Valentine's Day passed as all days pass: My husband played chess on his phone. My 6-year-old made a mess in the living room. I watched a long string of David-and-Patrick Schitt's Creek compilation videos on YouTube to remind myself of what love could be.
The only difference? We exchanged cards in the morning.
My card to my husband featured an illustration of an arcade claw machine, next to the text, "I'd choose you all over again."
My husband's response, only half-teasing: "Would you??"
Later that day, I found myself reflecting upon the way that—despite being forced into close quarters with each other because of the pandemic—my husband and I had grown further apart. I mean, I couldn't blame us. Stuck inside for a year with my husband and my 6-year-old child, I often felt I was suffocating.
Juggling my job and my household and my daughter's distance learning, I was drowning in need. Exhausted all the time. Anxious over all the decisions we were forced to make. At the end of the day, all I wanted was to be left alone. And I certainly didn't want to be touched.
I know I'm not the only one, a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research confirms it. When I was researching a piece on mental health and libido early last year, Diane Gleim, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist, pointed out that all of the conflicting feelings we're feeling—anxiety, grief, guilt, powerlessness—are draining us, leaving us with less sexual energy.
Meanwhile, Megan Fleming, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, gave a nod to that sense of suffocation I was experiencing. She acknowledged that without physical space from our partners, it was hard to find the space to decompress. What was the opposite of intimacy? I wanted that.
Still, while it was understandable that we'd not been feeling particularly horny, I didn't like what we'd become. During the day, we sat in our separate home offices on our separate sides of the house, each of us focused on our professional responsibilities. In the evenings, I crawled into bed wearing the schlumpiest pajamas ever, reading until I passed out. He retreated to the basement to watch TV, not coming to bed until hours after I'd turned out the lights. In a year of pandemic life, we'd had almost no sexual contact.
So, when Valentine's Day 2021 rolled around and I found myself marking the occasion with nothing more than a locked bathroom door and a bath bomb, I realized that things needed to change.
I determined that we would get our sexy back, and I vowed that it would only take a single week.
The Experiment Begins
In Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski writes extensively about our sexual accelerators and brakes: the things that turn us on and the things that turn us off. She suggests that increasing desire—and increasing our ability to be aroused—might be better accomplished by focusing on how we might eliminate the brakes.
On any given day, my brakes are many: My to-do list. My anxiety. My exhaustion. My horror over my ballooning body. My diminishing patience toward both my husband and my child. My despair and hopelessness over the state of the world.
No amount of lube in the world is going to touch that hot mess of an emotional maelstrom.
But a publicist had sent me cannabis-infused strips you place underneath the tongue, and this seemed promising. Maybe chemically-induced oblivion will eliminate my brakes? I thought.
So even though I've never gotten high in my entire life and hadn't even had an alcoholic beverage in maybe six months, I presented the tin of Kin Slips to my husband with a flourish as we curled up on the couch in our TV room to watch Outlander, one of the horniest works of mainstream fiction I know. We slipped the strips beneath our tongues and settled in so we could enjoy Jamie's bare chest and Claire's extensive cleavage. I felt woozy for about 10 minutes; my husband felt giggly. But then it subsided, and we forgot all about it.
After the show, we went upstairs and I suggested we give each other massages using the contents of a massive tub of body butter I keep on my nightstand. I presented this as an opportunity for sensual touch though, really, my skin has been really dry lately and I couldn't reach all the itchy spots by myself. He gave me a massage that was a little too deep-tissue for my tastes and I gave him a massage that was a little too gentle for his tastes. We considered how we might best proceed.
In the past, I'd talked to my husband about my interest in non-demand pleasure, and about my desire to expand our definition of sex to allow for intimacy that was less focused on penetrative sex. I was hoping this shift would help break me out of the endless cycle of guilt and resentment I often felt around sex, a byproduct of a past sexually abusive relationship.
In Ian Kerner's forthcoming So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex, he writes about taking sex off the table in order to engage in intimacy without feeling emotionally overwhelmed. He recommends this both for those who experience responsive desire (me) and those who have experienced trauma (also me). "This lack of pressure is crucial to feeling safe and willing," he writes.
I asked my husband if we could focus on outercourse that evening. Thinking some mutual masturbation might up my arousal, I lined up my favorite vibrators: LELO's SONA Cruise, their new SILA (which was similar to the SONA, but had a wider mouth), and my old standby, the Jimmyjane Iconic Smoothie. We wrestled beneath the sheets for a while, kissing and caressing and playing with my vibrators, both of us eventually experiencing orgasm. And then we went to sleep.
Hours later, at 3 a.m., I woke up with dry mouth and the overwhelming need to pee. As I stumbled to the bathroom, it felt as if there were a bowling ball rolling around inside my head. That's the last time I get high, I told myself, taking extreme care not to fall down the damn stairs on my way to and from the bathroom. I chugged a bottle of water and fell back to sleep.
I woke up. I felt like death. I had a hangover the entire day. Sex? HA!
Finally recovered from the cannabis, I had big plans for that evening. I had come into possession of some CBD suppositories that were supposed to decrease sexual pain (a problem I'd grappled with) and increase pleasure (a problem I'd grappled with). Given the choice to insert one into my anus or my vagina, I chose my vagina. Now, mind you, I've used vaginal suppositories in the past for yeast infections, so I know what I'm doing. But this suppository did not want to stay put.
I eventually removed it from my body and threw it into the trash. But then I noticed that my vagina smelled vaguely chocolatey. And not chocolatey like the delicious Cadbury mini eggs I hide in my office closet. Different chocolatey. It was at this point I decided I needed to take a shower.
The sexy levels were clearly high at this point. I mean, I'm sure my husband was waiting with bated breath to play with the chocolate-scented vagina that had actively rejected a suppository. Still, I lingered in the hot shower, letting the water run down my neck and back, letting my muscles soften and release. I even shaved my legs. I would have taken up residence in that shower if it had been an option. But eventually, I emerged.
I felt rejuvenated when I returned upstairs. Still, I knew that if I wanted to engage in sex that was mutually pleasurable, CBD suppositories and other fun products weren't really the answer. No. I had to communicate more effectively about what felt good.
This was something I had always struggled with, something that was no doubt connected to the shitty relationship from my past. Twenty years had passed, but I still remember my ex berating me for my inexperience, for my body hair, for my silence, and for all the things I wasn't ready for. As a result, I still carry a lot of shame around my body and my desire… still feel uncertain about my abilities in bed.
But that night, using a vibrator as a prop, I explained how direct clitoral stimulation was too intense for me, and how I preferred to be stimulated instead through the clitoral hood before being digitally penetrated. Then, finally in possession of a sexual roadmap (because—shocker—our partners can't read our minds), my husband worked some magic and we had a pretty damn good night.
Up until this point, my husband and I had only engaged in outercourse, which was a huge shift from our past routine of humping each other a whole lot, slopping on a ton of lube, and enjoying a few minutes of deep thrusting. This night, we fully intended to engage in some PIV penetrative intercourse, trying out some new lubes in the process.
But by the end of the day, we were both tired. From wrangling our child. From sitting through multiple Zoom meetings. From the normal chaos that comes with pandemic living.
So, we both agreed to take a break that night and, for once, I didn't feel guilty and he didn't feel disappointed. Besides, I felt heartened by the small moments of intimacy we'd enjoyed throughout the day. A hug. A smooch. A silly dance as my husband played his Spotify '80s New Wave playlist while washing the dishes.
JoEllen Notte, author of The Monster Under the Bed: Sex, Depression, and the Conversations We Aren’t Having, once told me that nonsexual intimacy can be essential in maintaining a romantic connection. But I'd been so resistant to those cuddles and casual touches in recent years and it had built a wall between us.
Slowly, however, and because we were being intentional about it, that wall was crumbling.
That night, my husband and I decided to try something new. I slid Pure Romance's Hidden Agenda, a wearable vibrator that could be controlled via a wristband, into my underpants. Then we popped open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Rosé, streamed a shitty movie, and tortured my clitoris.
I'm not gonna lie. The first time I took a look at this wearable, my first inclination was to use it for some extra lazy masturbation.
But having my husband use it to tease me in the lead-up to relocating upstairs meant that I was ready to go by the time the movie's credits rolled. My only side observation is that we may have used it too much, as I felt a bit chafe-y. Which only meant we had to take things extra slow and gentle. We agreed, however, that it was definitely worth incorporating into future sex play, though perhaps with some adjustments.
Day 6: The Debriefing
The next night, we took a break from each other. It was gorgeous out, so I went for a walk with my walking buddy and he had a friend over for drinks on the back deck. When we crawled into bed later, however, I thought it might be worth discussing our experiences that past week and setting some expectations for the future. I didn't want this thing we'd rekindled to fizzle out, but I also wanted to be sure it was sustainable.
We talked for a good, long while about a great many things. I expressed relief that we'd been able to enjoy sex without penetration, pointed out how effective it had been to incorporate sex toys into couple play, and explained why it was so important to me that we make the effort to maintain our emotional connection. That last, to me, was especially essential in enabling me to feel desire again. He, meanwhile, conveyed gratitude that I'd gotten a bit better at communicating my wants. And then he admitted that for the past year—while I'd been in turmoil over the assumption that he'd given up on me and my lack of desire—he'd actually been experiencing low desire himself. This entire time, and despite knowing better, I'd been beating myself up for being the broken one. And this entire time, he'd been feeling the same way.
What I Learned
Day 7 and beyond…
As a sex writer, I find that there are a handful of common themes I always come back to, and I'll reiterate them here because they all proved true during my week of attempting to bring the sexy back:
1. Be open to expanding your definition of sex. Good sex is sex that is mutually pleasurable. Period.
2. Don't lose that intimate connection with your partner, no matter how sick of their face you happen to be. It's difficult to desire sex when you feel completely disconnected from each other.
3. Communicate. About all the things. Your partner can't magically know what you're feeling, what you enjoy, and why.
4. What you are experiencing is normal. You are normal.
What's sexy for us right now might not seem especially glamorous or exciting. But more than anything else, our week of bringing the sexy back has made us into a team again. And we needed that.