DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: How do I stop feeling bad about lack of sex and not being able to get it? This has been an issue for me pre- and post-COVID. I’m a thirty-something heterosexual male who’s never identified as traditionally masculine, was a late bloomer in dating and never really found fulfillment in my twenties. I’ve learned a lot about myself since then and now know the types of people I click with the best, but the pandemic has put a huge wrench in my ability to seek what I look for even with all the education and “tools” for growth that people like you teach.
I’ve done my best to educate myself about toxic masculinity, I don’t give a s--t about status or admiration from male peers (I’m just not interested in associating with heteronormative men, and my “male” friends are on the queer spectrum and don’t encourage unhealthy conversations about sex), I don’t watch porn, I make sure my masturbation habits are healthy and have a toy that I use for “maintenance”, and yet I’m still feeling miserable without being to share the experience with another human being. It’s the collection of emotions, senses, smell, touch, noises, and everything about it that I just can’t find from solo sex, VR, toys, porn, etc. Am I a sex addict or something? I feel broken about suffering from so much angst and depression about this, and my therapist isn’t really helpful in talking about this issue. I want to change therapists but there’s a severe lack of resources I can access and don’t even know where to begin with finding a therapist that understands male sexuality without shaming or giving platitudes.
My “love language” is physical and before the pandemic I had several people I could call cuddle buddies to help with skin hunger, but we are not sexual and the ones I am attracted to aren’t available or are not interested in me sexually. Due to the serious restrictions in my area, I can’t even find a person to create a “bubble” with until there’s a vaccine (which will be delayed in my area due to government f--k ups). Online apps have not been helpful for me either and I’ve done everything I can to take personal responsibility to improve my experience but it’s just an exercise in rejection and constant disappointment.
Things are really not looking well for economic recovery in my area and it feels like it will be years before things are back to “normal” with opportunities and etc. How can I survive a few more years of this?
Impending Basket Case
DEAR IMPENDING BASKET CASE: So first off, IBC, let’s clear something up right away: you’re not a sex addict (in part because sex addiction isn’t a thing), nor are you broken. You’re just lonely. The fact that masturbation isn’t necessarily cutting it for you doesn’t mean that you’re addicted or that there’s something wrong with you, it means that you’re starved for human physical contact. Humans are built with an inherent need for touch and physical contact with other people. Touch is one of the ways that we generate oxytocin, it’s part of how we form bonds with others, and it’s an important form of communication with people in our lives. When we cut ourselves off — or are cut off — from physical contact with others, we suffer for it, mentally and emotionally. There’s actually a surprisingly poetic name for this condition: skin hunger. We are literally craving the emotional and physical connection with others, and we’re noticing the difference between the amount that we need, and the amount that we are receiving.
And COVID is exacerbating this in a big, big way.
While it’s easy to focus on the loneliness of not having a romantic or sexual partner, the distancing and quarantining demanded by the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting everyone by drastically reducing the amount of even incidental touch we have in our lives. Whether it’s hugging our loved ones or even the touch we don’t think about or that doesn’t necessarily register AS touch — someone cutting your hair, working with a physical trainer and so on — we are all feeling a distinct lack of touch in our lives, and that’s drastically escalating the feeling of isolation and loneliness that was already at epic levels.
Unfortunately, it’s really, really difficult — nearly impossible — to replace authentic touch from others. We can laugh about the “Oh Japan” memes that go around about someone inventing a device to simulate holding your partner’s hand or feeling like someone’s cuddling with you in bed, but they’re attempts to fill a very real void and sense of lack… and frankly, they don’t really work.
There just isn’t a substitute for the real thing, as it turns out.
That’s why the problem you’re dealing with isn’t a lack of sex, IBC, it’s a lack of connection and contact. Masturbation scratches one particular itch, but not the whole, because the issue is a holistic one.
So what can you do about all of this?
First of all: yes, it definitely sounds like you need to switch therapists. One of the things people don’t realize is that finding a therapist is a lot like finding a romantic partner; you need one who you feel understands you, one you feel comfortable with and who you feel you can connect with. This is why many people have bad experiences with therapy; they have the wrong therapist entirely. Now like I said: I don’t think sex is your problem, but finding a therapist who’s sex-positive and doesn’t shame people for their sexuality isn’t as hard as it used to be. The American Association of Sexual Educators, Counselors and Therapists has a referral directory that can help you find a therapist in your area. However, even if there aren’t any therapists within driving distance, there are plenty who take clients remotely via Zoom or Skype or telemedicine apps.
(In fact, COVID has sparked something of a revolution in telemedicine, especially with therapy; this is one of the few upsides to the whole situation.)
Second of all: there are other ways of getting your need for touch met, even during the pandemic. Some of them are a little trickier, simply because of the risk of COVID exposure, especially as cases go up during the holiday season, but they do exist. There are massage therapists who are still working and who’ve implemented changes in order to minimize (but not eliminate) the risk of transmission. Finding one who is rigorous about safety protocols — or even will take clients in outdoor settings, assuming the climate in your area permits it — can help you ease your need for touch and contact. Similarly, pets actually help ease skin-hunger. Cuddling with your dog or cat goes a long way towards easing that sense of isolation and helps dial back that desperate sense of loneliness and needing to connect with another living being. It’s not the same thing as having a partner with you, but it definitely helps.
Third: don’t necessarily give up on dating apps as a way of meeting people. While yes, dating apps can be frustrating during the best of times and dating during COVID has created a host of new and unique challenges, they’re still the best way of meeting someone while the lockdowns are still in effect. Much of finding success on dating apps requires trial and error and learning how to use them to the best effect. I’ve written a lot about the best practices for online dating, so be sure to check the archives.
But another thing to consider is how much of your issues are regional, and whether you’d be better served finding a way to move elsewhere. While I will freely admit that this is easier said than done, if a lot of your problems come from where you live, then making arrangements to f--k off to greener pastures might well be the thing that helps give you the emotional resilience to grit your teeth and hang in until the vaccines are available to the wider population. Part of what has been so frustrating for everyone during the pandemic is the open-ended nature of it and the uncertainty of the future. Humans as a species don’t do well with uncertainty; it makes us deeply uncomfortable. Knowing that an end is in sight — that there’s a goal we can work towards and achieve, or that there’s a point where a vaccine will be available — is frequently the thing that gives people the push they need to hang in there. Putting as much money into a “Get The Hell Outta Dodge” fund, searching for jobs and apartments in new cities or even hitting up your friends in other areas for info could well be the thing that gives you the hope you need that will give you the strength to grit your teeth and power through. Even slow progress is still progress, and seeing your funds grow can help inspire you to hold on and push even harder.
You’re in a s--tty situation, IBC, and it’s completely understandable that you feel the way you feel. But you’re not even a little broken. You’re just a reasonable person in an unreasonable situation, trying to cope with things as best you can.
You’re not helpless and you’re not hopeless. It sucks now, but it will get better. You just need to gather the tools and resources that will help you make it through.
You’ve got this.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org