The planet’s getting hot, but that could mean things are getting less steamy in the bedroom.
The climate crisis has driven people to feel what some call “eco-anxiety,” or anxiety over the impending demise of the environment and all the ways people’s everyday activities contribute to it. It’s easy to surmise how these anxieties affect the way people eat, shop, or travel, but according to some experts, it also affects people’s romantic and sexual relationships.
A 2019 poll reported that almost 38 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 believe that couples should consider climate change when deciding to have children. Another poll from the previous year showed that about a third of American men and women aged 20 to 45 cited climate change as a factor in their decision to have fewer children.
“I have had several clients for whom eco-anxiety has been an issue, and it has affected several aspects of their relationships,” Laura Vowels, a relationship therapist with the sex therapy app Blueheart, told VICE.
Vowels added that eco-anxiety in particular can affect who people date (Is that person conscious of the environment?), where they date (Does the restaurant use sustainable ingredients?), how they have sex (What’s the most eco-friendly contraceptive?), and how they’ll have children (Should they adopt?), if they want to have children at all.
Carrie Nakpil, a 26-year-old based in Manila, Philippines, who hosts a podcast about sustainability and the environment, experiences these anxieties.
Nakpil has decided, for example, that she wants to have children, but she also wants to help save the world from the climate crisis. She knows the two don’t always go hand-in-hand.
One study found that having a child in a developed country contributes to roughly 58.6 extra tonnes of CO2 per year. The human population is already using more of the planet’s renewable resources than it can regenerate, and adding more people will only hasten that consumption.
“Increasingly, we’re seeing many people choosing not to have children either because of the environmental impact on the world or because their children may be faced with the repercussions of the climate crisis. The thought of getting pregnant may make couples fearful or even anxious during sex, and lead to lower sexual pleasure,” Vowels said.
Nakpil knows this firsthand. “It’s like this constant battle between knowing what’s good in the long run, in terms of the bigger picture, and my dream of having a family, and raising a family, and knowing the costs of my dreams. It gives me anxiety that what I want is in conflict with what I believe in.”
Some people find themselves adopting instead, as a way to avoid creating yet another person who would contribute to the world’s carbon footprint. But Vowels said that for some, contraceptives can be a source of eco-anxiety, too.
The United Nations Population Fund estimates that around 10 billion male latex condoms are manufactured every year, with most of these condoms ending up in landfills. These condoms can’t be recycled and typically contain additives and chemicals. Some condom brands claim to use sustainably-sourced and cruelty-free materials, but these are not always widely available.
While there are other contraceptive methods, like birth control pills and vasectomies, these don’t protect people from sexually transmitted diseases, so while they might be good options for couples in committed relationships, they may not be the best alternatives for people who have casual sex.
Vowels stressed that people should not risk their sexual health to avoid guilt over using condoms.
“If you don’t manage to get your hands on eco-friendly contraceptives, as long as you’re taking the most eco-conscious approach within other areas of your life, then rest assured that you’re doing as much as you can already,” she said. “It’s also much better, because the alternative is that you have a baby, which is much worse for the environment than one condom.”
For many people, deciding which contraceptives to use and the looming possibility of pregnancy can lead to even more stress and anxiety, which Vowels said are some of the biggest culprits to lower sex drives.
“If you’re anxious, it’s very difficult for you to focus on anything else because you’re preoccupied with your thoughts. If you’re experiencing the physical symptoms of your anxiety, then your body doesn’t have the place to go to to enjoy sexual experiences, or to even think about sex,” Vowels said.
There are, however, people for whom sex is an excellent stress reliever and coping mechanism for anxiety. For them, eco-anxiety may actually increase sex drives. Vowels explained that this may be especially true for people in committed relationships and are on some form of birth control, since they don’t have to worry about getting pregnant or using condoms to avoid STDs.
But even committed relationships aren’t out of eco-anxiety’s reach.
“Eco-anxiety can also affect the relationship between you and your partner. If one of you is more invested in taking action against climate change, and the other not so much, then this can cause friction within the relationship,” Vowels said.
She explained that the person who is more eco-conscious can end up feeling guilty for being with someone who isn’t doing as much for the environment, while the person who is less eco-conscious can end up resenting their partner for making them feel like they can’t fully live their lives without being shamed for its environmental impact.
“When you think about merging two people together in relationships, it’s already kind of complicated. But if you put that on top of how two people will navigate their way towards a greener future as a couple, that makes it harder,” Nakpil, who’s been with her boyfriend for four years, said.
For these couples, Vowels advised having open dialogue about their priorities, understanding each other’s points of view, and also accepting some level of difference with their partners, then deciding if that difference is something they can work around. Nakpil said that she and her boyfriend were able to find a middle ground.
“I can’t always have my way, which is that we’d be green all the time. That’s idealistic, but [my boyfriend] keeps me realistic. It’s nice that we meet each other in the middle so that the way we move forward considers both points of view,” said Nakpil.
Nakpil admits that it can still be difficult balancing her care of the environment with the realities of everyday life and relationships, but she’s eager to keep at it.
“At this point, I don’t know how to turn [my eco-consciousness] off, nor do I want to,” Nakpil said.
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