The Death of Libido

The pandemic is keeping us at home — but out of the bedroom

Photo: torwai/iStock/Getty Images Plus

During the pandemic, Lola Jean stopped having sex.

That fact alone is not unusual. But given that Jean, on top of being a New York City-based sex educator and mental health professional, also works as a professional domme and had just started a new relationship, it suggests declining libido might be part of a larger trend.

“In general, I would describe myself as a very sexual person with a high sex drive,” she says. “During quarantine, I entered my first relationship, so we’re still in the honeymoon phase and theoretically should be having sex all the time.”

And yet, Jean says she and her partner were in something of a sex slump; an experience that’s being shared by many as the closures and stay-at-home orders triggered by Covid-19 enter a sixth month. And — like most modern problems — it’s all the pandemic’s fault.

Stress kills the mood

While there’s no hard data on the number of people experiencing a lowered libido during Covid-19, Alexandra Stockwell, MD, a personal relationship and intimacy coach in the Bay Area, says that, at least in her anecdotal experience, “it’s very widespread. Maybe it’s not everyone, but it’s a lot of people.”

The primary reason is simple, says Stockwell: “You can’t be stressed and have great sex. You need to feel at ease, and safe. There are a lot of obvious reasons why people can’t relax right now.”

Besides psychological reasons, there are physiological factors that could explain a drop in sexual appetite during the pandemic. Jordin Wiggins, ND, owner of Canadian women’s wellness clinic Health Over All, points to cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. Produced by the adrenal glands, cortisol keeps you safe by alerting the brain to danger — fueling the fight-or-flight response. But it’s a rapid-response system, poorly designed for the rigors of a six-month quarantine.

“When cortisol is raised for long periods of time, say, during a worldwide pandemic, it impacts everything — from digestion, to immune function, to body fat storage, and the ability of your brain to process and react to sexual cues,” Wiggins says.

Research has found a link between chronically high cortisol levels and loss of libido. In men, it can inhibit the production of testosterone — the main fuel for a man’s sex drive. In women, high cortisol levels can cause an abnormal menstrual cycle. In short — and perhaps unsurprisingly — stress throws everything out of whack.

The monotony of pandemic life is literally not stimulating

But stress and its psychological and physiological impacts isn’t the only factor at play. Jean attributes reduced libido partially to the monotony of life these days. “I’m used to being in coffee shops and gyms, meeting people, going to seven different places in a day,” she says.

Without them, “I feel a lack of creativity which makes me feel a lack of spark sexually.”

Not leaving the house may be doing a real number on our self-expression, adds Stockwell, the author of Uncompromising Intimacy, which also doesn’t do the libido any favors.

“We are used to having many different roles; as a professional, as a parent, as a spouse and lover, and right now those are all collapsed in on one another,” she says. “Usually people leave for work and have all kinds of interesting experiences and then they get to bring those separate experiences that are satisfying, challenging, whatever, home with them.”

That can spark conversation and connection, which can lead to sex. Plus, Stockwell explains, experiencing various emotions and environments throughout the day is mentally stimulating, which can put people in the right mindset to be turned on. But now, she adds, “that experience has been eliminated for most people.”

Privacy’s taken a hit, too. With schools and camps shuttered, couples with kids may be having a hard time finding moments alone, but at the same time, they also aren’t getting much time away from each other.

“I find myself wanting to spend less time with my partner so when I’m with him I can give him all my attention,” Jean says. “I think time apart is important, and also making the time together special in a different way. It’s more special when you haven’t seen someone in a while and you’re together again. Set up a date night, do something different. Something that’s not half-assed Netflix time.”

It’s time to push the boundaries

In her classes on libido awakening, Jean cautions students “not to expect your libido to be a light switch. It’s actually a roller coaster.” And you may be able to help it get moving again by adding some loops and twists.

“In general, usually, vanilla sex can very much satisfy me,” Jean says. “But now it’s like I need something else, a BDSM component, a group component, something psychological. I think I just miss novelty.” Don’t push the boundaries past where you’re comfortable, of course, but it may be useful just to “change it up and do it in a different way. It’s lazy to be like, ‘okay, we’re going to make out, I’ll go down on you, you go down on me, and maybe somebody penetrates somebody.’ There are other ways to get creative. You’ve got to just keep making static and see where it sparks.”

If you’re trying to get back into things more slowly, Wiggins says, “trying some intimacy with yourself first can be the best way to reignite your desire.” You can also give your partner some no-reciprocation-expected pleasure. “Orgasms can decrease stress. This can be a great way to keep you and your partner satisfied, especially if your libidos aren’t matching up lately.”

As people are recalibrating, libido will slowly return

No matter what, don’t look at a lowered libido as a personal failing. That’s not only invalid; it’s unproductive. “Cut yourself some slack,” Wiggins says. “We are all navigating this as we go, and putting more pressure on yourself to have sex, or guilt because you don’t want to, isn’t going to help shut off the stress response and get your libido back up and running.”

Stockwell says that while clients (and friends) have mentioned their decreased desire, no one’s actually reached out for advice on how to fix it. “I just think it feels like the last thing on people’s minds,” she says. “It’s more like, ‘I need to get through the day, I need to get a new job, I need to figure out how my kids will learn in the fall.’”

Plus, the problem may eventually take care of itself. Humans, after all, are remarkably adaptable creatures. And we really like sex.

“Even though there’s so much uncertainty about how this is all going to play out, people’s libidos are slowly returning, because we’re calibrating to this new context,” Stockwell says. “We’re starting to realize sex is one of the few things we can do to make us feel normal.”

But if you’re still not getting any, that’s normal, too. “Just so everyone knows, this is not just them,” says Stockwell. “This is most people.”

Written by

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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Written by

Kate Morgan

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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