we must do is move. Dance to rock and roll – or whatever takes your fancy – in your living room. Go for a walk, keeping your distance from other humans. Lift weights, or books. Exercise burns up that cortisol. And, even if it doesn’t sound immediately appealing, have sex. If you are self-quarantined with a spouse or partner, great. You are both at home; have a nooner. If you are self-quarantined without a sex partner, break out your vibrator, fingers, hand or whatever works for you. Why is this a good idea? Because for most women, erotic experience lowers stress hormones. While stress shifts the metabolic balance toward making more stress hormones, we can shift the balance in the other direction when we have sex: we make more sex hormones and fewer stress hormones. And that, ladies, helps with stress and sex in the time of pandemic.
Three women researchers (Lisa Hamilton, Alessandra Rellini, and Cindy Meston) studied how women respond to erotic movies. They found that for most women, stress levels decrease after watching a sexy movie. The exception was women who have been sexually abused. For many of these women, stress levels increased when watching the video (the study did not look at whether women who had received treatment for sexual abuse regained the stress reducing benefits of erotica). But with that important exception, sex helps us to be less stressed.
So there it is: Stress makes us feel less sexy. But sex makes us feel less stressed.
We can choose to have mind-altering experiences. It’s your body, and the more you know about it, the better you can manage it. It’s your life, and the more you know about it, the more you can enjoy it and care for yourself at the same time.
And one last thing: In this moment, when so much is unknown, we can also turn to writing as a way to manage our stress. Like sex, a regular writing practice has been shown to lower cortisol levels, as well as improving immune system function. I can’t find any studies about what happens when we write erotica, but perhaps it’s even better.
My apologies to Melanie Davis for hijacking her interview space. I hope to run it soon. But for now, so many of our plans have been hijacked: Visits with aging parents, with children and grandchildren. College reunions, weddings, memorial services. Classes we wanted to take or teach – in the meantime you can take my free, seven day, online, sexy writing class. The two-edged sword of technology binds us together, enabling us to stay safely (if remotely) connected, even while it scares our pants off. So much is out of our control; but let us plan what we can control: Plan for joy.