A month ago, a new account appeared on Instagram and asked its followers a question: Who are you thinking about? More questions followed in the same bold orange font: What are your fantasies? Have you texted your ex? Have you been on a virtual date? Then came the answers – tales of Tinder dates that crossed the social distancing line and illicit and ill-conceived encounters with exes, of new sex toys and nudes, independence and loneliness.
"My ex came to see me the day of lockdown. He works in a hospital so I felt it was my duty to shag him and set him on his way for his version of the Olympic Games," read one post.
"I’ve only hugged one person in three months," said another. "I cannot put into words how much I crave human touch."
This is Sex Lives, a new project which asks women to share, anonymously, their experiences of sex in lockdown. Their stories, memories, fantasies and feelings have been made into a new online series of mini dramas, performed by a cast of British actors, filmed on Zoom and released weekly on Instagram.
The first episode went live on Thursday evening. Fiftysomething Dominique (played by Clare Perkins) is FaceTiming the younger Nyome (Susan Wokoma) as she does her makeup before a virtual dinner date with her new man. "All of a sudden somebody finds you sexy and OH MY GOD," she says, waving her mascara around. "Sex is good, man. It’s like food, it’s nourishing me."
The series was inspired by Wendy Jones’ 2016 book The Sex Lives of English Women in which she interviewed 24 women of all ages, sexualities and backgrounds. In chapters titled "Mother", "Addict", "Lesbian", "Muslim", they talk without filter about their sexual experiences, good and bad.
"There is so much telling women how they should be, and so little asking them who they are and what they want," wrote Jones. "I wanted to listen to women and give women the space to speak."
Joanna Scanlan (The Thick of It) bought the rights to the book in 2017 to adapt it into a comedy-drama, in a coproduction between her own company George & George, Baby Cow and BBC Studios. She had just started developing it with her No Offence co-star Alex Roach and theatre-maker Jenny Duffy when the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut down the television industry in March.
Rather than wait, the trio decided to make a lockdown version in the meantime, one that would capture the extraordinary times and the shift to life lived largely online. "At the beginning of lockdown, it felt like everybody was on Instagram, all the time," says Duffy. "There was so much happening on there, from workshops to workouts. It felt like an interesting place where people were really trying to connect."
They posted a call for stories and waited. At the start, says Roach, "people were really horny, just getting to grips with being stuck in the house. As it's gone on, we've had waves of anger, sadness, loneliness. It's been a real journey." Around the time Normal People aired on BBC Three, they received an influx of stories about young romance and nostalgia for relationships past.
"We’ve had everything from quite explicit descriptions of life in lockdown through to plaintive cries from the heart," says Scanlan. "A common theme is that women have had an opportunity to take stock of their sex lives, and therefore their whole lives, during this time, and they're wanting to share that and make changes once we get to the other side."
Self-isolation, social distancing and strict rules on ‘bubbles’ have left their mark on the nation’s relationships and sex lives. In March, Ann Summers reported that sales of sex toys were up by 27% on the same time last year, while Pornhub saw a 12% increase in global traffic in the first weeks of March and Bumble logged a 35% increase in messages. Unsurprisingly masturbation, sex toys and technology loom large in Sex Lives, including one modern fairytale in which a woman living apart from her boyfriend lowers a rope, Rapunzel-style, from her window to allow him to send up a basket of sex toys.
The impulse to share intimate stories and secrets with strangers has likely been heightened by isolation, suggests Duffy. "We just asked the question, ‘What is going on for you right now?’ There's something in that open offer that is quite attractive, particularly at a moment where you're not physically able to see your friends and you're searching for connection."
Future three-minute episodes range across the spectrum of womanhood and sexuality, including the story of a woman who has been in a secret polyamorous relationship with a lesbian couple for nine years. All were filmed on Zoom, with emoji and witty captions added in the edit. The result is like watching a particularly creative friend’s Instagram stories.
It's been a steep learning curve, says Roach. "I'm usually brought in last minute as an actor and put in front of the camera. Now we're writing, directing, acting and in charge of social media. I’ve got a taste for it now – it might be the future."
Sex Lives is still looking for submissions so if the idea of some of the UK’s finest performers acting out your fantasies appeals, the website remains open. Its creators hope that the easing of lockdown will bring new sexual dilemmas, triumphs and mishaps. "You may have been speaking to somebody for the whole of lockdown, you’ve sent nudes, you’ve had phone sex and now you've got to go and meet them in real life," says Roach. "What happens next?"