COVID Gave Me Germaphobia. Now I’m Reclaiming My Sexuality

Photo by Savanna Reudy
I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in sex. As a child, I felt a sort of morbid curiosity towards it and I recognised it as the 'ultimate sin'. The thing that would get me a ticket straight to hell. As time passed, my curiosity shifted. I was no longer scared, just intrigued and excited.
As a queer Nigerian woman, I know firsthand the level of defiance it takes to explore sexuality. Not only because of the misogyny I have to deal with but also because finding opportunities and people to explore with is an entire battle. I revelled in my defiance though and sex soon became one of my favourite things to do. Rough sex, slow sex, edging, bondage – I tried it all. 
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Then the pandemic happened and like so many others I had to adjust to a different reality that involved nosy and demanding family members. It wasn’t one I liked or wanted. It made me feel like life was being sucked out of my vagina. I didn’t think it was going to be so bad. Yes, I couldn’t be with any of my sexual partners but I had my fingers and I did a good job taking care of myself. But I soon realised that masturbating wasn’t going to be entirely possible. 
I am a bit of a perfectionist with my orgasms. There were a couple of details that I needed to get right if I hoped to get one. The most important was noise; I cannot orgasm if I can hear people talking. But with a family of five quarantining together, it was impossible to find personal time. I didn’t realise when I went a month without an orgasm. It was so unlike me but I brushed it off because by then I had a bigger problem. 
My mother had started going back into the office because we needed the money and every time she came home, she spent almost 30 minutes disinfecting. Her paranoia was contagious and I couldn’t help but mirror her anxiety. I was helping her to wipe down our doorknobs, restocking the hand sanitiser and pinching my brother’s ears every time he tried to play with the neighbour’s kid. 
In between all this, I simply did not have the energy to touch myself. This was made worse by the fact that despite my family’s best efforts, we caught COVID. The entire experience was demoralising. We had tried to do everything right yet here I was, faced with the possibility that these could be the last moments I spent with my high-risk parents. I doubled my efforts at cleaning. My attitude towards hygiene became obsessive, unnecessary and draining.
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COVID-19 led to a massive change in everyone’s lifestyle and our active avoidance of germs throughout the pandemic, though necessary, has undoubtedly left many of us feeling even more anxious about germs and contamination. Among those who are predisposed to anxiety, there’s been a recorded increase in obsessions and associated compulsions. 
My libido, which had been very active before the pandemic, had disintegrated and I was desperate to have it back. I wanted to feel like I had some control over this bizarre situation so I forced myself to masturbate. My first orgasm in four months was toe-curling and I had a huge smile on my face as I came down from my high. 
It felt good, really good, so my tears came as a surprise to me. Why was I crying? This was something I wanted, something I’d been praying for. But this terrible voice in my head kept asking if I’d washed my hands before I began. I knew I had but the thought had been planted and I struggled to uproot it. The shortness of breath came and in my panicked state I imagined my vagina rotting because I didn’t care enough not to get germs in her. I calmed down a few minutes later but the panic attack really scared me so I decided that I wouldn’t touch myself for a while. Of course that decision didn’t make me feel better. 
"When we rely on avoidance to reduce our anxiety, we do not give ourselves a chance to learn that we can tolerate our anxiety. We also continue to believe that the things we are avoiding are unsafe in some way," says Dr Alissa Jerud PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and host of the Anxiety Savvy Podcast. "Our habit of avoiding gets stronger each time we avoid. Over time, we may find ourselves avoiding more and more, thus fuelling our anxiety in the long run and causing our worlds to continue to shrink."
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It’s been a year since I made that decision not to touch myself and I’ve gone on to have numerous orgasms since then. They’ve all been self-inflicted and not nearly as satisfying. Things are still not the way they were and I doubt they ever will be. I haven’t had sex in approximately six months and I haven’t had good sex for even longer. The last time I tried, I bawled in my partner’s bathroom for an hour nonstop because: What if his penis was dirty? It was irrational, partly because we’d had a bath together, but it was enough to put me off sex. There’s nothing like a panic attack and a terrified man to kill your libido. 
I’ve realised that I shouldn’t have an identity crisis because I couldn’t have sex for a while. Why did I feel like I needed to jump back into having sex right after lockdown eased? The obsession with 'going back to normal' wasn’t healthy and I needed to address that. I felt like a child again, taking baby steps and trying to relearn intimacy. 
My hypersexuality told me that I needed to be the wild, sexual person I was before the pandemic. But I don’t have to be her anymore. I can be the girl who doesn’t remember how to kiss people or touch herself. The girl who’s trying to figure out if she still likes the stuff she used to like. I can have fun rediscovering myself – and I have been. 
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Sexual chemistry used to be (and still is) such an important part of my attraction to a person but I’ve realised that there are other forms of intimacy and I am focused on building those first. It was easy to forget that I exist outside of the virus and that all the decisions I make don’t need to revolve around it. As long as I’m being safe, I can kiss people without feeling like I’m betraying myself. 
It’s impossible to tell how this will play out for me in the future but Dr Jerud says that fear of germs has the potential to negatively impact the mental health and wellbeing of our society. "The avoidance that this fear pulls for could easily lead to an unravelling of the social connections that we are wired to create. The more we – as a society – allow these fears to shape our post-pandemic lives, the wider their ripples will be, although I doubt that this will happen on a larger scale."
It’s a little bit hard finding my groove and going back to having sex but I’m having fun while I relearn it. I’m not the same person I was pre-pandemic, and that’s fine.

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