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Life before Covid was pretty good. I worked in a local organic restaurant, with long hours and great tips, and I loved the fact I was on my feet and not stuck behind a desk all day. I worked hard and played hard, so my days off were spent bouldering, making music with friends, long walks in the countryside or day-long cycling trips.
I had an active polyamorous love-life with a couple of long-term lovers, and enjoyed making new casual connections on a semi-regular basis. I was fit – not a gym bunny type, but I looked after myself.
A year on, my life is looking very different. We’re in lockdown yet again, the hospitality and events industry I rely on has been decimated, and since I cough covid last March, I’ve had ambulances called for me five times, been taken into A&E twice, and had so much blood taken for testing it’s a surprise I haven’t withered away.
I’m constantly fatigued, have weird muscle and joint pains and can’t walk to the shops at the end of my road in case I need to collapse and sleep half-way there. I’ve seen multiple specialists but no one has been able to tell me what’s actually wrong with me or how to manage it. On top of all of that I’m also trying to navigate the torturous circle of hell that is our disability benefits system.
But while there’s been lots written on the effects of Covid, how people’s daily life has been affected and how the economy will look, I haven’t seen a single article talk about the very real and looming issue of sex and long Covid. Not one mention of how the all-time number one fun-and-free activity most people enjoy doing will be affected. I can tell you now that if you are unfortunate enough to suffer from long Covid, not even your masturbation is safe from its effects.
“Trust me, there’s nothing worse than trying to enjoy some self-love and having to stop because you can’t catch your breath.”
At first I was too ill to even think about sex or the possibility of a self-induced orgasm. My libido was deader than a city centre on New Year’s Day. But that was fine really – it was when my libido returned that the issues really started.
First, I couldn’t maintain an erection. Massively frustrating for me but these things happen. Then, fatigue and breathlessness. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than trying to enjoy some self-love and having to stop because you can’t catch your breath.
When we were finally allowed to start seeing people again, I was determined to push through my discomfort, chest pain and breathlessness. The fallout? Two solid days of exhaustion, headaches and dehydration no matter how much I drank. As I lay in bed, I realised the way I used to enjoy sex was no longer possible.
I’ve never been particularly macho in the way I approached things, especially sex. Being queer and non-binary, my view of what constitutes “actual sex” isn’t limited to penetrative penis-in-vagina acts, but I was still finding myself masking how well – or how badly – I was coping with the changing energy levels, shortness of breath, and the assortment of aches, pains and twinges that I now deal with constantly. For years I’ve encouraged partners to communicate during sex, but now I was struggling to do it myself.
Now, after lots of trial-and-error, I think I’m finally starting to understand how to function and be intimate. I’ve become a lot more passive during penetrative sex, although even this can still cause me breathlessness and fatigue. I still struggle with oral sex so I use my hands a lot more – and mutual masturbation has made a comeback in a big way.
What else? Toys. Toys, toys, toys. My partner and I have always mixed it up during sex but they’re now a much more prevalent feature of my sex life. We’ve also had to become much less orgasm-focused and firmly embrace the enjoyment of sensation rather than the big finish.
“How we talk, view and have sex will probably have to change – but maybe that doesn’t have to be an entirely bad thing.”
So, is there a silver lining hiding somewhere in all this? Unfortunately, not really. But that’s not to say that there haven’t been some good things to come out of it. My ability to communicate my needs, wants and desires has increased – and so has that of my partners. This can occasionally lead to some disappointment on both sides but it has strengthened the openness and honesty between us, and our sex lives are still good, although very different.
I now have a deeper understanding of others’ struggles with chronic illnesses, and have come to realise more than ever how much we depend on the communities of friends, lovers and strangers around us.
There are an estimated 300,000 people already living with long Covid in the UK, and that number is only going to rise as the pandemic goes on. For us, how we talk, view and have sex will probably have to change – but maybe that doesn’t have to be an entirely bad thing. As we accept the changes and explore our new limits with the support of our lovers and friends, maybe we can allow it to make us more attentive and understanding of others – as well as ourselves.
Sasha Conway is a musician and environmental activist
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