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sex and death

What Climate Change Is Doing to Our Sex Lives

How will our hotter world affect our intimacy?

When the fires from Canada blanketed New York City in smoke last month, my partner and I tried to have sex in the early evening. But the terrible air quality outside made us shallow-breathed and racked by coughing fits in the orange light. Our lungs have been the subject of much neurosis for the last three years in a pandemic deeply intertwined with climate change, and when we finally caught the virus eight months before the smoke came, we each developed a cough that wouldn’t leave us.

“Every generation thinks the world is ending,” my friend’s dad had told us months before, as we ate sweet corn cakes on an unseasonably warm spring night, “but you guys might be right.” 

In climate change, we face an unimaginable threat to humanity. As humans do, however, we’re living through it: We’re working, we’re cooking dinner, we’re seeing friends, and we’re having sex. But sex is changing. Birth rates are down, and some people who are forgoing parenthood cite climate change as a factor

“Existential dread around the climate becomes one of many factors that are playing into the way that people imagine themselves and their possibilities in the world—and also the way that it affects their mental health. And that affects sexuality,” said Meehan Crist, writer in residence in biological sciences at Columbia University, who has written and researched extensively about what she calls “the most intimate and irrational thing that people can do together”—have a child—amid climate change. 

“Class, race, religion, geographical location, histories of abuse, economic precarity—all of these things play into these discussions which have very different flavors for different people in different contexts,” Crist told me. “Based on, for example, race or class, people have different levels of risk and therefore different levels of fear about what the future might be.”

There is alarming evidence that climate change both directly and indirectly impacts our sexual health, including due to increased gender-based violence or disruptions in sexual or reproductive services because of extreme weather. There also exists a body of writing on the logistics of climate change and sex: It’s getting hotter, so sex might become a more uncomfortable, sweatier affair. But a thornier question, perhaps, is to ask how intimacy is changing in the face of impending doom. How is desire affected when the world as we know it seems to be ending in front of our eyes? 

In 1953, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his inauguration speech. “Forces of good and evil are massed and armed and opposed as rarely before in history,” he said. “Freedom is pitted against slavery; lightness against the dark.”

Eisenhower was taking power just a few years after the country was thrust headfirst into the Cold War. Over the following decades, fear of the bomb was ever present, creating a widespread and persistent apocalyptic obsession in American society—perhaps the closest cultural analogy to what we’re seeing now with the climate crisis. 

Citizens routinely participated in “duck and cover” drills and were told to stay away from the windows in the event of a nuclear attack. The U.S. government promoted  building home fallout shelters; television programs profiled luxurious homes with deluxe nuclear survival capabilities. The 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb satirized American nuclear fears of the previous years—and earned an armful of awards—while the bestselling 1962 novel Fail-Safe capitalized on the fear of nuclear extinction that had been building for the past decade. 

The fear of nuclear war ran through political rhetoric as well. “Daisy” is one of the most recognizable political ads in American history; its focus on the bomb helped secure Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 presidential victory over Barry Goldwater. The ad showed a 3-year-old girl in a New York City park counting petals on a daisy, then cut abruptly to a mushroom cloud. “These are the stakes!” Johnson intoned in a voiceover. “To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”

This era of doom collided with a surprising sense of sexual liberation. The post–World War II era in the United States is often thought of a conservative, prudish time, but historian Joanne Meyerowitz makes a convincing case for a slightly more liberal view in her contributed chapter in Karen Hagemann and Sonya Michel’s Gender and the Long Postwar: Reconsiderations of the United States and the Two Germanys, 1945–1989.

On one side, sexual conservatives found allies among psychologists and psychoanalysts who defined “normal” and “abnormal” sexual behavior. “Various experts and their popularizers cast gay men, lesbians, unwed mothers, and other women who had sex outside of marriage as psychically damaged individuals who could, in turn, harm others,” Meyerowitz writes. The state took an active role in curtailing non-normative sexuality, giving in to the “lavender scare”—a moral panic about queer people working in government service. Beginning with President Eisenhower’s administration, the U.S. government outed and fired thousands of gay federal employees. State and federal governments also moved to legislate aggressively against abortion and enacted obscenity laws to police sexual activity. There was a specific, gruesome preoccupation with the sexuality of people of color, and the state made efforts to constrain their intimate activities amid a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. 

On the other side, sexual liberalism was seeping into the culture. Take Alfred Kinsey’s bestselling 1948 and 1953 reports on American sexual behavior—especially nonmarital, non-procreative sex—or the ways that sexual content started appearing in popular culture. The 1950s saw the first issues of Playboy and Duke. There were gay bars—albeit existing under the threat of police raids. A sexual tourism industry was established by the 1950s: “Las Vegas had a risqué allure, while outside the borders, Tijuana and Havana capitalized on a prevalent racialized sexual stereotype of hot-blooded Latins,” Meyerowitz writes. “For the gay niche market, there were other well-known vacation spots: outside New York and Boston, middle- and upper-class gays expanded their space for summer escapades to Fire Island and Provincetown, which became known as gay vacation enclaves.”

In 1948, California overturned its ban on interracial marriage, and six other Western states followed suit over the next decade. In 1961, following a recommendation from the American Law Institute, Illinois became the first state to repeal its sodomy law

It was a nation caught between two competing ideas, Meyerowitz writes: the notion that “‘containment’ of sex [is] bad and damaging to the individual and the nation”—and that repression is a necessary constraint to maintain the county’s survival.

Birth rates are an incomplete measure of sexuality, but it’s impossible to ignore the staggering 76.4 million births of the Baby Boom, which lasted from 1946 to 1964. At the very least, we can say that people were having more babies than in decades prior: 1935 to 1945 saw 27.2 million births

There are indications that the threat of the bomb contributed to that accelerated growth. In a paper determining if proximity to Cuba and military outposts impacted reproductive behavior during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—largely thought to be the closest America had ever come to nuclear war—researchers Paul A. Raschky and Liang Choon Wang found that fertility rates were generally higher in areas closer to danger, where death felt especially imminent. “The findings suggest that individuals discount [the] future heavily and indulge in reproductive behavior when facing high-level mortality risks, but decrease fertility when facing a high probability of surviving a mega catastrophe,” they wrote. 

Looking beyond birth rates, Kinsey’s findings indicate that non-procreative sex was the activity of many more Americans than we might assume. Under the threat of the bomb, the nation, it turns out, was having sex for pleasure and engaging in what would be deemed non-normative activities: masturbation, premarital or extramarital sex, queer sex, and desires, wants, and kinks that pushed through impending doom.

While nuclear war and the creeping impacts of climate change represent a mainstreaming of doom, certain populations have lived under existential threats like these for centuries. Babies were born in the ghettos of Poland when Jews faced Hitler’s Final Solution. They are born in Palestine and Beirut and in American cities with militarized police forces that disproportionately target Black residents. People have sex during war, in concentration camps, and in other untenable circumstances. 

Consider the peak of the AIDS crisis in America—when an apocalyptic threat loomed for some Americans but was soundly ignored by the mainstream. Early reports of mysterious symptoms in small populations of gay men emerged in 1981; by the end of that year, 130 of the 337 people with reported cases in the U.S. had died. Congress would not approve dedicated funding for research and treatment until 1983. President Reagan did not publicly mention the existence of AIDS until September 1985, after the country had reached 12,000 cases and nearly 6,000 deaths

At a demonstration in Albany, New York, in May 1988, activist Vito Russo delivered an impassioned speech about the reality of the epidemic. “Living with AIDS in this country is like living in the twilight zone,” Russo said. “Living with AIDS is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices.… Only you can hear the screams of the people who are dying and their cries for help.”

The cultural silence around HIV/AIDS might explain why there were seemingly two understandings of sexuality of gay men during that time: one for a mainstream, straight audience and one for within the gay community, said Therese Jones, a health humanities scholar retired from the University of Colorado.

Jones studied the cultural artifacts of the AIDS crisis as it related to gay men in her book Sharing the Delirium. Published in 1994, the collection of plays written during and about the AIDS crisis traces attitudes about sex of queer men. Plays were a critical source of study and recording: Due to the absence of medical or mainstream political action at the height of the crisis, “plays began to fill in the gap” in the understanding of the virus, Jones said. “Nobody knew what the hell was going on.” (Jones points out that her book is an incomplete record: The playwrights featured are all white.)

At the beginning of the crisis, depictions of sex were muted. The seminal 1991 play Angels in America, while radical for its epic format, didn’t focus on radical sexuality. It’s not surprising: “Everyone was afraid of sex,” Jones said.

But Jones told me that as the crisis raged, work in West Coast experimental theaters became more explicit and revealed attitudes about sex aimed at a queer audience. “It seemed like one of the ways in which people were understanding and coping and expressing their sexuality at that time was not denial but almost in celebration—in defiance of what was going on,” she says. 

The AIDS crisis isn’t over. Black women were—and continue to be—disproportionately impacted. In the late 1990s, Black women accounted for 60 percent of new HIV diagnoses among women. In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that two-thirds of transgender Black women surveyed in seven major U.S. cities reported having HIV.

In 1998, Rhodessa Jones, a scholar, writer, and actor, published a piece of experimental theater called Deep in the Night. In a series of monologues, Jones interviewed and culled together stories from a number of Black women living with HIV. Deep in the Night reveals desire—for sex and for romantic connection but also a desire to be seen and understood.  

Stella, one of the characters, tells a story of sleeping with a man she cares about and not disclosing her HIV+ status. Afterward, she’s afraid to tell him, but her partner is accepting. In the final moment of her monologue, she declares that she will survive the crisis. “I want somebody to love me for me,” she says. These characters reveal a deeply human reality—that even during an existential threat, even when intimacy is so deeply tied to that threat, humans want to live their sexualities—to be touched and seen. 

In the last decade, humans have come face to face with a new existential threat—one that will, with varying degrees, impact all of us on earth.

Orna Guralnik, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst at the NYU Postdoctoral Institute for Psychoanalysis and the National Institute for the Psychotherapies—who also appears on the Showtime documentary series Couples Therapy—said that the climate crisis is showing up in her sessions with clients, with both the couples and the individuals she treats. Guralnik told me that she sees a few different reactions: “Some people—because of this sense of foreshortened future—move into the relationship as their place to go. Forget about the future, forget about kids, forget about anything. It’s just like: now, now, now, now. And then there’s a lot of interest in sex.” 

But others are more “outwardly focused,” Guralnik said. There’s “listlessness and confusion about purpose” that can lead to a “loss of interest in sex and people not understanding what is the purpose of their relationship.”

There are generational factors at play too. Zoomers are having less sex than the generations that came before them, causing a cultural panic among some factions of their parents and elders. But who could blame Gen Z? 

“Younger generations feel really abandoned by older people, the government, all these authoritarian establishments,” Guralnik said. “They feel like they have to figure out life on their own.” 

When the world has failed your entire species, what pleasure is there to find? Or perhaps a better question is this: “What does it mean for people to not feel like they have a future?” Guralnik asked me. “It’s kind of an unbelievable thing. We know that that’s a thing that’s part of the human condition—that people face finality.” But now, Guralnik noted, we’re talking about a collective end.

There are changes to sexuality under the specter of mass extinction. As we saw decades ago under the threat of the bomb, what was formerly transgressive becomes mainstream. In the modern era, Guralnik sees a rise in alternative approaches to partnership—various versions of non-monogamy—as deeply connected to climate change. “There’s loss of faith and loss of trust in older structures, a loss of faith in capitalism, in the way to negotiate everything,” she said. “Then there’s finding other ways, other kinship structures. That’s a response to a very different kind of future that nobody can really imagine.”

But on the flip side, we’re also seeing a rise in a sexually and politically conservative ethos, one embedded in the hyper-individualistic conservatism that dominates much of American culture, Guralnik said—much like the government’s policing of sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s. The surge of apocalypse “preppers” as a cultural ideal, the ultrawealthy readying their luxury bunkers, the technocrats buying private islands and 20-year supplies—those are also connected to our collective impending sense of doom. 

Some people will survive climate change—the rich, the white, the people wealthy enough to stock supplies and build shelters. They will have sex in air-conditioned rooms, while others suffer outside. “This makes me think of science fiction,” Therese Jones, the health humanities scholar, told me.

How will sex endure? Guralnik wondered if there will be an awakening: if the listless among us will stir to the reality of our numbered days and unleash desire.

When the world is ending outside your window, it’s hard to make something together in your tiny bedroom. As the Earth turns hotter and sea levels rise, one hopes that sex and intimacy will find a way through—as they have done before—and that desire will claw its way through smoke, dread, and heat.