Perhaps the Most Primal Post-Disaster Reaction: Sex


It’s the end of the world as we know it, especially in New York City, where what is being called “end-of-the-world sex” or “terror sex” has become a means for some to cope with terrifying feelings of fear, vulnerability and sadness.

“What’s sick is that on the day that it happened, I watched the towers crumble, and then I’m walking north, really freaked out, but I was noticing more women than I ever do,” said an unmarried Manhattan record executive in his 30s who contacted several women he was dating casually, all of whom he has had sex with since the attacks.

“Usually there are girls where you say she’s not my type. Everything was my type all of a sudden. Everyone has been through a shared experience and people’s defenses are down. People are vulnerable and that can be really attractive. It’s biology at work--gotta procreate if the world is coming to an end.”


Post-disaster sex is similar to sex that happens before, during and after war, said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist. There is a sense between departing soldiers and their partners that this sex may be the last. Many soldiers marry before they are sent off to war, not because they are magically seduced but because of something more instinctual, Schwartz said.

Demographers should expect a hike in the birth rate about 10 months from now, she added.

Although the phenomenon seems to be more common in Manhattan, people all over are reporting heightened libidos.

“I have heard all kinds of people say, ‘I don’t know why, but I feel like going out and having sex with strangers,”’ said Schwartz, author of “Everything You Know About Sex Is Wrong” (Putnam, 2001). “I heard this from a married friend of mine, who if you looked at her, you would never expect it. But the act of sex is a very elemental, primal feeling of being alive and connected to somebody. Sex is part of a life force. When asked, ‘How do you want to die?’ a lot of people say, ‘Making love or having an orgasm.’ What they are saying is, ‘I want to be most alive the moment before I am dead.’ ”

Nothing brings humans closer than sex, Schwartz added, and for many men, sexual intimacy paves the way to emotional intimacy.

Married folks get the urge too. A writer who lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan said, “We have sex more often. It’s been more frenzied

A 27-year-old magazine editor who lives and works in Manhattan was so horrified, so frightened and felt so vulnerable after the Sept. 11 attacks that she and her roommate pretty much lived in different bars watching the news with other New Yorkers. “We all sort of wanted to be with a man,” she said, adding that they were also perplexed by this physical impulse.

She said that she has never been “hit on” more often than she has been in the last three weeks. “People were looking at each other differently as if they were thinking, ‘Would I be with this person? Would I have sex with this person?’ It was kind of weird. I immediately called this guy I had been dating on and off for a year. I just wanted to be with him.”

She spent the next three days and nights with him, at his apartment. “You feel weird about it because some people said the last thing they wanted was sex. Maybe it is because on some subconscious level you do it because you want to ensure the survival of the species, but all of us are probably on birth control. It may be a way to experience humanity and be connected.”

The magazine editor’s roommate, a 29-year-old television production assistant, put it this way: “I just wanted random sex,” she said, adding that she tried to call a man she had dated six times and slept with once. Unfortunately, she said, the attacks compelled him to write “his masterpiece” rather than accept her offer for sexual healing. “I wanted a man’s arms around me even though I knew it wasn’t going to be real,” she said. “I just wanted the escape. I was so frightened. I wanted to feel protected.”

When people are afraid, the body’s fight or flight response is triggered, said Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University who lives in Manhattan. A cocktail of hormones and neurochemicals is released, stimulating the survival instinct, driving up levels of dopamine and, possibly, the hormone testosterone, which stimulates the libido. “I noticed this phenomenon in 1994 when I was on a book tour in Los Angeles following the earthquake there,” said Fisher, referring to her bestselling book, “The Anatomy of Love (Fawcett Columbine, 1994). “In a matter of hours, many people came up to me and asked: ‘Why, in the middle of this disaster, am I so horny?”’

Disasters and tragedies are situations of novelty, danger and fear, all of which can stimulate the sex drive. Partly, you want to hold your sweetheart out of gratitude that you are still alive. Feeling sheepish or and guilty about experiencing pleasure when so many people are in pain or mourning is common. “I felt guilty for having sex at all,” said a 29-year-old woman writer who lives in Manhattan.

Fans of the movie “Summer of ’42,” in which a teenaged boy is sexually initiated by a young war widow seeking physical solace when she receives news of her husband’s death, will recognize another phenomenon that is known to occur in the wake of disaster. Those in mourning may have sex with a stranger, acquaintance or someone other than their partner, said Carol Rinkleib Ellison, a clinical psychologist in Oakland.

“Someone might go home from a funeral and have sex with a neighbor and might not mention it again,” she said. “It seems to be a statement that life goes on, that we are the living. People need to understand that the motivation for sex after death or devastation might not be out of lust or passion, but out of a need for reassurance, comfort or an affirmation of life.”

Indeed, the scale of the World Trade Center attacks is a profound reminder of mortality, especially for New Yorkers, said Xavier Amador, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University. “When people feel their own mortality and feel how precious their own life is, in an odd way it gives them courage to do and say a lot of things they may have wanted to but have-n’t.”

So it was with the magazine editor, who became so frightened the Saturday after the attack, when, according to rampant rumors, a second attack was supposed to hit New York. The man she had spent three nights with was supposed to fly to Washington, D.C.

She had a few drinks, called him and left this message: “Tomorrow may be the end of the world, and I love you.”

Neither one of them had yet uttered the word “love,” a this-relationship-is-serious benchmark. That’s how profoundly changed she was by the catastrophe. “It made me say the L-word.”


Birds & Bees, a column about sexuality and relationships, runs Monday. E-mail: New York-based writer Lauren Sandler contributed to this column.