These Californians found new sex partners to help ease stress during coronavirus
Sex was the last thing on Joseph’s mind in March, when he was cast into the gloom of quarantine with the rest of California.
A man he’d hooked up with in the Before Times texted, hoping to rekindle intimacy with someone familiar. But Joseph didn’t feel comfortable breaking quarantine yet, especially with this guy who was calling the coronavirus a hoax.
Joseph, who is in late 20s and lives in Los Angeles County, had just lost his job at a nonprofit that was forced to downsize in the face of the pandemic. (He asked to be identified only by his first name because of the deeply personal nature of this story.) He was adjusting to spending all day, every day with his roommates, who are also his siblings. He spent two months trying to secure unemployment benefits but hadn’t heard anything back from the state. He was running out of money.
Joseph became depressed. His stress levels shot through the roof. “I just needed some respite from that,” he recently told a reporter.
So, in early May, Joseph posted a personal ad on a Reddit channel for Southern Californians seeking various kinds of companionship. After screening a few potential sex partners, he agreed to meet up with a guy who swore that he’d taken quarantine seriously.
“It really did help,” Joseph said of the hookup.
Most forms of in-person social interaction have waned dramatically because of the pandemic, and casual sex is no exception. But a minority of people have been willing to assume the risk of one-night trysts in an attempt to ease stress, loneliness and boredom.
The Los Angeles Times interviewed 10 California residents who have met up with new sex partners during the lockdown through Reddit. They represent a diverse swath of the population: employed and unemployed, partnered and single, young and in midlife.
Mila, an L.A. County resident in her 40s who also requested anonymity but provided the middle name she sometimes uses, started meeting up with a couple of her established “friends with benefits” a month into quarantine. But she missed the particular rush of group sex, so she posted on Reddit. “Who’s looking to break quarantine in a safe COVID-free way?” she wrote.
If sex-toy sales are any indication, people are seeking sexual pleasure during this anxiety-fraught period of extended social isolation.
More than 50 people responded to that first post. Her latest post last weekend netted 150.
“Everyone mentions quarantine in their replies,” said Mila, who during the week operates a crisis hotline and coordinates mental health and detox admissions for healthcare centers. “They’ll say, ‘I’m tired of being in the house,’ or, ‘My partner doesn’t want to have sex.’ They want to testify that they’ve been safe, that they aren’t hospital workers.”
Mila can understand their stress. She does intake for 15 new detox patients each night; the number of admissions has tripled in recent months.
“I deal with a lot of sadness in my job, people in awful situations, and it’s hard to compartmentalize that all the time,” said Mila, who is also in recovery. “Meeting up with people is a little window where I don’t have to be so compassionate and empathetic and responsible.”
The experiences of Mila and Joseph line up with what researchers at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute are finding in their new study, which looks at how social distancing and isolation are affecting the intimate lives of people around the world.
In the study’s first survey of 1,500 people, researchers found that those who report high levels of stress or loneliness are more likely to make new additions to their sex life: sexting and cybersex, acting on sexual fantasies and, in relatively few cases, hooking up with someone they’ve met on a dating app.
This was the case for a 26-year-old stay-at-home mom in San Diego who is expecting her second baby in November. Her husband has wanted to try group sex for years, and she finally agreed a few weeks into quarantine.
The idea of “letting loose” after being so coupled up is very appealing, she said. And she has plenty of options — more than 200 people replied to her post on Reddit.
“It’s a little more nerve-wracking since people are starting to go back to work so obviously more people will be out and about exposing themselves to the virus,” she wrote The Times. “It has made us wonder if we should put this off for now. I think that’s part of the reason we’re really taking our time with it.”
Those who are expanding their sexual repertoire during the pandemic account for just one-fifth of all those surveyed by the Kinsey Institute, said the study’s lead researcher, Justin Lehmiller. In fact, twice as many study participants reported that the quality of their sex lives had declined.
“For some people, stress really puts a damper on desire,” Lehmiller said.” For others, sex is a coping mechanism. In discrepant couples, you might have a partner with higher levels of desire going out and committing infidelity. Some people are cheating for the first time.”
The site Ashley Madison, an online dating service marketed to people who are married or in relationships, has seen a 10% year-over-year increase in new members over the past few months, the company’s chief strategy officer said in an interview with VentureBeat.
People with thrill-seeking personalities are more likely to engage in risky behaviors during the pandemic, Lehmiller said.
“They might find breaking social distancing guidelines provides a potent stimulus to really get them aroused,” Lehmiller said.
People who report feeling lonelier are also more likely to take risks.
“We know that loneliness in and of itself is detrimental to our psychological and mental well-being,” Lehmiller said. “But if loneliness is pushing people to cope this way, further exposing themselves to this virus, that’s a different negative health effect entirely.”
Three Harvard physicians who examined the likelihood of coronavirus infection through sexual contact warned in their new report that framing sex as “dangerous” during the pandemic could have “insidious psychological effects at a time when people are especially susceptible to mental health difficulties.”
“For the population at large, a recommendation of long-term sexual abstinence is unlikely to be effective,” the authors wrote.
Instead, they write, people can keep their number of sexual partners to a minimum and avoid sex with people who show symptoms of COVID-19, such as cough, fever and fatigue.
The doctors also recommend wearing masks while having sex with partners outside the home, showering before and after and avoiding sex acts that involve the oral transmission of body fluids.
Risk has always been associated with casual sex, such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
This has become especially true in the gay community. For the most part, gay men trust that strangers will be honest about their HIV status, Joseph said. It’s part of the social contract that has kept hookup culture intact in the wake of the AIDS crisis.
Some people on Grindr, a popular dating app that caters to gay men, have added “COVID negative” to their profiles.
“It almost seems like they’re making a joke out of it,” Joseph said.
The Facebook group “grindr aesthetics” is dedicated to critiques of app interactions gone awry. In early May, a member posted screenshots of a conversation in which he explained to another man that he couldn’t meet up because of the pandemic.
“There is a literal stay at home order,” he wrote.
“That ain’t [anything]” the other man replied, using an expletive.
This kind of cavalier attitude is why Joseph turned to Reddit, where he’s found people to be a bit more trustworthy, he said. Joseph has asthma, and he was nervous about what might happen if he contracted the virus.
After talking to a prospective sex partner for a few days, he drove to the guy’s apartment. They didn’t kiss and wore masks when they could.
Back home in his own bed, Joseph seesawed between the relief of intimacy and feelings of recklessness and anxiety.
“It’s like you’re helping one aspect of your mental health but creating another problem,” Joseph said."Am I going to catch it? Is this going to be a danger to the people in the house with me?”
Still, Joseph is open to seeing that guy again, and he might eventually add new partners into the mix. It depends on how long quarantine lasts.
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