Sex and 'fighting for joy' amid the pandemic

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While her booming online sexual wellness shop and magazine may seem like a departure from her activism and working on the front lines of addressing gender-based violence, “these are complementary things – fighting against violence and fighting for joy and pleasure,” Katie Aitken says.

Many of us still aren’t comfortable talking about sexual pleasure, and especially problems with desire or orgasm or the variety of ways we can experience sexual pleasure. Sex education needs an upgrade to include learning to communicate about our sexuality, including consent, problems with sex, and sexual pleasure in all of its diverse expressions, says Aitken, who lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C.

And now, as the social restrictions of COVID-19 have stalled many sex lives, they’ve also sparked a sexual revolution for others by encouraging conversations about sex and pleasure.

Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, recently published a seven-month U.S. survey showing that almost half of respondents reported a decline in their sex lives during the pandemic.

He also found that those who fared best were the one in five respondents who creatively adapted their sex lives, expanding their sexual repertoire by incorporating new activities, what he cautiously calls a COVID-induced sexual revolution. “Novelty seems to have a buffering effect in the sense that the people who were trying new things were doing better in their intimate lives,” he says. Three times better, his survey showed.

But the essential ingredient seen in those thriving sexually this year may not be the novelty itself, but how the pandemic has prompted increased communication about sex, Lehmiller says. “When we get back to normal, that could really lay the groundwork for healthier and more satisfying relationships.”

Aitken hopes to support this revolution of embracing sexual pleasure and education in all of its diversity, even when we’re stuck at home. “It’s about knowing about pleasure, being able to have conversations about pleasure, and seeking it out,” she says.

Aitken and her Toronto-based co-CEO, Grace Bennett, had just launched Bonjibon when COVID-19 hit. While they were anxious about starting a new endeavour in a pandemic, “It became obvious that people were home and horny,” says Bennett. Now their biggest stress is trying to keep up with the demand. “Choosing to value our bodies says that, actually, pleasure is good. This is doing good things for our body. It’s doing good things for our brains,” says Aitken.

“As I continued to study and become interested in feminism, I was really inspired by the movement to break down stigma and talk about pleasure and promote being able to seek it out in ethical ways.”

Aitken says they’ve seen a trend during the pandemic toward exploring sexual pleasure with more curiosity. “We live in a world where we’re told to do things in one way,” says Aitken. Their products and online magazine explore the many ways to experience our sexuality, from talking to our partners about sex, to gender-affirming kits, and toys for self-pleasure and new kinds of sexual expression with partners.

“We are so excited to be able to break down some of the stigma that we don’t even know we’ve inherited over time,” says Aitken.

Another area of stigma is sexual fantasy. Justin Lehmiller recently released Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life, a book based on his research on the sexual fantasies of 4,175 Americans“People have a lot of shame around their sexual fantasies because they don’t know what is normal. That’s in part because we don’t talk about fantasy at all in most sex education. So more often than not, people tend to think that their fantasy is either weird or strange or unusual,” he says.

Lehmiller says that’s why he wrote his book — to help normalize people’s sexual fantasies and “show them that, odds are, the things they’re fantasizing about are the same things that other people are fantasizing about too.”

By unburdening ourselves from this sexual shame, we can open the door to being able to talk about our fantasies with our partners and maybe even acting on some of them, Lehmiller says. His survey showed that those people who shared and acted on their fantasies had the happiest and most sexually satisfying relationships.

One common fantasy he found is consensual non-monogamy — 79 per cent of men and 62 per cent of women said they desired it, although only one in five said they’d acted on the desire. Lehmiller’s studies on consensual non-monogamy show positive outcomes, with each of the relationships strengthening the other.

“A lot of people would assume that if you’re devoting less time to one relationship, that’s going to undermine the other, but we actually found the opposite: The more satisfied people are with the secondary partner, the more committed they are to their primary partner,” says Lehmiller.

While many people assume opening a relationship is inviting disaster, many large studies comparing monogamous to consensually non-monogamous relationships find no difference in the stability or quality of the relationship, he says. “You probably know people who are in open or polyamorous relationships, but you don’t know how successful they are because it’s not something that is often talked about.”

Montreal psychologist Laurie Betito, who’s been a sex therapist for more than 30 years, broke barriers as the host of CJAD 800’s radio show Passion, answering questions from her listeners about sex and pleasure for more than two decades.