At the end of 2019, Well+Good forecasted that the next year would bring a sex-positive revolution. The raunchy-feminist series Fleabag had just scored four Emmy awards, porn consumption was trending upward for viewers of all identifications, and womxn were snatching up sex toys at greater rates than ever in the pursuit of personal pleasure. And when COVID-19 first hit, it quickly became clear that the deadly virus would only fast-track our pleasure prediction to come true.
With many aspects of foreplay and intercourse deemed risky for spreading COVID-19—and casual hookups completely out of the question—the general consensus became: Have sex with yourself or with someone (like a significant other or quarantine partner) who you’re willing to entrust with your health and well-being. To be sure, those boundaries haven’t squelched the fire of fire passion; rather, many have used their time stuck inside as an opportunity to conduct some field research on their pleasure preferences.
Closing the orgasm gap with information and exploration
Back in April, Vice reported that at least five major sex-toy companies had far, far exceeded their monthly sales projections. That market trend is supported by the pattern sex and relationship therapist Shamyra Howard, LCSW, says she’s noticed in her clients during quarantine. “People are being way more sexually explorative right now,” she says. “Vulva-owners are buying more sex toys now than ever, and what I’m seeing is that a lot of people are now tuning into their own pleasure.”
And sexologist Alexandra Fine, CEO and co-founder of pleasure-forward company Dame Products, agrees that self-service has become a hallmark of the always-inside lifestyle. “As we adapt to this ‘new normal,’ many of us are exploring outside of our comfort zones and trying new things, whether it’s adding a sex toy to the bedroom, trying a sex workshop, or just switching things up,” she says.
“As we adapt to this ‘new normal,’ many of us are exploring outside of our comfort zones and trying new things, whether it’s adding a sex toy to the bedroom, trying a sex workshop, or just switching things up.” —sexologist Alexandra Fine, CEO and co-founder of Dame Products
Howard says the uptick in sexual exploration she’s noticed has great implications for closing the orgasm gap that vulva-owners face. (A 2017 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that only 65 percent of heterosexual women—compared to 95 percent of heterosexual men—reported climaxing “always” or “usually” when having sex with a familiar partner.) “Womxn are now bringing their partners into the bedroom and teaching them how to provide pleasure to the clitoris,” she says. “I really attribute that to the amount of time that people are now spending together and the amount of information that’s being consumed from companies that are providing more education on their websites, like [pleasure-product-focused site] Love Honey.”
Many pleasure companies have set up camp at the forefront of sex-education conversations, hosting somehow-intimate Zoom workshops with focuses including mindful sex, couples communication, and every once-taboo topic in-between. Dame, for example, has been offering a slew of sex-positive courses this summer (with July’s lineup tackling topics like intimate allyship and de-stressing your sex). Afrosexology, a platform focused on creating space for Black people to discuss sexual exploration, has likewise ramped up its event schedule. And Rosy, a telehealth company specializing in decreased sexual desire, has seen a 68 percent increase in users reading erotica on its app, “proving that people are turning to new methods to boost desire and get excited again in the bedroom,” says company founder and CEO Lyndsey Harper, MD. What all of this evidence supports is that sex is not only an act, but a complicated, fun, and even political topic that many folks are choosing to engage with while in quarantine.
The pandemic environment has also unlocked new ways to be sexually explorative beyond using new toys and accessories like vibrators, bondage sets, and sex swings. Private members club NSFW and adult platform CAM4 held a two-day virtual “sex-tival” called Relief in early June featuring adult performances, erotic dancers, and expert-led panels. “It’s a voyeuristic experience that lets you tune into an inclusive underworld of kink,” says Well+Good lifestyle writer Mary Grace Garis, who attended the digital event. And it’s not the only live, socially distanced sexual experience out there: London-based sex club Killing Kittens hosts masked orgies via video call, and House of Scorpio, a sex positive-community that hosts a variety of events, is yet another option.
Addressing pleasure roadblocks in quarantine
Of course, it would be untruthful to say that quarantine has been all virtual sex clubs and orgasms. Stress isn’t exactly an aphrodisiac, and Dr. Harper says that she’s watched many of Rosy’s coupled users struggle with desire during pandemic times. “You may be trying new things and exploring each other intimately, or you may be having less sex due to stress and spending a lot more emotionally quality time together,” she says. “Other couples may be experiencing low libido and struggling to find a way to connect intimately.” The additional time that some do have right now certainly affords partners to wade into these troubles to treat and potentially solve them together.
It’s a stress test, for sure, but it’s one that Suzanne Sinatra, founder of Private Packs—a line of products designed to help people with vulvar pain—hopes will ultimately lead people to have more honest and open conversations about what makes sex enjoyable for all parties involved. “Quarantine gave [some of us] back time and forced us to be with ourselves because you couldn’t go anywhere. Because of that, you do find some time in-between Zoom calls [for work] to shop for yourself, to learn about sexual health, to do more research,” she says.
Some of the people who have been able to use this moment as a pause from the rapid pace of daily life may be able to realize what they really want to get from their sex lives. For more people than many realize, the first step toward pleasure may be treating existing pain. “The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reported that 14 million American women experienced vulvar pain. Divide that by the number of women in this country and that’s about 70 percent of us,” says Sinatra. That Private Packs, which opened its e-commerce store in June, made above-forecasted pre-sale profit in one month seems like pretty good evidence to Sinatra that we’re headed in the direction of sexual self-care being inextricably connected with pleasure.
What to expect from the post-COVID pleasure landscape
Let’s now fast-forward to a time when IRL dating-app dates ending in casual hookups can resume without a threat of spreading the virus: Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Moushumi Ghose, MFT, predicts that your COVID-19 “status” will remain crucially important to share in new romantic situations. “If we look historically at, for example, when the first cases of AIDS came out in the ’80s, there was a lot of fear and a lot of trepidation. It really put this halt—specifically in the gay community, of course—on casual sex,” says Ghose. “Ever since the ’80s, we have become a culture really obsessed with condom use, safe sex practices, and STD testing—up to a point where we shame STDs and things like that. We might see some of that going forward [with COVID-19 infection status].”
While the future may bring hesitancy around and caution exercised regarding sexual experiences with new partners, Astroglide sexual health ambassador and urologist Joshua Gonzalez, MD, very much hopes that the explorative, curious practices ushered in by COVID-19 will stick around long after the pandemic is over. “I would like to see a greater celebration and embrace of different ways to achieve sexual pleasure,” says Dr. Gonzalez. “Many are still only now learning about and exploring new avenues of pleasure. As a society, we have a ways to go.”
Fine, too, hopes that all the increased sales and usage of sex toys will amount to a more widespread understanding of how the clitoris works. (After all, everyone’s known how the penis works for just about…always.) “This is opening up doors for so many people with vulvas to explore sex with clitoral touch as a focal point—with or without penetration. We see this as continuing to be a huge part of the future of sexual pleasure as we work toward removing the stigma surrounding the world of sexual pleasure,” she says.
So, by every indication, it looks like the sex-positive revolution we imagined back in 2019 did come to fruition—only, in the most unimagined of environments. COVID-19 has devastated the population, but its silver lining benefitting vulva owners’ orgasm isn’t something to ignore.