Challenges of intimacy when ordered to ‘stay away’
by Mick Rhodes | email@example.com
Everybody needs somebody, even during a pandemic. Humans crave connection: spiritual, emotional and sexual. But what happens to our “skin hunger” when it’s impossible (or potentially life-threatening) to be together?
With some couples quarantined apart, the longing for human touch has resulted in a host of innovations designed to ease the separation, and been a boon for explicit websites.
People are discovering new avenues of fulfillment, such as sexting, sending nudes, explicit video chats, and of course, masturbation.
Folks are even using app-controlled sex toys that, combined with a video chat, enable partners to control them remotely as a way of being together, albeit digitally.
It’s all fascinating, but experts say these innovations can't replicate the real thing, and ultimately, self-care through self-pleasure is a temporary fix.
“We’re talking about stopgap measures essentially,” said Claremont-based psychologist and UCLA certified sex therapist Don “Dr. Don” Etkes. “There’s no absolute substitute for having someone there reaching out and touching you, caressing you and being next to you. We’re talking about trying to get by.”
Sex is good for us. It increases oxytocin, helps reduce anxiety, stress, blood pressure and pain, while improving our overall mental and emotional health.
But for those of us who are cut off from our partners, the sudden halt in sexual activity—and human touch—can create negative side effects.
Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute recently began a study, “Sex and Relationships in the Time of COVID-19,” to better understand the romantic and sexual lives of adults during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This virus and the resulting societal changes are new to nearly all of us, and this event may be pushing people together or apart in ways that we’ve not previously seen or studied,” the study’s authors said.
Mr. Etkes, whose been practicing for 32 years and has lived in Claremont for more than two decades, said the overwhelming challenge his clients have faced in isolation is depression.
He encourages his clients to reach out and be involved with other people through any way possible, especially video conferencing platforms such as WhatsApp or Skype.
“I recommend it very highly,” he said. “If they don’t have a visual connection with people, they really can spiral into a lot of depression.”
He’s also concerned about the overconsumption of pornography by people who are quarantined without a partner.
“Typically, since they’re isolated, it’s a way to have some sense of connection,” he said. “But yet it’s very, very false. It’s very unrealistic stuff and it really, really can negatively affect one’s thought process, particularly in how they approach sex.”
To be clear though, he’s not against pornography.
"As long as somebody’s using it in a way that makes them feel good, and not hurting themselves emotionally or someone else, then it’s fine,” he said.
Adding further complexity, it may be some time until some couples feel confident enough for actual sexual activity after the extended isolation is lifted.
“One of the dangers of this continued isolation, week and after week, is that internally and subconsciously, some people may get a sense that somehow it’s not okay to be with somebody else,” Mr. Etkes said. “They may gather together and find hesitancy, including possibly sexual dysfunction in terms of being worried on a certain level. Certainly the other thing that’s come forth is this pandemic produces a lot of worry, and so they may be reluctant to be fully involved with a partner.
"It remains to be seen how many people will be afraid of touching and being with somebody because they’re afraid on some level that they’re going to get hurt,” he said.
In the meantime, people are doing what they can to stave off depression due to lack of intimacy. Walking, running and getting outside are all endorphin-boosting activities that can help.
Another easy and effective self-care technique is self-massage.
“Even if somebody massages their own neck or own shoulders, it’s not anywhere near having a partner touch you, but it’s better than nothing,” Mr. Etkes said. “I’ve found a lot of people feel better if they at least massage their neck or back.”
Masturbation can also help to relieve feelings of loneliness and disconnection, he said. But even that has its downside. Mr. Etkes said he has heard of some people—mostly men—pleasuring themselves 20 or 30 times a day.
“Of course there are issues about how much people at times are a little bit out of control with masturbation,” he said. “Out of control meaning that they’re not getting things done in their lives because they’re getting more and more into the porn.”
But Mr. Etkes made it clear there’s no right or wrong number of times to have sex, masturbate or to watch porn.
“Everything is based on the effect,” he said. “If somebody’s doing something, whatever activity it is, and they feel good about themselves and they take care of their finances and their contact with family and friends, then that’s fine. It’s very important to understand that there isn’t a litmus test on how much masturbation you’re doing, or how much sex you’re having, or how many partners you have. It’s really about if you’re doing something—whether it’s sex or anything else—that is having a negative effect in your life, then that’s a problem. Otherwise, it isn’t.”
The main thing for people to remember during this period of isolation is to keep themselves up and active, Mr. Etkes said. Those prone to depression may find themselves falling down the rabbit hole of negative thoughts, with nobody around to help buoy their sadness.
“Many people are raised to not feel okay about themselves,” Mr. Etkes said. “And that’s been magnified through this pandemic because they’re isolated and they tend to get into a negative thought process. Unfortunately there are many people who are really having issues. I can’t give you exact numbers, but I’m under the impression that there has been an increase in suicidal ideation among some people.”
Escapist fare such as binging movies and shows on Netflix is one way to cope, he said, but even better yet is to use the time as an opportunity to learn. He recommends checking YouTube for videos on improving relationships and communication.
Online dating is another possible way to alleviate loneliness. It also increase one’s chances of intimacy when quarantine is over or relaxed, “so you can build up connections and when you can go out the door you can actually meet with somebody,” he said.
Overall, moving your body is perhaps the most essential tool for elevating wellbeing.
“That’s the most critical thing, to get in some physical movement,” Mr. Etkes said. “It’s one of the ways to lessen depression and hopefully avoid it, and also by the way to feel better about one’s body.”
Mr. Etkes is counseling his patients to tell themselves they’re going to be okay.
“Even if they don’t believe it,” he said. “At least say it to yourself: I’m going to be okay.”
Mr. Etkes is the author of the book, “Loving With Passion.” He earned a PhD in psychology from UCLA in 1988. He is also a life coach, hypnotherapist, sex therapist, professional speaker, and a licensed marriage and family therapist. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at (310) 405-9814, or through his website, www.maximizesuccess.com