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Sexuality and sexual wellness during pandemic

In our country, sex and sexuality are taboo topics, often stigmatised and not openly discussed.

Published: 01st March 2021 04:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st March 2021 04:27 AM   |  A+A-

couple, relationships

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The Covid-19 pandemic has affected developed and developing countries equally. SMS (Social distancing, Masking and Sanitisation) has been recommended by all public health agencies. There is adequate awareness about the physical health (symptoms and complications) and, to some extent, about the psychological aspects (stress, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, etc). However, amid the information overload, we have forgotten to focus on our sexual wellness, which has been compromised in many ways. Social distancing, fear of infection and panic — hasn’t it all affected sexual practices and sexuality? 

Sexuality is an imminent part of physical, emotional and social wellbeing of a person. It can comprise sexual identity, sexual preferences, sexual relationships, sexual knowledge and a society that affirms sexual needs. The emotional and sexual dimensions of a relationship go hand-in-hand, problems in one will eventually spill over to the other. In the past year, we have heard people reporting poor quality of sexual experiences when exposed to prolonged stress, especially the frontliners.

Sexual wellbeing also encompasses knowing your sexual rights, right to consent, having sexual boundaries, and embracing sexuality positively. If a person is sexually uncomfortable, scared or frustrated, it will lead to emotional distancing, wanting out of the relationship and in some extreme cases, being coerced into sexual acts unwillingly amounting to sexual violence. We have all seen that the periods of lockdown have led to an unprecedented rise in domestic abuse and sexual coercion.

In our country, sex and sexuality are taboo topics, often stigmatised and not openly discussed. Sex education is often neglected, which form a vital component of safety and respect for the opposite gender. When we say sexual health, it encompasses relationships, marriage, childbearing, intimacy and an entire family life.

The pandemic has affected it in more ways than one. Consciously or unconsciously, people have got accustomed to ‘masking’, and under the masked faces are those craving for love, a smile and a hug. The inability to hold your loved ones, with the fear and guilt of spreading a deadly disease generates anxiety and avoidance. This is a paradox, between desire and fear of close contact. It has specific implications for frontline workers with more exposure, those having long distance marriages or relationships.

The home-visits have become brief, more unusually spaced and bound by restrictions. Social distancing has progressed to a form of ‘emotional distancing’ as well. Though sexual abstinence is an easy solution and a ‘personal choice’, it might not always be possible. ‘Social touch’ is a well-known concept in psychology which, if deprived, can have adverse physical and psychological consequences.

The lockdown, work from home and social distancing mandates increased home time. On the one hand, this has been beneficial to enrich family bonding and ‘us-time’ for couples, which was long over due. On the other, existing marital discord and long-term entrapment with partners have led to criticism, violence (from spouse or family) and coercive sexual practices. Research has also shown increase in unprotected sex during the Covid-19 period resulting in unplanned pregnancies and abortions that impact maternal and child health.  

We are kind of lucky to face the pandemic in the 21st century, where technology allows us to stay in touch with our loved ones though digitally, which to some extent gives us a feeling of connectedness. However, video calls do not allow us to have intimacy and sexual relations in the traditional ways. With changing times, cybersex, sex toys, and pornography have been tried mutually by many couples, with different grades of sexual satisfaction. However, sexual practices on a virtual platform also carry risks of online extortion, cyber-crimes and cyber-bullying, especially for the young population. This can impact the way a person views sex. 

The explorers of relationships, who were to find a partner, actively dating, looking out for casual relationships, etc are all looking out for more intimate relationships which involve meeting in person. The fear of close contact with unknown people or blind dates have now turned from previously adventurous to current fearful moments. ‘Should I or Should I not’ is a mind-boggling dilemma that seems never-ending. The inability to have something as simple as intimacy can be frustrating. Intimacy or sexuality is not just about physical pleasure, but also involves emotional bonding, busting stress and coping during these trying times.

Respecting the sexual needs of oneself and one’s partner, initiating safe sexual practices  and discussing mutual consent are vital to enriching relationships during the pandemic. It is important to discuss one’s needs and desires openly with the partner, figure out mutually acceptable ways to enhance the quality of the relationship. Simple ways like involving in activities together, focusing on exercise and nutrition, and expressing intimacy through hugging, kissing etc help. Professional help can be sought in case of sexual problems or issues in relationships.

Gender-respect is vital and it prevents sexual violence. Digital sex needs caution and safety. While the infection-precautions need to be followed, having a safe and healthy sexual life is equally important. The pandemic provides us a more chance to revisit that. 

Dr Debanjan Banerjee 

Psychiatrist, NIMHANS, Bengaluru

Dr N Vyjayanthi Venkataramu

Consultant Psychiatrist, Spectrum Diagnostics and Healthcare, Bengaluru

(dr.djan88@gmail.com. Views and opinions expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect that of their employers) 



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