35-year old Raja has been married for 11 years. Raja starts by talking about the advice of Doctor Rim Abdelmalek, the professor of infectious diseases who urged couples to no longer share the same bed in order to avoid contamination. « Follow her advice and we no longer have a right to do anything », Raja laughs. It’s not that she is sorry to no longer have a sexual life but that she considers this sort of restriction to be « inconceivable » between spouses. « Between household chores, the kids and depressing news on the television, it’s not sexual desire that I’m lacking », she says. The same could not be said for her 42-year old husband,—at least at the beginning of confinement. « In the beginning, it felt good to have more time together, with neither of us working and both feeling more relaxed. I took pleasure in cooking. He in seeing me more available for a sexual relationship. But little by little we grew bored. Me of cooking, him of sex. We’re just waiting for one thing: to resume our life before », she tells us.

« Fragments du vide » collection by Malek Khemiri, 2018-2020.

Closeness and isolation, double-edged swords

For psychiatrist, sexologist and couple’s therapist Olfa Dakhlaoui Belcadhi, confinement is composed of three phases which are « more or less the same as the General Adaptation Syndrome that constitutes an organism’s response to the aggression to which he is exposed (stressor). In this case, the health situation and confinement », she explains. Doctor Dakhlaoui Belcadhi elaborates:

In the beginning or alarm reaction stage, we can see an increase in sexual desire with an underlying anxiety about lacking sex. We strive in a certain sense to « stock up » as we do with food and other fundamental needs. In the resistance stage, we manage to establish strategies to adapt to this « new life » where sexuality can regain a certain balance. In the exhaustion stage, generally speaking adaptation capacities are exhausted and sexual problems can arise, notably a decrease in sexual desire.

« Fragments du vide » collection by Malek Khemiri, 2018-2020.

35-year old Mehdi is married and works in the agro-food sector. He describes long days which start with a stressful job that brings him into contact with others, and which are not over when he goes home at the end of the day. « I have a little girl and am expecting another child, so between my daughter crying, the fear of contaminating my pregnant wife and general stress, sex is not even on my mind at the moment ». Mehdi’s apartment is above his parents’ where the couple spends most of the evening. « My parent’s apartment is more spacious. My daughter is spoiled by everyone, I’m not the only taking care of her », he says, amused. « As with the period during the revolution, the whole family has come together: we cook and spend the evening together, it’s warmer, more comforting. We only go back to our apartment to sleep », he tells us.

For Doctor Dakhlaoui Belcadhi, « the effect of confinement on sexuality can differ: as much as it can be positive by offering more time and availability which are two essential factors for sexual desire, it can be negative by the state of stress it causes and becomes therefore a source of decreased sexual desire ». She adds that « Couples who are forced to live together in a small space, in physical proximity, might see their desire dampened. These effects also depend on life circumstances: lack of privacy, constant presence of children or other members of the family and lack of an appropriate space can make sex difficult ».

« Fragments du vide » collection by Malek Khemiri, 2018-2020.

Separated but close as before

For 28-year old Asma and her 30-year old husband, Covid-19 has provided an opportunity to rediscover one another. With jobs involving overseas travel, the couple has been forced to work from home. « We are reconnecting through a closeness that we had lost as a result of work », rejoices Ahmed. Since they don’t have children, the couple tries to get through the confinement with « little pleasures outside of work », they say. This means gardening, cooking, regarding a series or movie, and more sex. « We are like two friends. This is how we were before marriage. We’ve recovered this phase of our relationship. As for sexuality, we are both very open about the subject. There are no taboos between us », Ahmed tells us. For Asma, « it’s the pleasure of intimacy between lovers … this also allows us to decompress in the face of the stressful situation ».

« Fragments du vide » collection by Malek Khemiri, 2018-2020.

Dr. Dakhlaoui Belcadhi explains as much: « Sex allows us to release tension, and pleasure can have a calming, anti-anxiety effect so sought after in this type of situation ». In the same breath she notes that confinement does not make « miracles » since the nature of the relationship depends on the type of couple (cohesive, independent, friendly…), the quality of their relationship (understanding, harmony, communication, conflicts, violence, etc.) and their sex life prior to confinement. « Thus the capacity to adapt to confinement will be more or less easy, very difficult or even a source of aggravation for pre-existing problems ». She adds, « The confinement is an exceptional human experience that we must learn to confront. We can reinvent our life as a couple, think of it differently. In these circumstances, we can put aside conflicts and disagreements in favor of kindness, communication and affection. Despite imposed proximity, each person can try to maintain his personal space and time for himself, to maintain seduction and cultivate the erotic imagination which serve as a motor for sexual desire. Sexuality requires time, availability, creativity. Let’s be inventive! » the sexologist advocates.

« Fragments du vide » collection by Malek Khemiri, 2018-2020.

The porno craze

Confinement has also taken its toll on the intimacy of non-married couples. This is the case for 35-year old Amine. « I have a girlfriend. Before, I saw her from time to time. With the confinement, this is no longer possible. I’m not adventurous enough to risk being fined by police or being contaminated », he jokes. The young man indulges in solitary pleasures through porn: « I did this before, but now I do it more often », Amine admits. He doesn’t dismiss the factor of solitude in this increase of solitary pleasures. « When you no longer have a social life and are closed up alone all day at home, it’s even more stressful. To relax, you unwind however you can », he explains.

Like Amine, many seek refuge in porn. This has resulted in increased traffic on one of the most well-known platforms, the website Pornhub. « Worldwide traffic to Pornhub continues to be much higher than it was before the Coronavirus pandemic spread worldwide » wrote Pornhub on April 14. According to Pornhub’s statistics, the site saw a 25% peak in traffic on March 25, for example. explains that distance is « a test » for couples living forced abstinence.

For many people, sex is a connection, an attachment to the other, a form of love where feelings are not yet externalized. Forced physical distancing thus represents a threat for these individuals. Dr. Dakhlaoui Belcadhi

She recommends inventing other forms of exchange in order to sustain a connection, such as « dialogue, deep exchanges, speaking about intimacy, fantasies and potentially sharing a virtual sexuality through sextos, images or videos. I would also like to point out something important concerning this particular situation: the anxiety of losing the other, or of not being able to recover the intimacy shared before the confinement started ». To remedy this, she recommends « communication, exchanges, dialogue, strengthening the connection, feelings, frustrations, desires, imagining life together after the confinement ».

« Fragments du vide » collection by Malek Khemiri, 2018-2020.

Confinement’s collateral victims

Since the beginning of confinement, feminist associations sounded the alarm regarding the increased incidence of marital violence in Tunisia. This violence has come in different forms, among them marital rape. This insidious form of violence is harder to discern, even by the victim herself who internalizes it as being one of her marital duties. Thus Raja describes her husband’s incessant demands for sex as inevitable, though not without bitterness in her voice. « At some point, he becomes fed up. The whole day I take care of the kids, cook, clean and am stressed so I have neither the desire for nor take pleasure in sex. But he insists. So I let him. It’s his right after all », she says. Dr. Dakhlaoui Belcadhi warns about the perverse effects of all forms of violence, including non-consensual sex. « Unfortunately, confinement is an ideal situation for the aggressor to have complete control over his victim », she observes.

As alarming as marital rape is unprotected sex. In this context, several associations have pointed out « the abandoned support for front-line structures, including maternal health and neonatal consultations as well as contraception and abortion services, which is exacerbated by the closing of certain National Family and Population Bureau (ONFP) centers. The lack of protective material for personnel in structures that provide OB/GYN services in the public sector (with materials prioritized for structures dedicated to Covid-19 services), the absence of adequate information on the virus and protection procedures, the lack of communication concerning directives and measures to be taken (which didn’t reach all front-line personnel), have resulted in the refusal of services to women who show up for consultations. Statement published by the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats (ATFD).

The associations also warned about the risk of home births and that which follows in the context of a curfew. They recall that there are 210,000 births per year, almost one million or more prenatal visits and about 50% of women with recourse to family planning for contraception; and this in a situation also characterized by a decrease in the use of contraception, the refusal of certain public and private structures to practice abortion, and the recurring stock shortages of birth control pills, the morning-after pill and abortion medications.