Blood on her clothes and covered in fine dust, Rose* was walking home through a city of rubble after the Christchurch earthquakes when she met James.
As waves of aftershocks struck, bonded by their shared terror experience, the strangers had sex in a park surrounded by destruction.
Rose says it happened because she felt “as if it was the end of the world” and that “nothing really mattered, so I might as well go out with a smile on my face…
* Coronavirus: Sex workers struggle with contact tracing clients
* Covid-19 lockdown could lead to baby boom
* How not to destroy your relationship during lockdown
“I was terrified. I was sure I was going to die,” she says, her voice slightly muffled by a face mask bearing a picture of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust.
“He was right there in it with me, going through the same thing. I literally clung to him. The weird thing is that was nearly 10 years ago and during lockdown was the first time since then I have found myself feeling the same way.”
Rose wouldn’t normally have “sex with a random”, but such behaviour can occur when we are in a fear state, experts say.
Decades of researchers have documented this effect during wars and other times of mass fear.
The phrase “terror sex” was coined after 9/11 in New York. Some prefer to call it “disaster sex”.
In the last hours before the nation went into level 4 lockdown on Wednesday, March 25, Christchurch sex store Peaches & Cream held a sale.
Its aisles were filled with people perusing sex toys or staggering to the counter with arm loads of devices and lotions. Yes, while some were at the supermarket, queueing for bread, others were fervently stocking up on sex toys.
At Peaches & Cream, when it came to lockdown sex, with bars and pubs shut and Tinder dating happening remotely, self pleasure was promoted as the “safest sex option”.
And while the weeks of level 2 put a strain on a lot of relationships, others may have seen it as an opportunity to get closer. Can we expect to see a spike in the number of births nine months after the Covid-19 lockdown?
Auckland-based “sex, love and life coach” Elizabeth Grace, director of a counselling outfit called the Intimacy Institute, doesn’t think so.
“People need a stable environment to procreate. If that stable environment is not there, it takes intimacy and sexuality out of the mix,” she says.
“For me, there is no way I would want to bring a child into the world right now in this economic climate… Yes, I want to have sex, I want the pleasure, the intimacy and to nourish that. But to bring a child into a world when you don’t know what the future is going to be like? No thanks.”
Leading American sociologist and sexologist, Pepper Schwartz, agrees.
She says the short answer is: who wants to bring a baby into this dystopian landscape? But she adds that the true answer is a more complicated “maybe there could be a baby boom”.
“There was a birth spike after World War II in the United States but there was also a divorce spike,” she says on the phone from Seattle, Washington.
“You wouldn’t think there would be a collision, but they are diverse people, right? All you need is two different types of people to have more intense behaviours than they usually have, and this is what happens.”
Schwartz has been writing notable books about sexuality since the 1970s, when she surveyed lesbian, gay male and heterosexual couples. She is a tenured professor in sociology and sexuality at the University of Washington and is also the creator of PerfectMatch.com’s matching algorithm.
As a television personality she has appeared on Oprah, Dr Phil and is the relationship expert on Married at First Sight.
“I think we will have children when people feel they can predict the future a bit more,” she says.
There is no unequivocal answer to the “will there be a Covid-19 baby boom” question because there are simply too many variables. The pandemic will have been a different experience for someone who lost their job compared to someone who didn’t, for example.
“People are quite different in terms of whether they see this as a persistent threat or if they believe it has been exaggerated or if they are people who don’t plan anything anyhow,” says Schwartz.
Others might be having sex more often simply because they were home more.
For these people, unless they are fastidious about birth control, there might be a “slight bump” in birth numbers, says Schwartz.
“Oppositely, people who are not good at communication and have issues in their partnership before Covid-19 might have the opposite effect, where you can’t wait to get away from each other.”
Schwartz points to divorce trends following the depression and World Wars.
“When you see people cloistered, scared and worried about the future, the divorce rate doesn’t spike until people are out of work.”
Initially, she says, people are worried about how they will manage during the crisis and “tough it out together”. It’s later – when the immediate threat subsides but the financial ramifications kick in – that people to split, she says.
“Once it looks like they could manage on their own, then they file for divorce.”
Dr Gilmartin Cito, of the University of Florence, is the co-author of a recent study which carried out online interviews with 1482 heterosexual people in relationships in Italy.
The results of the study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology, found that four in five, 81.9 per cent, had no plans to conceive during the Covid-19 crisis.
Significantly, of the 268 participants who were planning to have a child before the pandemic, over one-third then abandoned the intention. The main reasons that led people to this decision included worries related to future economic difficulties (58 per cent) and any potential consequences on pregnancy (58 per cent) due to the disease.
Carried out in the third week of Italy’s lockdown, the questionnaire surveyed 944 women and 538 men aged between 18-46 years, and in a stable heterosexual relationship for at least 12 months.
Study co-author Dr Elisabetta Micelli, from the Assisted Reproduction Technologies Centre, suggested that mental wellbeing during lockdown had an impact on the desire to have a baby.
“The impact of the quarantine on general population’s perception of their stability and peacefulness is alarming.”
Many singles will have been made aware of their vulnerability because of the lockdown, says Schwartz.
“It is one thing to be single in high employment and safety. It is another thing to be single when you are really on your own, sequestered away from anyone else. Many will wonder about their symptoms or if they had Covid-19 symptoms… there is nothing like being sick all alone to make you feel vulnerable.”
Jobs are hurt when people are sequestered. This change in circumstances can contribute to singles discovering a new desire for partnership.
“None of us gauge our options on a good day. We think about all the things we do as confident people but being ill or losing a job… those are the things that make you feel like you have to take it all on by yourself.
“The reality of not having a partner comes home not at the best of times but the worst of times.”
Covid-19 will change the way people date and attitudes to casual sex, she says.
“Some will delay marriage, others who have been thinking about living together, you might think that time is actually not on your side like it was before, you might be less interested in something casual and more focussed on finding a partnership,” says Schwartz.
“You might even look for something different in someone, that is not so much a great time but somebody who would be there for you if things turned difficult, challenging, scary…”
When faced with a life-threatening situation, many naturally become acutely aware of their mortality, which can represent itself in changed sexual behaviour.
“You think, ‘I could die tomorrow.’ So you might delve down into your darkest desires… and if you think your life is going to be shortened, you might do everything from bucket lists to sexual experiences to changing your life in a number of different ways.”
SEX WORKERS’ FEARS
Some Christchurch-based sex workers say clients’ behaviour has changed during the pandemic.
Many had tried to pressure sex workers to “break their bubbles” during level 4 of the lockdown. There had also been an increase in “unusual requests”. One told a story about a client’s violent request involving a goldfish not suitable for print.
Dame Catherine Healy of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective says it’s been a worrying time for the industry. “There has been intense pressure with Covid-19 and compliance and all those issues,” she says. “We were extremely concerned about that… that level 4 could result in people having to come out and break the law.”
Healey says that, in level 2, sex workers were mindful of their responsibilities and the “prevention issue”.
“Trying to minimise contact as much as possible. Sex workers using a shared space would no longer use a rotary system for rooms, but would work one sex worker per room. “They must hold that room for the whole time, not mix and match. Of course, no kissing, which is a no-brainer.
“Clients are wearing masks, which is so good.”
Many sex workers had found it difficult to manage financially during the lockdown.
“Throughout that period people were worried about accessing the wage subsidy and there are concerns around that now. Some sex workers are young, between 20 and 30. They don’t have a great deal of experience with being self-employed. Others needed to go on job seekers.”
During lockdown, some clients directly contacted Healy seeking sex workers willing to engage in risky behaviour.
“Casual clients would come through on my number… they were fishing around to try to find people who were prepared to see them throughout the period of lockdown. We know that it is just a few clients not following the rules.”
Contact tracing remains Healy’s greatest concern.
“If you visit a sex worker and you are impacted by Covid-19, don’t forget to mention that to the health protection contact tracers because it is so important,” she says.
“I know we can rely on sex workers to take account of contact tracing because we have had that experience in the past with things that have happened before. The other way around with clients is an unknown.”
Fear coupled with a lack of mobility is known to lead to spikes in domestic violence.
Dangerous behaviour remains hidden behind closed doors.
Schwartz says abuse spikes are a global concern. “Unfortunate things can happen when there is an explosion of feelings and more privacy.”
In Aotearoa, Aviva is an organisation that supports people of “any age, gender or experience of violence to create safer, healthier personal and family relationships”. During the lockdown, Aviva was contactable 24/7. It experienced a 34 per cent increase in family violence referrals.
STOP also expects to record a spike in demand for its services. It provides community-based assessment and intervention services to adolescents and adults who have sexually abused or who have sexually offended, and to children who have engaged in concerning sexual behaviur.
Don Mortensen, chief executive of STOP, says disasters such as earthquakes and traumatic events like the pandemic and the Christchurch mosque shootings can have a negative impact on children.
“Particularly where a child is vulnerable due to complex trauma experiences – neglect, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, exposure to family violence, mental illness, substance abuse or criminality in the home.”
Concerning sexual behaviours may occur with children and young people who are vulnerable and have experienced such complex trauma.
“The intent of this behaviour in children is rarely sexual but related to emotional regulation, seeking comfort and coping with stressors,” he says.
Mortensen adds that while it is too early to know whether they’ll experience an increase in referrals as a result of lockdown for concerning sexual behaviours in children and young people, experience from the Canterbury and Kaikoura earthquakes indicates that there is likely to be a significant increase.
Families have been confined together for the lockdown. Many families, who may have had difficulty coping in more “normal times”, will have experienced high levels of stress, financial and employment pressures, maybe family violence, alcohol and drug use, parental frustrations and children missing peer contact.
And don’t forget the impact of the internet. Lockdown saw a surge in pornography use and people seeking help for addiction to it.
“Children and young people may have also had greater access to online sexual behaviour outside their developmental norm,” says Mortensen, “which can contribute to children and young people engaging in inappropriate, concerning and harmful sexual behaviours.”
Schwartz recalls how 9/11 shocked the world.
“It made everyone scared, but if you were a New Yorker and you walked those streets, you had friends who died and you saw that building crumble in your home, I think that changed people in important ways of feeling vulnerable, experiencing threat… seeking community,” she says.
“Even the stories of World War II in London, there were people in bomb shelters together where they experienced this feeling and created strong immediate allegiances to each other.
“It changes the way you look at the world.”
Rose regrets her random sexual encounter after the Christchurch earthquakes.
“I wound up with an STD,” she says. “The sex felt good at the time but actually it was just another disaster I should have run away from.”
It’s a scenario Schwartz has heard before.
“There is a lot of research on hormone levels and what happens when you get frightened – everything becomes more intense. You are much more likely to interpret things as important and connect to people in a much more vivid way,” she says.
“There is that sense of drama and threat in the world which ultimately makes you more open to connection. It pays to remember that when you are making sexual choices.”