Worried that Covid has stolen your sex life? Join the club

I didn’t think I could sympathise more with young people, or be more acutely aware of how much they have been affected by the pandemic. Then I read about the surge in virginity anxiety. Message boards and counselling services are heaving with gen-Zers who missed all those Rubicon events – the festivals, the freshers’ weeks, the parties where someone’s parents actually went out – that might have been the night.

It wasn’t that the moment passed; the moment simply never happened. With so much joyless practicality, so much caution, even something as mundane as the weather could derail things. It was meant to be everyone’s hot girl/boy summer, but how are you meant to show the world your midriff when not even the sun will come out?

The anxieties are so poignant – would they be heading into their 20s without having had sex? Was it possible to miss the boat altogether? Could a lack of experience become such a millstone that you would be stuck with it for ever?

The trend was already towards having sex later in life – one in eight millennials had not had sex before the age of 26, according to a survey in 2018. Compare that with their parents’ generation, in which the figure was one in 20. But there is a major difference between being part of a long-term deferral and feeling as if you have been lassoed by circumstance, stuck at the basecamp, halfway up your mountain of awakening. This absolutely sucks. I won’t say it’s worse than getting your A-level grades unfairly deflated by an algorithm, but I can imagine the world in which it feels worse.

The anodyne thing would be to say: cheer up, gen Z, it’s bound to happen for you. Instead, I am going to share everything I have learned this year, through a combination of interviewing, earwigging and reading, about life on the other side – people who have already had sex and how much of it they have had in the pandemic.

In the statement-of-the-bleeding obvious column, it has been much easier to be in a couple than to be single, and much easier to be cohabiting than to be living apart. However, even if you were living that dream – hey, let’s go the whole hog and call you married! – things were complicated. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which normally runs every 10 years, did a mini Covid study that found that three-quarters of cohabitants reported a change in their sex lives, which was more likely to be for the worse.

For some, it was the collapsing walls of their multiple identities. We all have different selves – worker, parent, carer, lover, comrade, pain-in-the-arse – and we switch between them via our daily rituals – the school run, the office, bathtime, cocktail hour, etc. When our rituals were obliterated, we couldn’t find a way to toggle, which is a long and euphemistic way of saying we didn’t feel horny. Those who were anxious lost their libido, but so did those who weren’t. Maybe they were kidding themselves and weren’t as relaxed as they thought.

Meanwhile, on the singles circuit, everything was 10 times worse – even once it was legal again. A background fear of disease ruined spontaneity and made us forget how to initiate anything. One STI doctor told me she had seen patients overreact to minor diagnoses because they had a generalised, irrational fear of contamination. Some people got used to solitude and couldn’t drag themselves back out of it; others became overwhelmed by the sheer brutality of dating sites. Long Covid sucked the life out of a lot of people, while a lot of others were simply overexposed to one another.

None of which is to say that reluctant virgins don’t deserve the lion’s share of our sympathy. Rather, if you think you have missed the boat, you ought to know that the boat you missed is dangerously underpowered and going round in circles. There will be another – better – one around the corner and you will be glad you missed the low-pleasure cruise.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist


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