"Recreational sex is a popular form of leisure that has been redefined by the COVID-19 pandemic." So begins a doleful April 23 study in the journal Leisure Sciences.
Just to clear up any confusion: "Redefinition" here means "decline." Of the 1,559 adults who were asked about their pandemic-era sex lives, nearly half said the once "popular form of leisure" had lost its luster for them.
This is, admittedly, just one data point. Still, any diminishment of libidos is a harbinger of something perilous. It speaks to the decline of the nation: in numbers, yes, but also physically, economically and even morally.
The study was conducted in April, but if you think the loosening of the coronavirus shutdown has rekindled desire, woe betide. Last week, experts advised the libidinous to wear masks, avoid kissing and refrain from facing one another during sex. The Mayo Clinic is emphatic that the safest sex these days is masturbation, adding helpfully: "You might also consider engaging in sexual activity with partners via text, photos or videos, ideally using an encrypted platform to provide privacy protection."
Right. What a year. Nothing says romance like surgical masks, no eye contact and encrypted digital platforms.
And that's not the only reason for pandemic abstinence. The Brookings Institution predicts a baby bust in 2021, with 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in the United States than in a usual year. Brookings puts this development down to economic hardship and existential insecurity. What can seem like a couple's idiosyncratic moods and choices, then, may be a direct result of President Donald Trump's ruinous response to the virus, and the many ways his government has refused to help the sick and suffering.
From stiffing overwhelmed states to ignoring the unemployed, who can no longer afford rent or groceries, the Trump administration seems actively intent on making Americans sicker and crushing our hope for recovery. None of this cruelty is an aphrodisiac.
If we can predict fewer than usual newborns in the U.S. in 2021, we can know for certain we will be missing a lot of already-borns by then. As I write this, more than 166,000 people have died of COVID-19, a figure the University of Washington estimates could be as high as 300,000 by Dec. 1. In New York in April, the death rate was six times higher than normal. It's anybody's guess how many will die before this thing "ends," a concept many now consider meaningless.
Older adults are in particular trouble. As of this week, according to Kaiser Health News data, some 40% of the nation's COVID-19 deaths have been linked to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
The U.S. isn't alone in its heart-sinking tally among the elderly. Public health officials in Europe, according to the New York Times, ignored warnings about the vulnerability of senior communities and went so far as to omit care-home residents from the mathematical models used to craft a response to COVID-19.
This dispiriting decline in births and rise in deaths will add to a centurylong slowing of the population growth rate in the U.S. That is, our numbers still increase year over year, but not our rate of growth, a slowdown furthered in the last four years by Trump's draconian and white-nationalist immigration policies. In 2019, before most of us had even heard the word "coronavirus," the Census Bureau announced that the nation's annual growth rate was at its lowest since the influenza pandemic of 1918. Slower even than during the Great Depression.
At least Americans won't reduce the population further by leaving these shores anytime soon, as much as we might want to escape. COVID-19 is so rampant here that most other nations won't allow Americans to cross their borders for a visit, let alone to immigrate.
In an investigation of deaths, births and migration in the Atlantic last month, Joe Pinsker concluded that, in 2020 at least, the U.S. population won't shrink. But if Trump is reelected, and if chaotic American public health policy (and politics) continue to aggravate the pandemic, 2021 could be the first year America's numbers hit that backward benchmark, a reckoning demographers weren't expecting until decades into the future.
When people take a chance on physical intimacy, they express faith in the future. When we raise children, take care of our elders and welcome strangers, we live out our nation's baseline moral commitments. The signs that America, under Trump, cannot care for itself — and maybe just doesn't care for itself — are too obvious to ignore.
Virginia Heffernan is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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