How COVID Hookup Guilt Is Preventing Singles From Having Fulfilling Sex Lives

Photo: Shutterstock / Igor-Kardasov
People Breaching COVID Rules For Sex Are Paying The Price With Guilt

For singles navigating romance during the pandemic, the fun of casual hookups has been replaced with post-sex guilt. 

Unless you’re lucky enough to be living with a romantic partner — or unlucky, depending on who you ask — this pandemic has probably drastically altered your love life. 

Whether you’re doing socially-distanced dates, flirty Zoom calls, or committing yourself to celibacy until the whole world is vaccinated, you’ve probably felt the urge at some point to give the CDC the finger and break all the COVID rules for the sake of lust. 

Dating is complicated at the best of times but throw a pandemic and endless rules about mixing with strangers into the mix and the struggle becomes even more difficult. 

Are singles just expected to be alone forever? Surely people without a monogamous romantic partner can’t be expected to put their sex lives on hold indefinitely? 

But with health concerns running rampant, pursuing new romances has a new layer of anxiety.

Many opting to have a sneak fling, hookup, or one-night stand are struggling to reconcile their physical desires with their morals, leaving them feeling guilty and ashamed for bending Covid rules. 

Ashley Plotnik, a psychotherapist with Wellington Counselling Group, has noticed a pattern of guilt in her single clients who are finding it difficult to negotiate their sexual desires during the pandemic. 

She works with clients to focus on mental, spiritual, social, and sexual health and spoke with YourTango exclusively about how single people are navigating post-sex guilt during the pandemic. 

“I have a number of clients in their late teens, early twenties, some people in their 30s but this is coming up mainly for people in their early 20s,” Plotnick tells us. 

This age group is often still getting to know their sexual desires and is still experiencing anxiety around sexual health and ethics but COVID has added another dimension of fear.

“Unfortunately, sexuality in our American culture can be a taboo subject as it is,” says Plotnick. “Now [young people] have this additional player of ‘How do I keep myself safe from COVID? Am I still a moral, ethical person if I choose to engage in sexual behavior during the pandemic?’” 

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Plotnick’s volunteer work with COVID Grief Network, a non-profit therapy service for teens and young adults grieving a loved one, has allowed her to see this guilt at play in the lives of people directly impacted by COVID.

“I have a client whose father has died from COVID and she’s wondering, ‘I know I’m grieving but I’m a college student who is a sexual being. How do I meet my sexual needs and emotional intimacy needs while still in this period of grief and mourning?” 

Plotnick also spoke of another client who is experiencing anxiety about casual sex after losing her grandfather to the virus. The complicated nature of grief is made even more difficult with this added level of guilt. 

“Seeing the questioning and self-doubt, [it's clear] people need space to talk that through in a space that's not layered with shame and judgment,” says Plotnick.

COVID sex guilt is especially difficult for those who found themselves returning home to live with their parents during the past year.

52% of millennials found themselves moving back to their family homes during the pandemic. Swapping freedom and an active sex life for their childhood bedroom and concerns over their parent’s health, many young college students or recent graduates are living with extreme guilt about their sexual desires. 

“There is an intense anxiety and fear around making any 'wrong' missteps that could inadvertently expose anyone else in their household,” Plotnick tells us. 

For these people, an increasing sense of isolation has grown out of being unable to live autonomously. 

“I’ve seen so much come up about individuation and what it means to make your own choice,” Plotnick says, adding that clients are raising a lot of questions about how to be their own person while looking out for others. 

She tells us one of the primary questions that have come up in her work: is: How am I sacrificing my own freedom and what’s actually best for me because I’m now back home living with my parents?

It's not that young people are ignorant of the effects of the virus. But because they're restricted from expressing their natural sexual desires that give all of us fulfillment on some level, the mental health impacts of the pandemic are heightened. 

So where is Covid sex guilt coming from? Is it the effects of moral questioning or are young people being actively shamed by others for having sex during COVID? 

“I’m seeing a bit of both,” says Plotnick, “I’m seeing an internal moral questioning of ‘Wait a second, I’m told I have to keep my distance, wear a mask, and socially distance but if I do that I will have to be abstinent. What does that mean for the moral and personal choices I’m going to make for myself?’”

This internal conflict can be particularly overwhelming for people who, prior to the pandemic, were in a life stage where they had no one to answer to but themselves. 

“I’m also seeing patients tell me, ‘I had sex with this person and I told a friend about it and they told me, 'how could you do that when your loved one died from COVID?'” 

The pandemic has bred a culture of judgment and shame that also contributes to young peoples’ isolation and frustration. 

“There is active judgment and internal judgment. I think our internal judgment is often our strongest critic,” Plotnick says. “I see that a lot as a therapist. People are so much harder on themselves than anyone else would be on them.”

It doesn’t have to be all abstinence and gloom. As an experienced sex therapist, Plotnick has plenty of guidance for singles looking for sexual fulfillment.

I believe strongly in mitigating risk which is what we’re doing across the board with COVID,” Plotnick says. “The same has to be true of our sexuality. You can choose to have one partner where you both agree upon specific types of social-distancing measures, you could choose to engage in masturbation or fantasies that don’t actually put you at risk of getting COVID.”

“You could also space out the partners that you’re going to be with and make sure you’re quarantining for two weeks if you’re not sure of their COVID status at the time.”

Open communication about boundaries and rules is important in every sexual encounter and COVID is just another layer of that conversation. Just like with STIs or other risk factors, getting tested before being sexually intimate is not an unreasonable requirement for your sexual partners. 

Plotnick also points out that sexuality is a spectrum, and being in tune with different aspects of your sexual desires may help minimize the impacts of COVID guilt on your sex life. 

“Sexuality is not just heterosexual sexual intercourse that ends in orgasm. Sexuality informs every layer of our lives. Sexuality is going to be impacted differently for different people. It could be that someone is choosing to abstinent from sexual intercourse but they could still engage in masturbation, or fantasies or something that will help them manage their own desires,” Plotnick says.

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Through her work, Plotnick has been carefully balancing her clients’ needs, sometimes advising them to abstain from sex if no health measures are in place, other times guiding them to sexual fulfillment without putting themselves or others at risk. 

But overall Plotnick recommends recognizing what she calls, “the need beneath the need.”

“Is it just that [a person] wants to have casual sex and needs to have an orgasm, or is it that they’re really missing that sense of emotional intimacy, or are they missing that sense of freedom and autonomy, and not having to feel so responsible for everyone they come in contact with? If we can hear the need beneath the need we can better address it.”

As for the guilt, balancing social responsibility with personal desires can lead to less shame.

“Everyone has to operate according to their own moral compass and value,” says Plotnick. “Once someone has clarity around those values, and they are making an effort to keep themselves and those around them safe, they have to know that their decision is one that they feel comfortable with.”

In this challenging time, we all have our own struggles to manage as well as carrying the burden of the pandemic.

“There is a need for compassion for each other and for ourselves,” according to Plotnick, “That doesn’t mean we can go out and take risks but we can balance our cautions with our physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual needs.” 

But what if balancing these needs becomes too much to bear? Speaking to a professional can provide space to express your concerns without judgment. 

“My biggest recommendation to anyone struggling is therapy,” says Plotnick. “It's important to have someone you can connect with on a vulnerable level where you’re in a safe place with someone who's going to hold your story with a compassionate presence.”

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is a generalist with an interest in lifestyle, entertainment, and trending topics.