ANNA SALE: Before we get to this week's show, I wanna introduce you to a special guest, and one of my favorite colleagues: Kai Wright. Hi, Kai!
KAI WRIGHT: Hey!
AS: Kai, you host a podcast called The United States of Anxiety here at WNYC Studios. And I have to say, that feels like the most apt podcast title these days. Like, every week it feels like an apt podcast title, and then it keeps feeling more and more apt as the weeks go on.
KW: You're telling me, sister.
AS: So how would you describe what this show is about?
KW: Well, I guess it's two things. One is that it just became clear to me in the course of making this show over the last four years of presidential politics that like how little we, all of us—we being, you know, black and white, left and right—how little we know about this idea of America that we feel so strongly about. You know, it's ruined, it needs to be great again, it's never great, but so few people really know the history, and so, and we think that matters in our politics today, how ignorant we are about that history. And so, what we're doing is going back, looking at the period following the Civil War, when we came up with all the things that, you know, that shape what America is. All the ideas about equality and freedom, and thinking about the things that were unresolved in that moment, the debates that we didn't finish, and how they show up individuals' lives today and then telling stories about that.
AS: Yeah, that's what I love about this season. That, like, I turn it on thinking it's gonna be a show about what I'm worried about in this moment in America, and you're so reminding all of us that these are not new worries, these worries all have deep historical antecedence.
AS: One of my favorite episodes so far this season is about the school district in Marin County, which is in the Bay Area where I live, about segregation today in this school district, and it's all of the historical reasons why the schools look like they do right now and how that's affecting elementary school students today right here in the Bay Area.
KW: Yeah, yeah.
AS: Um, you're also asking your listeners right now in general what they're worried about. Like, what are you hearing?
KW: Yeah. Well, we figured that, we started this podcast in the, during Donald Trump's first campaign. And it became very clear how much just like our personal anxieties shape our politics. Again, left, right, and center.
KW: Um, and so that's why we've called it The United States of Anxiety, that's why we're asking people what they're anxious about to try to get a sense. And I mean, it's... the answers are epic! You know, I keep saying, like, 'I wanna hear about things in your personal life,' but that's not where people are at. People are concerned about civil war, they said they're concerned about, like, I don't wanna have a kid because of climate change, I mean, it, there are mass, they're concerned about violence. There's a lot of people concerned about violence. So, there, I, I've been taken by the size of people's anxieties as they go into the polls this year.
AS: And, Kai, I feel like right now we're adding a whole other thing that people haven't been worried about, which is, like, disease, and contagion, and our personal health and its relationship to our fellow residents and citizens. And, that's why you and I this week are gonna be opening the phones to our listeners and asking: What are you worried about as it relates to the new coronavirus, COVID-19? We wanna hear what you're anxious about, how you are coping, how it's making you sort of understand your relationship to other people and in different ways. There's a lot to talk about. So we're taking your calls! Live, from 3 to 4pm Eastern time this Friday, that's 12-1pm Pacific, and the number to call is 844-745-8255. Kai and I are going to be co-hosting this live, call-in special that then we will play for you in our respective podcast feeds. And we will post on our social media accounts too, as we’re about to start taking your calls. Again, that’s 3-4pm Eastern, 12-1pm Pacific, this Friday, March 13.
KW: Can’t wait.
AS: And, Kai, do you know what our show is about today?
KW: I don't!
AS: Something a lot of us worry about, and don't talk about a lot, which is why we're not having sex. Something totally different than COVID-19.
KW: I know why I'm not having sex right now!
AS: We asked our listeners—
KW: And it's got everything to do with COVID-19.
AS: I know! It's pretty, I guess it is pretty timely. We asked our listeners this question a few years back, and they gave us a whole slew of reasons at the time, and it became one of our favorite episodes ever. So listen to it, and then look for The United States of Anxiety. You can find it at wnyc.org/anxiety, or wherever you get your podcasts. Talk to you on Friday, Kai!
KW: I can't wait.
Mike: It just became easier not to have sex, you know? Just to keep the peace!
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot….
….and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
A few months ago, we got an email from a listener that I’ll call Marie.
Marie: I’m 34 years old and I haven’t dated anyone seriously. I’ve never even been kissed before by anybody.
Marie has also never had sex.
Marie: I do still have that fear that somebody - I’m going to tell somebody that I’ve never had sex before and they’re going to walk away. You know, instead of a scarlet letter A, you know, it would be a scarlet letter V.
Not having sex ever before or just right now can feel isolating. Maybe a little embarrassing. But we suspected that Marie’s not alone. So, a few weeks back, I asked you this question:
ANNA SALE: Why aren’t you having sex right now?
I’m not having sex because men don’t find me attractive.
Because my body’s broken, and it can’t seem to be fixed.
I’m really terrified of men.
I’ve been celibate for about 14 years…
And the weird thing is, I’m okay with it.
I would rather read a book than be intimate with him.
We heard from people who wish they were having sex...
(Sigh) I’m not having sex, because like the old Barry Manilow song, the feeling’s gone and I don’t know how to get it back.
We haven’t even slept in the same room in over 7 years.
I’ve stopped initiating, kind of to wait him out, and we’ve been in a stalemate.
We also heard from people who aren’t having sex, because they don’t wanna be.
I'm alright with being single and sexless.
I wasn’t really liking the path where I was going, kind of using sex and other people as a crutch.
No matter what the reason, sex… especially when you’re not having it… can be so hard to talk about.
I brought it up on my birthday and I started a huge fight.
It’s still something we don’t talk about...at all...among our friends.
Sarah: Both of us have a significant amount of friends who are in like heterosexual relationships and it always seems like they're having way more sex.
That’s Sarah. She been with her girlfriend, Claire, for about two and a half years. They asked that we not use their real names, as did most people in this episode.
Sarah: I think we started out having way more sex than we do now.
Claire: Yeah, definitely petered off.
AS: About how many months has been your longest stretch of - of not having sex together?
Sarah: Two to three months, I would say, which was - it was quite a, you know, cliff dive compared to what we were doing before.
AS: Does it feel frustrating or does it feel okay, when you have stretches of no sex?
Sarah: Um, Do you want to go first, Claire?
Claire: I think this is where we - well, and I think this is where we have differing views. And I... for me, you know, if I’m not having sex, after a certain point I’m like, okay, well, I’m not having sex. That’s fine. And I think for Sarah, she’s more on the mindset of, I want to be having more sex. Why are we not having sex? And it becomes more of a stress factor.
AS: So Sarah, what happens when you’re feeling frustrated?
Sarah: I don’t know, I tend to kind of bottle everything up and just - I keep it inside, and, you know, like, metaphorically, I say I put a lot of things in my backpack. And I just carry it around, and it gets heavier and heavier and heavier. And then it just comes to a point where I just explode and everything comes out at once.
Claire: Well, and I think this is definitely something that we don’t know how to figure our way out of right now I mean, for me when I'm feeling like we don’t have that communication, or we’re arguing, I don’t want to have sex. I feel, like, disconnected from her. And for me, that disconnect wins over the desire to have sex.
AS: When you’re in a moment, where Claire, you’re not really feeling like having sex and Sarah, you’d really like to have sex, do you - do you touch? Or does that create sort of an impasse where you don’t really want to be close to each other?
Sarah: Um, I think when I want to have sex, I kind of, I don’t know, I’ll do this thing where I’ll run across the room and I’ll jump on top of her and like, you know, start kissing her and cuddling her and just like be kind of silly. And sometimes, you know, when I do that, I don’t get much of a reaction from her. She’s just like I’m busy or I’m thinking or I’m doing something, and then I’m just kind of let down and, just like, you know, roll over and go back to what I was doing before.
Claire: Yeah, sometimes that happens. Or there’s a mixed signal or a missed signal. And I think there are times when it’s very obvious that that’s what she’s going for but again, it’s like -
Claire: Well I don’t know that jumping on me like a little kid does, makes me feel, like, hot. I’d prefer someone to make me feel, like, sexy versus silly.
AS: Does it sometimes feel when you talk about your tensions around sex that it makes the tensions more difficult?
Claire: Uh, I think so.
Sarah: I don’t - I don’t know. I like that we put it out there. For me, sex is a - it’s bigger part of a relationship. And I don’t know. I miss it.
AS: You miss it.
Sarah: I miss it. Yeah.
Cameron: I don’t really miss it.
Cameron sent in this voice memo from St. Louis.
Cameron: I miss the intimacy, which sex is an essential component of. But I don’t miss sex removed from any of that context. I have dealt with chronic back pain issues since I was 19. I’m 27 now. Sex is so physical. It’s a moment when you’re deeply vulnerable in your physicality and you need to be present, as somebody with a body. And when you’re in pain, on kind of a minute to minute basis, all you want to do is forget that you have a body, and you can’t escape that during sex.
You can’t escape your body during sex. That’s something that Ellen has also been thinking about lately.
AS: Why aren’t you having sex right now?
Ellen: Um, because I contracted herpes, in June.
AS: Were you in a relationship with the person that you got herpes from?
Ellen: No. It was a casual friendship and somebody that I had known for a short time, but I mean I trusted him. Ugh, fuck. If I could just go back.
AS: Prior to that, had you been pretty regularly sexually active?
Ellen: Like off and on. I’ve had a couple boyfriends and then I’ve gone through times when I’ve, like, you know, gone like 2 years without having sex. It wasn’t a huge deal.
AS: Does it feel different this time?
Ellen: Yeah. Yeah. It feels really different. It feels like there’s like something hanging over me. It’s not just like, oh I’m not - not having sex. If somebody comes along I’m not - not really sure how to handle that situation.
AS: Because you’ll have to talk about it.
Ellen: Oh yeah, I almost can’t get past, like, the barrier of telling somebody and having to deal with potential rejection.
AS: Have you had any flirtations since you found out about your diagnosis?
Ellen: Yeah. And one in particular. We have a past history. And like he’s back in my life, and we’ve been friendly. But I can’t imagine it would just be a friendship. And so there’s that whole idea of like, oh man, what if something happened and on top of that, how would I, oh my god, how would I deal with this? Like, I keep thinking, maybe he has it too so it won’t have to be a big deal.
AS: (Laughs) Maybe my dreams will come true and he has it too!
Ellen: (Laughs) I’ve never thought of myself as hoping someone has herpes. I don’t know. I try to find the humor in things.
Jihan wrote in about how her body is affecting her sex life. She’s black, and lives in LA. And she says she’s not having sex because men just don’t seem interested in her. At least, not any men that she’d want to be with.
Jihan: I tend to attract men who fetishize black women.
But when Jihan leaves the country everything changes. She first noticed it when she studied abroad.
Jihan: I was so not used to being approached by men that I didn’t - I didn’t realize that I was sort of being asked out. I remember even writing home to friends, like, you guys I get asked out on dates! Like when I was in the UK. It’s really like a light comes on when I leave the country, even if I’m just going to Canada, and a light sort of turns off when I come back.
AS: It shows you it’s not you, it’s the culture in your country.
Jihan: Yeah. It just makes me feel like I don’t have to feel terrible about myself. You know, I can feel like I am still the same interesting person that men wanted to date abroad. I just - I can’t find the same thing here. And that’s why I really love that episode of Parks and Rec where, I think it’s a Venezuelan delegation comes to Pawnee, and like all the men in the Venezuelan delegation are really interested in Donna. And she goes, I’m not surprised. I do very well in South America. And I was just like, Yes! Yes yes yes! Finally somebody gets what I’ve been talking about (laughs).
Meet a man who has not one but two women in his life, whose friends don’t understand why he’s not having sex.
Mike: A lot of them are still single. You know, I guess that might have something to do with it.
This episode first came out in 2015, and over the years, we’ve gotten updates from some of the people who shared their stories with us.
Sarah and Claire—the couple you heard from at the beginning of the episode—broke up a few years back.
SARAH: It wasn’t because we weren’t having sex, I think we were just, not I think, I know we just wanted different things in life and were drifting apart and heading different ways.
That’s Sarah. She’s since moved to another country, and has dated several other people since she and Claire ended their relationship.
SARAH: I still have the belief that if you’re not having sex, something is not going well in your relationship.
Jihan let us know that she isn’t dating anyone right now. She tried the apps again recently but didn’t have any luck. “I’ve traveled abroad for romance or dating since 2015,” she wrote. “And I’m making a plan now to spend large chunks of the year out of the country.”
And we heard from Ellen again, the woman who told us about not having sex because she was diagnosed with herpes. “Life is drastically better,” she told us. When she wrote, she was still having frequent outbreaks, but was dating, and had disclosed her STI to her partner. “I’m TOTALLY HAVING SEX!” she wrote. “Having to be honest about herpes made it a lot easier to be honest about my feelings, my preferences, and in general, how I express myself.”
We did a whole episode about living with STIs last year—you can find it by texting “STI” to the number 70101, and we'll send you the link.
If you want to share your story about why you’re not having sex, or about anything else—send us an email or record a voice memo and send it to us at email@example.com.
On the next episode…
BEN SINCLAIR: I am very stuck on the notion that just because something ends doesn't mean it's a failure.
I talk about the beginning—and end—of a marriage with Ben Sinclair, who co-created the HBO series High Maintenance with his now ex-wife, Katja Blichfeld.
BEN SINCLAIR: I didn't trust that I could take care of myself. You know, I don't think I, I don't think I got the, the confidence that I could be an adult male who wasn't, like... that people weren't worried about until recently, very recently even. And I still struggle with not... engaging in dependency.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Part of what can be so hard about not having sex, when you want to be, is figuring out how much is under your control. Like for Marie, the 34 year-old virgin at the start of the episode.
Marie: I’ve been like, just forget about it. I’m just going to go out and have a one night stand and just kinda get rid of my virginity.
She works as a therapist, where she helps her clients change the things about themselves that they can and accept what they can’t change. Marie’s tried to do both with her virginity.
Marie: I think when I was much younger, I had this idea that I would get a boyfriend and it would just happen. At other points in time, I even thought about kind of propositioning a friend of mine. So that I can say, I’ve had sex with somebody, I’m not a virgin anymore, you know, it’s not this cross I have to bear any longer. But when I thought about it, it wasn’t - that wasn’t who I am. It’s taken me a little while to kind of get to a place where I’m okay with that.
AS: So you’re hearing from clients about the most intimate details of their lives, including in some cases their sex lives…
AS: How has that - how has being in this position where you get to hear people’s deepest histories... how has that shaped the way you think of your own experience?
Marie: I listen with I think it’s probably a bit of fascination that other people probably would not have because it just fascinates me sometimes the way - how open people are. There’s definitely some jealousy there. Because this is a part of their life that they are, many of them are fully enjoying, or so they’re telling me, and I don’t get to enjoy that part of it, at this point in my life.
AS: Yeah. You’re curious.
Marie: I am. I definitely am.
AS: Do you think people assume that you have a ton of sex?
Mike: Oh yeah. They just think everything is like threesome orgy heaven I’m living in. And nobody believes me.
Mike wrote in from Michigan.
Mike: I’m in a happily married relationship that turned into a triad with our girlfriend at the time. We sleep all next to each other every night. We eat dinner together. Unfortunately the relationship had a breakdown and sex is the - the issue that we always seem to fight over.
AS: So it’s you and your wife and your girlfriend. And when you opened up your marriage and brought this other woman into your relationship, was it sexual at first? Was it primarily a sexual reason?
Mike: Well, not so much for me. You know, my wife, she enjoyed being with women, so honestly when we started talking about it, you know, I - I was excited, you know? The whole idea of being able to be with two women, you know, it’s supposed to be the ideal fantasy for a guy, you know. While it started off that way, unfortunately, you know, once my wife and my girlfriend - they got in an argument one time, and after that they have refused to be sexual with each other. And then they became jealous of any encounters we had -- me and my wife or me and my girlfriend -- to the point where they’d get physical. They’d fight. And like I say, it just became easier not to.
AS: How long’s it been since you’ve had sex?
Mike: Well, I think maybe January 21st, 2014. That was the 10th anniversary of me meeting my wife. And I think there was one other night with my girlfriend.
AS: So it’s been about a year and a half.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. It’s something we don’t even bring up anymore. On my birthday, I brought it up and I - I started a huge fight.
AS: Do you miss sex?
Mike: Sometimes. But because we’ve been doing this for so long that I don’t even have the desire anymore. I feel like it’s Pavlovian (laughs).
Mike: I - I’ve touched the - I’ve gotten shocked so many times. I feel like conditioned.
AS: Yeah. Have you ever thought about breaking up?
Mike: It’s - it’s hard, because we made a life together. I mean, there are a million married couples out there right now who do - do not have sex anymore, and they stay together because they have a life together. Just because there’s three of us doesn’t mean we don’t have a life, that this isn’t a family. I - I - about eight months ago I broke out in shingles, and neither of them had had chickenpox and they were still there with rubber gloves on, rubbing the - the ointment we got on ‘em.
AS: Taking care of you. Yeah.
Mike: They do, they take care of me. And - and even though they are jealous of each other, they love each other. To see - to see the everyday acts of devotion, I mean, that’s something that, you know, I still smile. Don’t get me wrong, there’s sometimes, you know, it’s an issue. You know, the issue comes up. But honestly I prefer to avoid - we avoid the subject. It’s - it’s just not even something we talk about anymore.
So, when your sex life breaks down, sometimes your communication goes with it. But other times, not doing it requires A LOT of talking.
Vanessa: I believe that sex was created to be used to glorify God in marriage.
Vanessa’s in her early 20s. She lives in Canada. And she and her boyfriend have been together for about a year and half. They’re both Christians and both want to wait until marriage. But it hasn’t always been easy.
Vanessa: We sometimes are like, okay. Like, we just need to step away from each other. And even like not sitting on the same couch. Like, sometimes we’ll just wave from across.
AS: Do you find -- is one of you the enforcer more often than the other?
Vanessa: You know, I think that in relationships you would assume that the girl is more of the enforcer. But I think that it’s really equal between us. And that we are both - we kind of take turns being like the bad cop in a way. Because it is a difficult thing. And when you, like, love someone and you want to be with them and, like, give to them as like a partner, then it’s a difficult struggle because it’s not just like, oh, I don’t want to have sex before I’m married, it’s that like, there’s something that I want to give you that I can’t right now.
AS: How did you decide what level of intimacy was okay?
Vanessa: It’s been an - like a journey through that. Originally we talked and we had a super awkward conversation where we laid out everything basically that could be appropriate and everything that wasn’t. And what I really appreciate about our relationship was that wasn’t like a hard and fast rule, but it’s been a moving conversation since then. And if we feel that something isn’t working, then we’re gonna take it out.
AS: What is something that you’ve - you’ve thought might be okay and then realized, actually we need to tighten the boundaries on this?
Vanessa: Um, like sitting on his lap while we’re making out. Like, that’s an issue that we’ve gone back and forth about maybe three or four times.
AS: What’s your current position on that?
Vanessa: I think currently we’re okay with it.
AS: Uh huh.
Vanessa: But subject to change (laughs).
Daphne got married when she was 28. And she also didn't have sex until after she was married. But, for her, it wasn’t for religious reasons.
AS: How long have you been with your husband?
Daphne: We’ve been married about five and a half years.
AS: So, when you started dating your husband, when you were - when you were just beginning your relationship, how did you talk about sex?
Daphne: Well, basically we didn’t. (Laughs) You know, we did kind of fool around. But we never progressed to intercourse. He kind of tried to one night, and I just told him I wasn’t ready and he never tried again. And, you know, time just kind of progressed.
AS: And when did you have sex?
Daphne: About...five months ago.
AS: So, after about five years of marriage?
AS: What happened between when you got married and - and when you had sex?
Daphne: I would say, a lot of crying. A lot of fighting. (Laughs) A lot of therapy. Basically, I was raised with a sexual education that kind of revolved around the idea of, just don’t have any. I was raised with a lot of fear surrounding pregnancy, like if you get pregnant and you’re not married it’s going to ruin your life. I think part of me was worried about, you know, anticipation of pain. So, that kind of put a big block there, and even though I was in a relationship and wanted to, there seemed to be a lot of kind of psychological effects and some physical effects from that, that kind of made it not happen.
AS: When - when you were married for first a year, and then two years, and then three years, and then four years without having sex, did it - did it feel like your marriage was ever in jeopardy?
Daphne: I definitely felt that way on my side. I’ve - I’ve discussed those feelings with my husband and I don’t believe he experienced it in that way, but for me, I definitely was like if I don’t - if I don’t fix this soon he’s going to get fed up and leave me.
AS: What have you learned from your therapy?
Daphne: Oh man (laughs). What haven’t I learned, really (laughs)? Um, I think a large part of it really comes down to not just physical intimacy but real emotional intimacy with somebody. Because even when we would do kind of, you know, exercises from our therapist dealing with the more physical aspect, the root of it all really came down to just building that sense of trust with each other that I think was finally able to lay the groundwork for it to happen.
AS: What was sex like?
Daphne: It - it was, it was great (laughs). My - my therapist had kind of told us, you know, I feel like you’ve built up a lot of momentum. So, go home this week. Try it. Don’t worry about having orgasms. Don’t worry about it being mind-blowing sex. Just try insertion. And when we were in bed and I was about to try, I had a very conscious moment of just fear of, oh god, am I really going to do this? Am I really ready? And then, another side of was like, hell yes, you’re ready! Like stop worrying and analyzing about being ready and just do it already! So I did, and it was - it was fun! And I would say I was actually surprised by how not shaken I was by it. It was definitely a load off.
AS: Has having sex made you experience desire in a more intense way?
Daphne: I would say, yes. Yeah. Which I think sometimes takes my husband aback a little bit (laughs). He’s a little shy, so I think me all of a sudden being very interested in sex and pursuing him can sometimes feel a little shocking for him, maybe.
AS: Yeah. But you’re tapping into something now.
Daphne: Right. We kind of - we kind of had a laugh about it in those first few weeks after we finally did it. I was, you know, really flirting with him a lot. One night he came home and I jokingly, you know, pushed him against the wall and kind of melodramatically ripped his - like the top button of his shift came off and flew across the room. And he was just like, whoa, take it easy (laughs). You know. So then you’re back on the merry-go-round of, oh I’m rejected. Oh no, I’m wasn’t rejecting you, I was just surprised.
Daphne: That’s where the therapy kicks in. You bounce back a lot faster than we would have five years ago.
AS: That’s the story of many, many a marriage, right there.
Thank you for sharing your stories, and a special shout-out to those of you not having sex, with someone else.
Alvy Singer: Hey, don't knock masturbation! It's sex with someone I love.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC. The team includes Katie Bishop, Emily Botein, James Ramsay, Destry Sibley and Andrew Dunn.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney. And if you like the show, please leave us a review on iTunes!
And Daphne says she and her husband are talking about starting a family, and yes, they’re having sex pretty regularly.
Daphne: I have a hard time seeing anything that would get in our way now. Get back to me whenever we have like a week-old newborn (laughs).
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.