Sex and the City(wide Lockdown): Sex Education Panel at The Cambridge Union

Alice Byrne 17 October 2020
Image Credits: Sam Taylor / Netflix

How are we supposed to make meaningful, or even meaning-less connections during a pandemic? As we enter a new term, I’m sure that how COVID-19 is inhibiting our sex lives is on a lot of people’s minds right now. The Cambridge Union recently brought together a number of well-known ‘sexperts’ to answer some questions about how to explore ourselves and others at a time when our physical interactions are limited. Hannah Witton; award-winning sex and relationships Youtuber and author, Dr Anand Patel; GP based in inner London and co-host of The Pleasure Podcast, and Sarah Mulindwa; qualified nurse and star of Channel 4’s ‘The Sex Clinic’, all had a lot of valuable information about how we can navigate this pivotal obstacle to our sexual expression.

The panel members stressed throughout that even before the Coronavirus pandemic had begun, modern dating was already a world away from what older generations had experienced. Dr. Patel pointed out that swiping through dating apps and watching short porn videos online triggers the release of dopamine, a thrill-producing hormone, which is easy to become addicted to. Technology, therefore, has thrust us into a culture of instant gratification, and people now depend on the internet to explore their sexual whims.

The government has effectively banned casual sex, so how can students use technology for pleasure?

To get started, Witton recommended following a few sex-positive influencers on social media platforms like Instagram.  Seeing people speak openly about these issues is a great low-pressure way to start thinking about your sexuality and how to nurture your relationships. There’s a large number of influencers on offer, many who discuss the intersectional aspects of sex and body positivity, so it’s a good idea to search for people that you feel represent you best.

The prospect of self-isolation and reduced opportunities for casual encounters means a lot of people will want to access erotic or pornographic content online. Although Witton emphasised ethical porn and ‘paying for your porn’, she recognised it’s not a privilege everyone can afford, especially students. If you can’t manage that, she recommended sitting down in a moment when you’re not aroused, to be able to engage with what you think sits right with you in a more critical headspace. Mulindwa also advocated shopping online for sex toys and accessories to spice up solo sex sessions and recommended the online retailer Love Honey (which offers a 20% student discount!).

The panellists brought up dating apps as a great option to put yourself out there and make some connections with real people. However, Dr. Patel issued some gentle warnings to people who choose to take this route. He stressed that on a platform where appearance is all you see at first, you might tend to immediately apply your ‘love beliefs’ to the picture you see on screen. He bluntly stated that ‘they will ultimately fail’ your expectations. Furthermore, the experts highlighted the importance of putting a realistic portrayal of yourself out there. At a time when you might not be meeting people in real life, it’s still not such a good idea to present yourself online as something you’re not.

When you do find someone you want to build a more intimate relationship with, what’s next?

The panel advocated instigating a rendezvous through your phone. A romantic and less intense way to get to know someone suggested by the panellists was to set up a video call date. If you’re looking for something a bit more steamy, Dr. Patel likened ‘sexting’ to ‘having a pot constantly bubbling on the stove’; a great way to feel connected to your partner throughout the day. Phone sex sessions were also an activity eagerly recommended by everyone involved. According to Witton, phone sex isn’t a complicated science: ‘describe what you want to do, what you are doing, what you are going to do, and what has been done – it’s as simple as ‘I am doing “verb” to “body part”’.

For those making more temporary connections, Witton and her fellow panellists discussed the fact that this is a great time to experience rejection. As she pointed out, rejection gets easier every time it is experienced, and going through these processes and interactions from the safety of being behind a screen might provide a more secure environment to put yourself out there and tell someone how you feel. Dr. Patel also noted that this is a perfect opportunity to experiment and explore one’s sexuality. However remember that who you are ‘practising’ on is also a human being; so be careful with their feelings. As Mulindwa added, don’t ghost someone to avoid an awkward conversation! It’s better to hurt someone with the truth than to leave them hanging.

I had a chance to speak to Dr. Anand Patel and Sarah Mulindwa before the panel and asked them some questions about modern sex and relationships beyond the pandemic. Considering her background on Channel 4’s The Sex Clinic, I asked Mulindwa about TV shows about sex, citing her the example of Naked Attraction; I wanted to know if they can lean towards voyeurism and exploitation, or if she thinks they are actually a good way to keep the public informed. While she believes that her show is helpful for people to realise there are others who are going through the same problems, she stressed that concepts like Naked Attraction can be damaging as, like dating apps, they reduce everything down to appearance.

Dr. Patel works primarily with men’s health, so I asked about the ways in which he thinks toxic masculinity and the patriarchal nature of society can affect men as well as women. He remarked that the patriarchy ‘crushes men’s spirits’, inhibiting their ability to share homosocial intimacy, and used the example that men are typically ‘only allowed to hug on a football field’. In terms of sex education for boys and men, he said that men ‘need to learn their place’, and be taught how to behave and interact sexually, outside of what they learn from pornography.