Nobody’s saying it, so I will: I haven’t had sex in six months, and I am losing my mind. The mental health impacts of COVID-19 and associated long-term lockdowns are devastating.
Ever obedient, I stayed mostly inside until early July. I made the most of lockdown: plenty of Zoom catch-ups with friends, reading, writing, and work. But being inside, I stopped exercising, and my life became overwhelmingly sedentary. I felt this physically inactive lifestyle impact my sleep, diet, even hormones and mood. It wore me out. After three or four months, I had gained weight, and felt much weaker. Crises always compound, and as if COVID-19 wasn’t enough, now I’m stuck with body image issues, too.
Desperate to be outside and exercise, I temporarily moved to Park City, UT a few weeks ago. That was fantastic for lifting my spirits, and I feel better and healthier just getting some sunshine again.
But the loneliness remains. I don’t really know anyone in Utah, and though there are now lots of tech-people camping out here, this is the worst time imaginable for meeting new people in person, or getting included in their group activities when you haven’t been quarantining with them already.
As such, the lack of human contact is debilitating. I’ve been occasionally quarantining with friends, doing socially-distanced hangouts, etc. but I haven’t had a real hug in months, certainly not from a woman.
This is a real first for me. I’ve always been pretty physically active. Since becoming an adult, the longest I’ve gone without sex might have been three months? The longest without a hug or hanging out physically close in a group: maybe a few weeks? The longest without a light touch or shaking a hand: maybe a few days? Not only is there real psychological or physiological deprivation going on, this experience is especially jarring because it’s so new.
Tens of millions of people are going through similar difficulties right now. I wonder what the aggregate damage is. It is a well-established fact that loneliness is associated with a host of psychological and physiological issues, and generally raises morbidity. Now we have that en masse: millions of people are currently living lifestyles close to solitary confinement. I certainly have been feeling my mental health degrade as I itch for regular human contact again.
This, and the recent violence in Kenosha, has had me thinking about violent incels. People like Elliot Rodger, Kyle Rittenhouse, etc. are easy to mock. They are dweeby, entitled losers who can’t get laid and then take it out on the world. It’s very difficult to sympathize with them. Obviously there are many factors of social ostracization, isolation, and radicalization, but I feel like COVID-19 induced lockdowns has given me a small taste of part of their existence: just sitting around, not having in-person friends, and not having sex is terrible. If that is their existence for years-on-end, with added issues on top, then no wonder these guys completely lose it.
In turn, I worry that COVID-19 lockdowns, by the constraints they impose, will greatly grow the incel underclass. Millions of frustrated young men, stuck at home with nothing on their hands but doomscrolling in an unbelievably politically charged time? I couldn’t imagine a more lethal recipe for mass radicalization.
I don’t have a directly actionable conclusion to this piece. Tens of millions of people, myself included, are having their lives’ first real experiences with real isolation, and it’s awful. Learning from it, it is unsurprising – indeed, it seems inevitable – that incels act out the way they do, and I worry that lockdowns are adding millions to their numbers. In general, I’m worried that in the US, where lockdowns have been more severe, less successful, and much longer-lasting than elsewhere, we’ve created a recipe that is in practice only moderately effective for preventing spread of COVID-19, but at the same time is absolutely wrecking the mental health of those who follow them. Economics aside, is this cure worse than the disease? What are the second-order effects going to be? While I am certainly no COVID-19 denier, it’s nudging me to ask whether Sweden had the right approach after all.