Before March 2020, Addison and Steven were busy. Arguably too busy, although their schedules were filled with things they loved and valued — friends, family, work. But when COVID-19 interrupted their lives, all those distractions fell away. Stuck in their Hamptons’ home with only each other for company, they were forced to confront an issue they’d been avoiding looking at for a few years: their dwindling sex life.
They rarely had sex. It had been that way for a while, but when they were busy running from the gym to work to happy hour, falling into bed exhausted at the end of each day, they could blame their rut on a lack of time and energy. Now, however, they had a surplus of both — and they still weren’t having sex. Very quickly, they realized they had to make a change, and by the end of March, the couple had enlisted the help of a sex therapist, who they saw virtually.
Addison and Steven, who asked us not to use their real names for professional reasons, say that sex therapy made a lasting difference in their marriage. They attended sessions once a week, and the therapist helped them both become more comfortable initiating sex and voicing their desires and needs, ultimately nudging them back into the bedroom. They still see the counsellor once every few weeks for maintenance, and have no plans on stopping post-pandemic.
They’re not the only ones who experimented with sex therapy amid COVID-19. For many partners and individuals, the past 14 months served as a catalyst to finally address problems they’d previously been having, says Malika O’Neill, licensed professional counsellor, sex therapist and founder of The Pleasure Collective. “I've found the average couple won’t seek therapy until about six or seven years after the problem starts, and then they pick up therapy as a kind of last option,” she says. “But because of quarantine, a lot more people came to it. When you’re stuck in the house together, you’re really forced to identify your needs and wants.” In the pandemic, a demand for therapy in general was up this fall, the American Psychological Association reported. And the experts we talked to say it was no different with sex therapy.
It wasn’t only couples driving the reportedly increased demand for sex therapy, either. O’Neill says she began seeing more people who were interested in becoming more comfortable with masturbation too. "People are coming in and saying, “I was never able to explore without shame, and so together we talk it through and figure it out,” O’Neill says. “Some people don’t even know what their clitoris looks like — I have a lot of clitoris models.”
Many people don’t know what sex therapy really entails, and picture something akin to that episode of Sex and The City in which the foursome attends an extremely hands-on tantric sex demo in a New York City apartment (which involves an orange juicer analogy I'll never forget). Sex therapists are licensed professionals, just like marriage and family therapists; their specialty just happens to be sex, says Holly Richmond, PhD, a non-licensed somatic psychologist and certified sex therapist. So even when sessions take place in person, touching is typically not allowed. (Non-licensed somatic practitioners, body workers, or surrogate partner therapists sometimes do offer hands-on work, however.)
Sex therapy can also be helpful if you’re not satisfied with your sex life, want to get into kink or BDSM, or are exploring your sexual orientation or gender identity, says Ty David Lerman, a licensed professional counsellor and a sex therapist in Houston who specializes in both kink and working with LGBTQIA+ clients. Or you may seek out the help of a sex therapist if you’re considering opening up your relationship or trying consensual non-monogamy or polyamory. Or if you want to overcome sexual shame. “About 90% of the work I do is unpacking the shame, doubt, and guilt people feel around sex and touch,” O’Neill says.
“People often come to me with a desire they think is a dysfunction, and they need someone to tell them that it’s okay, almost like they need permission to explore that side of themselves,” Lerman adds.
While the pandemic exacerbated an old problem for Addison and Steven, it created new ones for others. For example, Erik and Emma Alda were working from their Fort Lauderdale, FL, home together while raising a teenager and three children under the age of 5. They were together all the time and started getting on each other's nerves. It got to the point where they’d sometimes lie in bed at night seething at each other instead of making love. They say they never felt these feelings — not in the same way or nearly as often — pre-COVID-19. “We did manage to have sex several times throughout our personal marriage epidemic, but the flame was not there and it felt dull, both he and I agreed on that,” Alda says. So they found a sex therapist through a mutual friend. “We are both of Latin descent so talking about sex lives with our partners might be a little more acceptable than in some backgrounds, but we found bringing in an outside perspective to be crucial in really seeing what the problem [was],” she says. “My husband was initially against the idea of going through therapy, as he felt that it would be the breaking point, or a foundation for filing for divorce in the future, but we were both able to reassure one another that we are going to do this to protect and preserve our relationship, not further dismantle it.”
In therapy, the couple focused on how they could better communicate and understand each other, while suddenly living on top of each other. One breakthrough moment occurred when their therapist asked them to turn off their video and fully undress. “She began asking us a series of questions about how we felt and what we saw when we were close to each other in a non-intimate setting,” Alda says. “This was a turning point for us, as we were able to truly see each other.”
Dr. Richmond says that good sex therapy deals with both emotional and relationship issues along with sex. “Some therapists think that if clients are adept at connecting emotionally, good sex will just naturally follow,” Dr. Richmond says. That’s backwards, she says. “We know in the sex therapy world that it doesn’t naturally follow — but if you fix the sex, the relationship and emotional components almost always follow.”
That said, Dr. Richmond found that over the past year, her sessions tended to include more emotional work than usual, especially around confronting anxiety and instability, likely a consequence of the upheaval created by the pandemic. One particular point of contention was with COVID-19 safety: One half of a couple would want to see people and go places, and the other wasn’t comfortable doing so. Lerman says this was also a hot-button issue in polyamorous relationships, since it affected when and how a couple could bring a new partner into the mix. He says it's a sex therapist's job to help folks talk through this. If they did meet someone new, how long would they use masks? Would they all get tested, and how often?
The “homework” sex therapists could give clients also changed to reflect the pandemic, Dr. Richmond says. They couldn’t suggest a couples’ getaway as a bonding tool, for instance, or ask a client who was interested in exploring BDSM to visit a dungeon. The therapists had to get creative — they recommended home massages to replicate a spa day and virtual munches (kink gatherings) — but it could be difficult, O’Neill says.
It’s no surprise, then, that most of the sex therapists I spoke to say they’re glad to see things opening up more for vaccinated people, so that their clients can get out and explore their sexuality more in the safest way possible. “So many people have been sexually repressed for the past 14 months,” Lerman says. “It will be a relief for many to be able to re-engage in a healthy sex life again."
Dr. Richmond says that with many news outlets predicting a “summer of sex,” it’s likely that people will continue seeking sex therapy out frequently. They may even come more — she believes there may be a rise in infidelity this summer as people come out of quarantine (though she hopes that’s not the case), which is another common instigating reason some clients seek out sex therapy.
O’Neill, on the other hand, says she expects to see a small dip in clients coming out of the pandemic, with people de-prioritizing sex again as they being to engage in more post-vaccination activities. “I’m expecting things to slow down but not expecting them to stop,” she says. “I hope people continue to seek counselling, and finish the work that COVID made them start."