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Karley Sciortino

Karley Sciortino: ‘Sexual freedom in this time has less sex appeal’

The Slutever creator discusses how relationships are changing in lockdown, chaotic virtual sex parties, and her new podcast Love in Quarantine

“There’s a version of this where everyone gets out of lockdown as the sluttiest versions of themselves,” says Karley Sciortino over Zoom, her face lit up by the morning sun of her LA apartment as she muses on coronavirus’ impact on the future of sex and relationships. “But I’d predict the other way around, where people are more reticent and are searching for stability, and the value of relationships has a higher currency.”

The Slutever creator, writer, and Vogue columnist explores the potentials of a new sexual landscape in her just-launched podcast, Love in Quarantine. While some are locked down with their partners – Sciortino included – others are enduring a period of involuntary celibacy, or experimenting with dating digitally. Mainstream porn and OnlyFans consumption has skyrocketed, and as people get frustratingly horny, they’re getting creative with solo sex. We’ve seen a rise in virtual sex parties and even a drive-thru strip club, as people change how they date, create, and masturbate.  

“I find it interesting to see people who are single that are dating without having sex,” Sciortino continues. “I’m of a generation where we don’t have the experience of longtime courtship and getting to fall in love without having sex.”

In Love in Quarantine, Sciortino unpacks all of it: long-distance quarantines, domesticity’s impact on sexual desire, the vulnerability of virtual dates. “I wanted to know how other people were (maintaining sensuality),” Sciortino explains, “and even if they weren’t successful at it, to feel solidarity in hearing about other people’s struggles, thoughts, curiosities, and attempted solutions.” 

In an hour between virtual kickboxing – which Sciortino says “is so ridiculous because I’m just fully kicking and punching air with weights on my arms” – cooking, and peeping in at some online orgies, Sciortino joined Dazed on Zoom.

How are you finding lockdown?

Karley Sciortino: Everyone keeps saying it’s an emotional rollercoaster, but I do really feel like that. I wake up some days and I’m like, ‘I’m ready to take on the day’, then within two hours I’m crying on the phone. Then another two hours later, I’m making the most complicated meal of my life!

You discuss these ups and downs on episode three. How are you kind to yourself?

Karley Sciortino: I’ve been trying to do the things that I know make me feel good, which I guess in a lot of ways are very generic, like exercise. I’ve been kickboxing for about a year, and (when we went into lockdown) I was like, ‘that’s sad because I’m probably going to be really crap at it when I go back’. Then I started seeing my kickboxing trainer on Zoom, which is actually a really good workout. It also has the plus of making me feel completely ridiculous, which I think is good during this time.

I’ve also been trying to keep a schedule, to stop from wandering into the abyss. Something that feels really bad at the moment is that feeling of pervasive, almost ubiquitous uncertainty – if I can do anything to structure what would otherwise be chaos, I find I have an uptake in my mental health.

“I wanted to find out: how does one’s sexuality persist and feel full, represented, and addressed during this time when a lot of us are feeling bad about the world and ourselves?” – Karley Sciortino

What led you to create Love in Quarantine?

Karley Sciortino: I have multiple reasons for starting it. The first one, I have to admit, is not the most journalistically-sound – I had some things I was working on before quarantine which then exploded, so I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands and was like, ‘what should I do to stay away from craziness?’. 

Also, I’ve loved talking to people about sex and relationships for a very long time. I wanted to find out: how does one’s sexuality persist and feel full, represented, and addressed during this time when a lot of us are feeling bad about the world and ourselves? When we’re not getting dressed, putting on make-up, going out, and feeling the sexual energy of the world – when we’re feeling too anxious to have sex, basically. I wanted to know how other people were doing that, and even if they weren’t successful at it, to feel solidarity in hearing about other people’s struggles, thoughts, curiosities, and attempted solutions.

How did you decide on the guests you had on?

Karley Sciortino: I wanted to be representative of all the different situations: people who are quarantined with their kids; people who are alone and lonely. I spoke to a woman who has been going on a lot of virtual dates; I’ve also been talking to researchers who are looking into what’s going on with sex and relationships right now, and anthropologists who can give us context on what this means in relation to similar events in history, and the lasting effects those had on sexuality, relationships, marriage, and birth rate. 

I’ve talked to a couple in London – one of them was a healthcare worker and another had just lost her job, and we spoke about what that does to your sex life. All these stories are so personal and unique that it really feels like an endless topic that a lot of people are struggling with, and want to know they’re not alone in.

I realised the other day that I’ve gone eight weeks without touching anyone except my boyfriend – it can be quite jarring to think this way.

Karley Sciortino: Yeah! There’s a lot of research which shows that not touching anybody for a long period of time is really detrimental to your mental health. That’s something that people are struggling with under normal circumstances – if you’re single and lonely, you can normally seek out touch in a variety of different ways, whether that be asking a friend for a long hug or getting a massage. Now that people don’t have those outlets, I think that’s really hard, but thank god for technology.

One way people have been connecting through technology is via virtual sex parties. What are they like, for the uninitiated?

Karley Sciortino: Yes, I am one of the many people who went to a virtual sex party in quarantine. Applaud! (Laughs). It was really fun! Sex parties aren’t really my thing because I’m not an exhibitionist – I went to one once and got way too drunk because I was nervous, then threw up on myself, which is literally the least sexy thing that could ever happen at a sex party… or anywhere else! The virtual sex party was a lot different than I expected, and was way more approachable for someone who’s too scared, nervous, or jealous to go to one in person. The one I went to was hosted by sex-positive organisation NSFW, and you don’t actually have to show your face – you can be a voyeur, anonymous.

There were a lot of different demonstrations – there was a live guided masturbation at one point, which sounds zen but was actually extremely funny because it’s just people trying to masturbate and dropping their phones. The whole thing felt kind of chaotic, but really friendly. At one point, the camera highlighted a couple who were just smoking a bong, and they were like, ‘oops, sorry’. From a lot of people I’ve talked to who have organised or been to these virtual sex parties, they think this will persist even after quarantine.

“I do think courtship, delayed gratification, yearning for someone and being yearned for are all valid experiences, fun, and meaningful. I think that this might actually be something that persists after this period of time” – Karley Sciortino

A few people I’ve spoken to have said the virtual events are a nice way to participate without having to fully be there – you can just dip your toes into the sex party world.

Karley Sciortino: Totally! Something else that’s really important in terms of sex and relationships right now is to add novelty in some way. I interviewed Dr Justin Lehmiller from the Kinsey Institute, who’s doing research on how sex and relationships are currently changing. He says that most people are recording having less sex and are less sexually connected to themselves and their partners, but there are also some people who have a higher libido. They’re finding ways to bring novelty into their sex lives – it focuses you and makes you forget about the world we’re in right now. 

What surprised you during the process of making the podcast?

Karley Sciortino: People have been finding creative ways to connect – there’s virtual strip clubs on Instagram Live, where people are tipping strippers to their Venmo. I interviewed a sex worker who’s been doing sessions on Zoom – she said that her clients are looking more for emotional support at this time, as opposed to sexual kicks. The fact that people are going on these virtual dates and having virtual sex shows that we are really resilient and adaptable, and it makes me think that everything is going to be OK.

What have you learned about sex and relationships during this time, and how do you think it might be different post-coronavirus?

Karley Sciortino: Something I think is so interesting is that people who are single are dating without having sex. I’m of a generation where we don’t have the experience of longtime courtship and getting to fall in love without having sex. In a lot of ways, the fact that we’re able to do that shows a lot of social and cultural progress – this is a time when women living in the West can have casual sex and not worry greatly about being slut-shamed. That’s a massive gain, and yet I think it would be naive to say that having gained that doesn’t mean we’ve haven’t lost something. I do think courtship, delayed gratification, yearning for someone and being yearned for are all valid experiences, fun, and meaningful. I think that this might actually be something that persists after this period of time.

When this is over, it will be really interesting to see what changes in terms of people’s sexual behaviour. There’s a version of this where everyone gets out of lockdown as the sluttiest versions of themselves, and there’s this sexual revolution where people are just sleeping around and cheating on their partners. But I’d predict the other way around, where people are more reticent and are searching for stability, and the value of relationships has a higher currency. Sexual freedom in this time has a little less sex appeal – certain people want support, they want empathy, and I think to have that shift over the course of a couple of months is incredible. I can’t think of any other circumstance in which that would happen other than a massive global catastrophe.

Love in Quarantine is out now, with new episodes available every Thursday