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Will the climate crisis affect our sex lives?

Global warming is having an impact on every aspect of our lives – including the way we have sex

This article is part of our Future of Sex season  a series of features investigating the future of sex, relationships, dating, sex work and sex worker rights; tech; taboos; and the next socio-political sexual frontiers.

It was the early hours of what would become the hottest day to have ever been recorded in the UK and, wearing nothing but a pair of pink mesh pants, I felt remarkably unsexy. Sweating into the sofa as my partner slept in the room next door, I found myself mulling over the extreme weather. How was it affecting the dynamics of my relationship? And what would intimacy look like in a world with rising temperatures?

Unlike nearby Mediterranean countries, Britain is simply not built to withstand heat. Both Victorian-era and new-build homes are built with excessive glazing and little ventilation, while our steel railways – some of the oldest in the world – expand and buckle as temperatures hit 40C. With urban parks on the decline and many roads built without shading, cities in the UK are prone to extreme heat, a concept known as “urban heat island effect”. This means that when temperatures soar, every aspect of our lives is disrupted: from our mental cognition to our mobility, and even, it seems, to our ability to have sex. 

“I didn’t feel sexual at all,” 25-year-old Doug* tells me, reflecting on the UK’s record-breaking heatwave. “At night time, my boyfriend and I will usually cuddle for a bit before we go to sleep. This time when he put his hand on me, I was like: ‘get the fuck off.’”

“It’s weird because I’ve been to really hot places, and I remember feeling really sexy there and having a lot of sex,” he recalls. “I think I was just getting in my head about how hot it was going to get, freaking out about how much [water] I should drink, and trying not to exert myself.”

According to Harvard Medical School, having sex is regarded as a ‘mild to moderate’ physical activity, about the same intensity level as raking leaves or playing ping pong. But in the sweltering heat, even the most gentle movements can feel tiresome. During the 2018 heat wave in Colombia, Julio Salas, health secretary of the coastal city of Santa Mara, cautioned residents against having sex, “because this activity places physical demands on you and increases your heart rate”. So if scorching summers are going to become more common in Britain, will our sex lives pay the price?

Temperature and birth rate data clearly point towards the interconnection between sex and seasonality. In 2015, three economists found that on days when the temperature soared above 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the US, there were 0.4 per cent fewer births nine months later. As well as potentially influencing “coital frequency”, worryingly, the researchers found evidence that hot weather actually harms fertility too, and warned that “increased temperatures due to climate change may reduce population growth rates in the coming century.” The research also tracks with conception rates in the UK, where more babies are conceived around Christmas than at any other time of the year.

“Sunlight, and time spent in it, causes an increased release of a feel-good chemical called serotonin. When we feel happy, we’re more likely to be open to or initiate sexual activity” – Anabelle Knight

It’s not just our romantic connotations of snowy nights and fire-places (à la The Holiday) that might inspire us to buckle down with a romantic partner in colder months. In his book, Heartwarming: How Our Inner Thermostat Made Us Human, social psychologist Hans Rocha Ijzerman suggests that we seek the warmth of others in order to regulate our own body temperatures just like penguins do.

“It is obvious we don’t rely on ‘huddling’ as much anymore as other animals do,” Ijzerman tells Dazed. “[Yet] the ubiquitous presence of modern tools to regulate our temperature – central heaters, air-conditioning, clothes – are, evolutionarily speaking, very recent developments.” He adds that in 19th century France and Ireland, it would not be unusual for nine people to sleep in one bed to stay warm.

While sweat-drenched sex might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, science may explain why hot weather may make us hornier. “Sunlight, and time spent in it, causes an increased release of a feel-good chemical called serotonin,” Anabelle Knight, Lovehoney’s resident sex and relationship expert tells Dazed. “When we feel happy, we’re more likely to be open to or initiate sexual activity. We also get vitamin D from the sun and it’s known that healthy levels of vitamin D are linked to higher sex drives and healthy sexual function.”

With arid parks and melting roads, though, July’s heatwave was giving ‘apocalypse’ more than ‘steamy summer’. As much as it can be tempting to lose ourselves in nihilistic pleasure, the health risks of blazing heat shouldn’t be understated: during the 2003 heatwave in France, there were close to 15,000 excess deaths. “Thermoregulation is remarkably asymmetrical,” Ijzerman explains. “When temperatures drop, we can rely on others to help regulate our temperature. When temperatures go up, we need to act immediately, because it can be immediately dangerous.” 

It’s always worth considering how our own actions are contributing to global warming – even, Knight suggests, within our sex lives. “When it comes to sex essentials, make sure you opt for eco brands that use less plastic and have a more environmentally friendly business model”, she suggests. “You can also make a difference when shopping for sex toys, lingerie, and bedroom accessories by opting for products with a kinder footprint”.

As extreme heatwaves are predicted to become the norm in the UK, our sex lives are set to undergo a radical transformation. It’s time for our governments and institutions to make long-term plans to address the climate crisis head-on – investing in air con and vegan lube will only get us so far.

*Names have been changed

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