Early in the pandemic, sex therapist Ian Kerner's clients got awfully quiet.
"I thought, 'Maybe people finally don't have the same old excuses for not having sex,' " Kerner said. "They don't have to worry about their commute. They can stay in bed a little later. There's not much else to do for fun beyond having sex. I was a little optimistic that the pandemic might bring an increase in closeness and intimacy and depth of feeling."
Not so much.
"For most couples, it's hell," clinical psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz told the Globe and Mail newspaper for a recent article headlined, "Another victim of COVID-19: Sex between married couples."
Research from the Kinsey Institute found that nearly half of surveyed adults reported their sex life had declined during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kerner calls the pandemic "a perfect storm of libido-debilitating factors."
"We're not eating as healthy, not exercising in the same ways, drinking more, smoking more," he said. "All of our coping mechanisms ramped up and kind of became maladaptive. In addition to that, we weren't necessarily showering or changing out of our pajamas or trying to find our sexy, attractive selves. On top of that, a lot of couples were thrown together in ways that don't allow for external validation. None of it is healthy for sex."
Rather than nudging couples toward more intimacy, pandemic schedules forced a lot of them to face that something was amiss with their sex lives, Kerner said.
"A lot of couples couldn't really hide from it anymore," he said. "Before, it would be, 'We're working, we're busy, we're stressed out, of course we're not having sex. Let's cut ourselves some slack.' But when you're pushed together, you're kind of aware of the things you're not doing. And sex is one of them for a lot of people."
Pre-pandemic, Kerner began writing his latest book, "So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex: Laying Bare and Learning to Repair Our Love Lives" (Grand Central Publishing), a follow-up to his 2004 New York Times bestseller, "She Comes First."
Kerner, a clinical fellow of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, hopes his book serves as a timely guide for couples and individuals who want to untangle and solve the social, physical and cultural factors that are, all too often, sabotaging their sex lives.
Sex is inextricably linked to short- and long-term relationship quality and, Kerner says, an essential aspect of the human experience. But very few people have the tools to talk in a healthy way about how it fits into their lives.
"Most of us grew up in either a sex-negative home, where actual shaming occurred," Kerner said. "Or, just as likely, a sex-avoidant home where it was never really discussed or modeled in any kind of instructive or forthright way. It was modeled to talk about almost everything else — work, money, family members. But sex is this black hole. We don't ever really get the language, we don't have the confidence to talk about the problems, and we literally don't know how to describe what we're experiencing."
Kerner's book instructs people how to better understand and reframe their "sex scripts" — the typical steps and habits leading up to and during their sexual encounters, and all the inhibitions, incompatibilities and impasses therein.
He explains his "split-level" approach to couples therapy, which uses the metaphor of a house.
"The main floor is where the action is," he writes. "It's where we eat, sleep, cook, clean, argue, have sex, don't have sex, and generally deal with all the problems life throws at us. ... But we also have a basement, which is our emotional underground. Residing in the basement are the vulnerabilities, traumas and painful memories that we want to store away and not think about."
People collaborate and work together on their main-floor stuff, Kerner maintains, but they tend to keep their basement stuff to themselves. A healthy sex life often requires integrating the two.
"There's a lot of suffering around sex," he said. "It can be an incredible experience of connection. It can be an incredible affirmation of our identities and our sense of aliveness. But for so many of us, it's just stifled. The book says, 'Let's look at what's happening and what's not happening and let's change it.' People have been waiting far too long."
No time like the present.