Long covid has destroyed Brits' sex drives leaving some too sick to even masturbate
'Every time I’d nearly reach an orgasm... I wouldn't be able to breathe and I'd have to stop'
Jake* used to have a normal sex drive, go on dates and enjoy casual sex. Then he got covid. Nearly two years later, his love life is still on lockdown. His sexual appetite is gone and he’s often too sick to even masturbate.
“For the first six months self-love was very difficult,” Jake recalls.
Covid usually leaves the 31-year-old feeling a shadow of his pre-covid self. When his symptoms spike, he feels significantly worse. While he's able to masturbate up to five days a week - on average - on the other two days, his condition is so extreme it wipes out his sex drive.
And he can’t really talk about it because “people aren’t the most sympathetic or they just don’t understand,” Jake explains, especially potential sexual partners. “It’s not the sort of thing you wanna start a conversation with."
Among the myriad symptoms that regularly kill Jake's drive between the sheets is constant tinnitus, stinging eyes, exhaustion, dizziness, nausea, muscle, rib, and nerve pains, and insomnia along with “the general sense of feeling very ill all the time." It "doesn’t make dating easy," notes the risk and safety practitioner.
These are typical symptoms for long covid sufferers, and there’s currently very little understanding of how to cure it - and mitigate its impact on all aspects of people's lives. Over a million people are thought to have had long covid, according to ONS stats in February 2021. A separate study revealed 200 potential symptoms. The University College London - in a study of 3,400 people - found that a small penis was one, with almost five per cent affected. One man told the “How to Do It” podcast earlier this month that his penis had shrunk by almost 4cms as a result of covid. Another man has told of suffering agonising penis pain, which was later confirmed to be a rare side effect of covid.
“Long covid is poorly understood across the board of healthcare professionals,” explains Doctor Kishan Vithlani of the Qured health service, with doctors only at the “very early stages of understanding the impact”.
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Sasha Conway also enjoyed an active sex life but has struggled since contracting covid in the early days of the pandemic. The Bristol kitchen porter, who identifies as queer, has experienced erectile dysfunction, and at times struggled to orgasm, either alone or with partners.
“Every time I’d nearly reach an orgasm what would happen was I wouldn't be able to breathe and I'd have to stop, which was extremely frustrating in more ways than one,” the 34-year-old told JOE. “Some of that relief would have been helpful, having chemicals going round the brain…”
Prior to March 2020, Sasha had sex multiple times per week, often multiple times per day, with a number of partners enjoying a variety of positions. He now has sex once or twice a week if he’s feeling up to it. And he assumes a passive role so he doesn’t get too tired. “If I'm lying on my back and my partner is on top, I can still sometimes get a couple of days where I’m so exhausted afterwards,” he explained.
Sometimes, Sasha is so exhausted and his body so sore that he spends the day trying not to move much. Listening to the radio is all he can manage.
At first, he was in denial about long covid and was refusing to alter his sex life. “I was pushing through limits going, ‘I’m just going to carry on,’ and then getting to a limit where my body was convulsing, I couldn't breathe properly and then being exhausted for four or five days afterwards,” he says. “When I say exhausted I mean I am not able to cook, I'm not able to get up and shower, going to the bathroom is an issue.
“My sexual partners tend to be quite understanding, but it’s still pretty freaky when the person you’re having sex with is gasping for breath or unable to catch their breath properly.”
Sasha’s erections have also got softer, but oddly he now considers it an upside. Partners actually prefer it, saying they can feel more: “It’s like, ‘Oh right, okay, that’s pretty interesting to know,’” he tells JOE, imitating the chat he’s had with partners. “That’s also quite a useful confidence builder for me.”
But, it isn’t just the physical, it’s mental too.
“Physical functioning is affected by long covid, and that is typically followed by the emergence of mental health difficulties,” says Professor Spada, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at London Southbank University who specialises in the impact of long covid on mental health.
“Many individuals will start worrying about sexual performance, changing behaviours and they might end up locked into a cycle of increasing anxiety or depression to do with performance,” he says.
Physical and mental blocks to sexual appetite can “persist even after recovery,” Spada says, adding that “after a while, we don’t know anymore whether it’s long covid or whether it’s a mental state that is causing it."
Sasha has never received a physical diagnosis from a doctor despite almost two years of symptoms. Due to the medical unknowns, people like him and Jake both believe some long covid sufferers are struggling to get doctors to take them seriously. “The role of mental health has too often been over-stated in discourse surrounding long covid which has led to it being falsely and very frustratingly psychologised by some doctors,” he says.
In other words, both men feel like doctors are telling them, and so many others, that their symptoms are all just in their heads, when they argue they are very very real.
In fact, studies show fewer than three in ten patients hospitalised with acute covid had fully recovered one year on.
Some 90 specialist assessment centres are offering “physical, cognitive and physiological assessment,” for sufferers in the UK, but waiting lists are long. NHS England has offered another £100 million to bolster the service, but anger remains over the way Boris Johnson has handled the pandemic. When the PM lifted the lockdown this summer, he put thousands more people at risk of contracting long covid, experts told The Independent.
“For many months, it has felt as though long covid has not been on the political agenda,” sufferer Joanna Herman wrote for The Guardian in December 2021, adding: “Why is long covid not included in the daily statistics, or as one of the main incentives to avoid Omicron, and to get a vaccine and booster jab? It’s never mentioned, and it often feels as if sufferers don’t exist.”
While research is in its early stages, reports such as these British Medical Journal findings on long covid symptoms in women, reveal that Herman is one of the disproportionately larger group of women who face a "greater risk" of developing long-term symptoms as opposed to men.
The Covid-19 Long Haulers Support Facebook group has 67,000 members and gets daily messages. It’s one of many places of support online, where long covid sufferers are being heard while they wait for breakthroughs in healthcare.
Jake has hopes for something more specific to get his sex and dating life back on track. He says he’s heard talk of a long covid dating app.
“I definitely think there is something to it,” he says. “Traditional dating apps don't really cater for people with chronic illnesses like this. I think the idea makes business sense seeing as the ONS recently reported over 400,000 people in the UK have been living with long covid for more than a year.”
But not all long covid sufferers are quite so optimistic. Sam*, a heterosexual 26-year-old who developed long covid after contracting the virus in December 2020, says sex is literally the last thing on his mind. “For me and many others, a sex life doesn't even come close to being important right now,” he says.
“It’s the least of my worries. I've got a very long list of debilitating symptoms which prevent even the more basic tasks in life. This has had a huge effect on the intimacy I share with my girlfriend and we have both suffered as a result.”
*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity