Intimacy and Panic in Touchless Times

In the midst of so much pain and injustice, what has become of sex and intimacy?

More than three months into the pandemic, the politics of suffering have emerged in predictable forms. In a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine the self-determination of pregnant people in Louisiana, anti-abortion politicians insisted that abortion was a nonessential medical service during the stay-at-home order. Initial reports indicate that rates of intimate partner violence have been on the rise while people are sequestered at home. For parents, the lack of a social safety net, including guaranteed childcare, adds a layer of uncertainty to an already anxiety-inducing experience. A recent uptick in racist attacks against people who present as Asian reflects vile rhetoric coming from the highest levels of the U.S. government—displacement of white anxieties about annihilation and projection of the ecocidal qualities of settler colonialism onto the “other.” People have taken to the streets to demand an end to anti-Blackness and policing, and the disproportionate COVID-19 death rate among Black Louisianians indicts racism in health care and the reality that, despite long-standing academic interest in the topic, health disparities will persist as long as white supremacy and colonialism fester. While COVID-19 has taken center stage, exploitation, control, and reproductive injustice are still running the show.

In the midst of so much pain and injustice, what has become of sex and intimacy? While physical touch helps the body respond to stress starting in infancy, sex can be a powerful adult-strength stress reliever, flooding the brain and the rest of the body with a chemical blueprint for connection, euphoria, and calm. Catastrophe turns some people on; but for many, sexual pleasure has been on hold thanks to anxious preoccupation, physical distancing, a complete lack of privacy, or some combination thereof. Sex is an underappreciated emotional regulator, and for those who enjoy it, not being able to express their sexuality in the ways they desire—or with the people they desire—will have profound consequences for mental wellbeing.

IDENTITY AS COMMODITY

As of late, the most sought-after object of desire appears to be an “improved” version of one’s self. Self-actualization professionals—would-be Instagram influencers for example—have proven unflappable, pressuring followers to reframe the pandemic as an opportunity to master gourmet cooking, productivity, and workout routines. This country’s love affair with narcissism has also motivated the more recent proliferation of performative and one-stop allyship (coming specifically from non-Black social media users and business leaders). The common trait is that these people are taking advantage of a chaotic time in order to build their own brands and market quick fixes for feelings of fear and inadequacy. They’re onto something—many people are seeking relief in all types of commodities, from new identities to physical objects. As such, the human desire for connection has also been displaced onto online shopping, a fetish sport for lonely quarantine life (and white denial) in late capitalism.

Even the peddlers of self-improvement, however, were born naked and crying, grasping for someone to soothe them. Beginning in those first moments of life and throughout childhood, a soothing touch from a caregiver communicates that all is well. These experiences are the foundation for learning how to soothe oneself.

TOUCH IS NOT A LUXURY

Into adulthood, touching the people we love continues to bring comfort and help balance the body’s physiological stress response. It’s trendy to refer to this ability to bounce back from stress as “resilience;” but since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians have become experts in resisting whitewashed discourses of resilience that fall short of acknowledging that people shouldn’t be dealing with conditions that demand resilience in the first place. The ability to recover from stress is not an individual quality, but rather born out of connections among people. Supportive relationships literally help people survive. This is why protesters have decided to accept the possible risk of socially distanced mass gatherings—to physically manifest the demand for liberation because Black lives depend on it.

Whether you live with others or your COVID-era homelife has been solitary, the pandemic has likely reconfigured your relationship with physical touch. Even as the city moves slowly towards reopening, social distancing guidelines still recommend avoiding physical intimacy with anyone outside of one’s household. People who are starved of physical touch as a result have been cut off from an important source of comfort. In the absence of this outlet, nascent or new relationships with an intoxicating substance, restrictive or compulsive eating, the internet, or self-harm may emerge or intensify. These relationships with behaviors or substances serve a purpose—they help people get by when they don’t have other viable options—but they can come at a cost. A compassionate response to oneself and to others who are coping in these ways recognizes that these activities are not self-destructive, but self-preserving in situations where connection with others is impossible or terrifying.

REGRESSION

Nobody comes out of childhood without scars, and all parents fail in one way or another. It sounds pessimistic, but I find that most of my patients are relieved to hear this because it helps them to feel less alone and less broken. People also tend to reenact early pain, and sex can tap into that pain with precision. In addition to the scars left from relationships with caregivers, social repression dictates how and whom one should desire. Thus, it’s not surprising that many people find adult sexuality challenging because engaging with it forces them to confront wounded and shameful parts of themselves. And right now, this confrontation is likely to be further intensified.

Highly stressful situations like the pandemic tend to intensify regression, the force that brings out a younger version of ourselves. Regression can be an opportunity to revisit the past in the service of healing, but it can also be destabilizing and scary. It can bring out the worst in us. The path to emotional and/or sexual intimacy is usually confusing and painful because we tend to recreate dynamics that are both comforting in their familiarity but also emotionally painful. I want to make it clear that it’s not OK when physical violence, threats thereof, or willful humiliation are present. (I’m also not referring to BDSM, which is an unrelated and unfairly stigmatized form of consensual sexual engagement.) Rather, my point is that our interpersonal patterns tend to resemble the painful aspects of relationships with caregivers. In fact, pleasure is more often than not tinged with childhood pain. Being holed up with a partner right now might mean that these dynamics are intensified or more easily observable. While I genuinely don’t believe that anyone can or should avoid these patterns completely, it is possible to understand them, talk about them, and respond to emotional pain in less self-defeating ways.

Spending the majority of our time at home means that the external stimuli we encounter are increasingly predictable. Despite efforts to drink, purge, or shop away one’s feelings, staying in forces a confrontation with our own bodies. When given no choice but to look inward, many of us will find not only stress related to current circumstances, but also embodied trauma. Whether caused by a single event, complex trauma over time, intergenerational transmission, or histories of genocide, enslavement, and ongoing violence, trauma lives in people’s bodies as physical sensations and physiological response patterns, often without accompanying words or memories to make sense of them.

DISSOCIATION

Dissociation describes what happens when a sensory or emotional experience is fractured off from the rest of one’s experience. This can look like “spacing out,” getting lost in a small task, or feeling immobilized when distressed. Contrary to the popular understanding of dissociation, it is not inherently bad, but an essential part of day-to-day functioning. It would be unrealistic to expect ourselves to always feel things to the fullest extent; and during a potentially traumatic encounter, dissociation protects us from being completely overwhelmed. After a trauma, however, people sometimes rely on dissociation to the extent that it interferes with day-to-day functioning. In pandemic life, without the imposed structure of a daily routine and the ability to feel in control of one’s circumstances, people who are traumatized are likely experiencing more dissociation. People who rely on dissociation often find engaging in sex challenging—they can find it difficult to feel present and embodied, or to fully inhabit the tactile intimacy sex can afford. For some, the added stress of the pandemic could make it impossible to “let go” enough to enjoy sex. For many, isolation may be a welcome respite from the unpredictable, overwhelming social world, where unwanted or unexpected physical touch conjures the dissociated sensations of violence.

I want to honor the myriad ways people experience and express sexuality—or experience themselves as asexual, for that matter. It is important to be wary, however, of a form of sex positivity that tells us that we should be able to brush off repression, confusion, and shame to claim our rightful desires. We aren’t so predictable, and sometimes healing requires that we take time to understand the biographical, political, and interpersonal underpinnings of our difficulties. Trauma is ubiquitous, but unevenly distributed. Dealing with sexual shame or inhibition is not simply a matter of letting go of propriety, but about violence inflicted directly and indirectly on people’s bodies—for example, the fear that if one lets go sexually, that others will be able to read (or even reinflict) the wounds of incest and/or rape on their bodies. Now, more than ever, we have to accept that many of us lived through painful and dark realities before the pandemic—denial will only hide us from each other and ourselves. This may be a moment to confront old demons, bravely accept ourselves and others on a deeper level, and redefine intimacy in our ever-evolving new normal.


Need urgent help? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to chat or find resources. The New Orleans Family Justice Center is available for help at 504-866-9554 if you feel unsafe in a relationship. General questions or comments, email Jessica at jchavezphd@gmail.com. This article does not constitute medical advice and is not intended as a substitute for medical care.


Illustrations by Kallie Tiffau