When we talk about health, we need to include sexual health, which plays a crucial role in our well-being. Unfortunately, the pandemic, which has impacted every aspect of our lives and is taking a serious toll on our mental health, is also encroaching on our sex lives.
"Anything that negatively affects the individual or the relationship is likely to have a spillover effect into sex," said Emily Jamea, Ph.D., a certified sex therapist and a member of HealthyWomen's Women's Health Advisory Council. "So couples who are suffering due to economic strain, conflict over how much to socialize, pressure to homeschool, etc. are likely to feel not just emotionally disconnected but also sexually shut down."
She added that the lack of free time (due to increased responsibilities at home) and absence of outlets like social engagements and group exercise may leave some people too exhausted to have sex.
That's one of the reasons it's important to carve out time to focus on your sex life.
"Sexual satisfaction is an important aspect of sexual wellness. If sex doesn't feel good or isn't satisfying, you're not going to want to do it. This creates frustration in the relationship and an emotional disconnect," Jamea explained.
Here are five things Jamea recommends to improve your sexual wellness.
Do your research
Jamea sees lack of information as the biggest barrier between people and sexual wellness. That can stem from growing up in a conservative or religious household where shame may be associated with sex.
"It gets tricky because these feelings can stick around," Jamea said, adding that it can be the case even after people marry and have "permission" to have sex. "It's like emotional whiplash. Just the uncomfortable way people feel when talking about sex is a direct effect of the shame so many of us carry."
Schools may also not provide adequate sex education. Information about masturbation, pleasure and how to talk to your partner about sex is often not discussed, Jamea said. Additionally, barriers to information and sexual health care, such as racism and bigotry, exist for those in minority and LGBTQ+ communities.
That's why it's important to find a health care provider who will work with you or to do research on your own.
"At the bare minimum, finding well-researched books and websites is a first step," Jamea advised.
Or you could gather a group of friends and approach a sex educator about giving a presentation. Jamea said that even adults can use refresher courses in sex education.
Get comfortable with your body
Once you've educated yourself, the next step is to put that information into practice.
"A lot of people don't have a solid grasp of what pleasure is and what it means for them," Jamea said. "You have to spend time discovering what feels good to you and how to communicate that to your partner."
Get to know your body through touch. Find out what you like about your body and what feels good and what doesn't.
"Developing a positive attitude around your body and sexual pleasure is paramount," Jamea explained. "It will create a feeling of empowerment."
Learn to communicate
Put simply, you need to be able to talk to your partner about sex.
"Learning effective communication skills is absolutely key," James said. "People need to learn how to use their voice to communicate their likes and dislikes with their partners."
The American Sexual Health Association recommends talking to your partner about boundaries and desires before you start getting intimate. That being said, it could also be fun to experiment and talk with your partner at the same time, offering hands-on instructions in the moment.
"Find a partner that is respectful, who you feel safe and comfortable with, and learn to work together," Jamea said.
And remember: Just because something worked or felt good with your last partner doesn't mean the same will hold true for your current (or future) partner.
"Good sex is about mutual consent and pleasure," Jamea said. "If those two things aren't happening, it really isn't healthy sex."
Just like other aspects of your life, your sexual needs (and your partner's) may change over time.
"Talking about likes and dislikes isn't a one-time conversation because the sex is going to be different from the honeymoon stage to five years in," Jamea said. "When [the honeymoon stage] wears off, that's when you need to learn to cultivate great sex."
Be willing to adapt to differences in everything from changes in your and your partner's sex drives to desires and preferences.
"A lot of people think the sex should come naturally and easily, and it doesn't for some people," Jamea said. "Check and recheck and renegotiate and keep talking."
Bring in a professional
If you and your partner are unable to work through things on your own, don't be afraid to reach out for help.
"When you feel like you're hitting roadblocks around communication, if you're experiencing some sort of sexual difficulty, it could be time to talk to a specialist," Jamea said.
A therapist can help couples talk about desire and arousal and work through any other issues that are giving them trouble.
"It's hard, especially for women, to experience a high degree of sexual satisfaction if the emotional connection is weak," Jamea said. "It's better to seek treatment early. The longer an issue goes on, usually it's harder to overcome."
These issues don't exist in a vacuum: Just because one partner is struggling with their sex drive, for example, doesn't mean they're the only one who needs help.
"It's a couple issue and has to be addressed as a couple," Jamea said.
Don't dismiss sexual wellness. If you're not satisfied or getting what you want, address it.
"It's just as important as the other aspects of our well-being," Jamea said.
HealthyWomen wants to remind you to always practice safe sex.