So You Want to Have Sex but You’re Deeply Burnt Out?
Recently, I looked up from my work and realized it had been 21 consecutive days since I’d taken a break: for three uninterrupted weeks, I had been holed up in my house, banging manically away on my keyboard, churning out thoughts on a reliably depressing and/or infuriating news cycle. When I left my desk, I did so mostly for professional obligations and groceries; realizing that I was hurtling into hermitude, I opened Tinder. Like everything else that requires human contact, sex has lately gotten lost in my professional shuffle, and maybe it would do me good to get a little stress relief on the books.
But as soon as I fired up the app, I felt panicky, plunged into a long scroll of unanswered messages, and an bottomless sea of smirking faces I inherently distrust because when you write about sex and gender, you often write about inequality and abuse and coercion and discrimination. Especially in this current period—wherein new allegations against shitty men great and small seem to wash up every goddamn day, highlighting the staggering number of “woke misogynists” in our midst—it is hard not to make blanket generalizations about a whole sex. It is hard to summon up anything like enthusiasm at the prospect of meeting a male stranger, let alone having sex with him. It is hard to suppress the urge to throw your phone in the toilet and flush.
Because the unending semi-revelations wrought by the #MeToo movement aren’t the only bits of alarming news flying my way. The angry little computer glued to my hip constantly beams out ominous messages that keep my baseline level of anxiety taught as a drum. My phone screen is an endless scroll of news alerts: Tensions with North Korea primed to exceed their nuclear boiling point! Every day, a new turn of the Russia investigation screw! Sea levels rising at untenable rates! Etc. etc. etc.!
The fight for gender equality—racial equality, religious equality, income equality—is certainly not a new one, and given that many many people have been living this for much longer than I have, I’m not sure I have a right to feel as tired as I do. But I also have to think this unrelenting existential shitstorm takes its toll on all of us: The expectation of constant reachability; the acutely exhausting nature of the news cycle; the not-unreasonable possibility that every straight dude harbors a predatory streak—it’s tempting to lean all the way into the stalest stereotypes surrounding the straight, single woman and simply spending my evenings curled up with my cat. Invariably, that sounds better to my wrung sponge of a brain than pulling myself into clothes that aren’t a pajama suit and stringing together yet more cogent sentences for a stranger. My cat, after all, does not bring up global events and sit blinkingly across from me, waiting to dissect my opinion. My cat does not ask for a deep dive into my thoughts on Twitter and the state of media. My cat does not mansplain Ayn Rand to me.
If the proliferation of nihilist memes are to be believed, I am not alone in this impulse to hide from everything. My age group gets called a lot of things, but maybe the most apt name that comes to mind is the burnout generation. Data suggests millennials have less sex than the rest of the world, and then, there’s that mountain of personal essays about how the presence of a perilously petulant manchild in the White House is killing women’s sex drives dead. Operating on the suspicion that my particular predicament might actually be pretty fucking pervasive, I asked a relationship therapist: Are the demands of modern life driving us all to accidental celibacy? And what can I personally do to get some semblance of a groove back?
“I haven’t heard any couple actually come in and say, oh the stress of society is affecting our sex life, but I do think it’s there,” Paulette Sherman, PhD — a licensed psychologist, relationship counselor, and life coach — tells me. In her 10-plus years of practice, she has watched the ever-escalating demands of technology drive a wedge between couples. And in this particular environment, where there seems truly to be no place to escape ubiquitous sexual misconduct, it seems particularly easy to feel turned off by an always-bad news cycle. “It’s hard to feel sexy and free when you’re feeling oppressed or, you know, that men don’t respect you in general,” Sherman says, to which I would add: it’s also hard—or hard for me—to feel sexual attraction for someone you don’t trust.
There are also some physical realities: Stress cues the body to produce cortisol, the hormonal equivalent of throwing a wet blanket on the libido. And while sex can help people fall asleep, stress can turn us all into insomniacs—which, in turn, deals a blow to testosterone levels and contributes to sexual malaise. Meanwhile, orgasm floods the brain with feel-good hormones—dopamine, oxytocin—that combat stress and improve one’s mood. So it would seem that what we are (or I am) dealing with here is a vicious cycle of sexual suppression, where the thing that would actually help is the same thing my current mood puts more or less off-limits.
When working with deeply burnt-out clients, Sherman tends to recommend self-care: Setting aside moments where the phones go off and you and your partner just focus on each other, maybe upending a bottle of essential oils into a warm bath and just lounging wordlessly against one another for half an hour. Or scheduling a regular date night, which both of you can rely on to end in sex. Just conscientiously carving out one-on-one time, which all sounds well and good, but doesn’t solve my problem of being a single person who wants to have more sex but hates everything. What about those of us who are single and lack any modicum of free time; whose sex lives are facilitated on our phones, the epicenter of all stress? What about those of us who are closeted away, working all the time without much other opportunity to meet people other than the apps, which require opening that GD phone and sifting through the messages all lined up and awaiting response, and oh god that’s also a lot and why bother when the straight men en masse have lately given us so little reason to care?
For this person, Sherman proposed purposeful baby steps. She is not prepared to let me fall back into my Netflix trance and continue to scuttle my dates until I am feeling less peeved. “You’re just waiting to feel better and you haven’t done anything positive,” she says. “So I think you need to get on the playing field and you need to tell yourself look, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I might have a bad time but I’m just staying 45 minutes and then I can go home.” Which is to say, I have to keep my plans, but I can lower the stakes by choosing an activity I wanted to do anyway, at a location I know I like. Sherman recommends concentrating on yourself beforehand, going through the motions that put you in a really good mood—music? Meditation? Whatever floats your boat—rather than going through your mental catalogue of reasons why men mostly suck. Stay only as long as you want, and then excuse yourself on the premise that your cat can’t feed himself.
I put this to the test, setting a date with some guy from Tinder and selecting a bar within walking distance of my house, one with cheap drinks and a pleasant atmosphere and usually free booths. Without much in the way of a specific agenda, I sat across from this stranger and listened to his perspectives. He seemed kind and smart and reasonable. Although I felt no percolating attraction as he told me about his job and family and hobbies, I did feel a degree of relief at the reminder that not everyone presents as an irredeemable dick. Once my beer was finished, I politely excused myself, and we went our separate ways no worse for wear.
If you are a person who wants to have sex, you have to make the effort. I can see that, of course. But the curative power of sex is actually in the orgasm, which means that this particular problem is really one any of us can solve solo: If you want to have orgasms, the only person you need is you. So while the 45 minutes spent sitting with a stranger served the dual bonus of getting me out of the house and my own head, the 15 minutes I spent reacquainting myself with the contents of my bedside drawer was what actually helped me sleep the stress-free dreams enjoyed by those living screenless lives outside the long arm of the news cycle. I woke up feeling better about the world. That’s what Fins are for.