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If you're not living together, is your love life now illegal?

As new lockdown rules make some love lives even more complicated, we look at love in the time of corona and what it means for our sex lives

Couple separated by wall
The government is set to introduce legal restrictions on couples from separate households from having sex Credit: Jac Depczyk/Getty Images

Before lockdown the most frequently asked question about adults’ love lives was, “How often do you have sex?” After nearly three months of isolation the only thing anyone wants to know is, “How long has it been since you’ve had sex?” The answer for the almost one in ten British adults who are in “live apart, together” (LAT) relationships – many of them mid-lifers, according to research by the University of Bradford earlier this year – the answer is a sobbing, “Far, far too long.”

A three-month sex hiatus is the point at which most relationship therapists believe a marriage is in trouble if one, or both, partners need intimacy. There’s also the cheering fact that good sex works as a form of universal panacea, boosting the immune system and helping guard against stress, heart disease, prostate cancer and migraines, and promoting good mental health.

No wonder a female friend whose boyfriend lives abroad said this week she felt sympathy for “those grey whales that swim 6000 miles to get back to their mating ground.”

So when Boris Johnson announced further relaxation of the lockdown rules last week, the British sex-starved masses hoped for some concessions. Some form of common-sense ruling that if you’re in a long-term relationship with a person who lives elsewhere, but has also followed all the lockdown protocols, it’s perfectly reasonable to see one another.

A few I know jumped the gun and saw their partners for the first time this weekend in the time-honoured spirit of “make hay while the sun shines.” One of my closest friends took a “completely empty” train to London for the second time in three weeks where her boyfriend picked her up from the station for a weekend of reunited bliss. And one of my teen relatives has seen her boyfriend in her own house for the first time in months. Yesterday they awoke to find themselves offenders.

On Monday the Government signed off temporary pandemic legislation that criminalises adults who live in separate dwellings for the sin of being intimate with their best beloved. No matter the risk factor is probably much lower than visiting your local supermarket.

As one divorced friend by the sea, with a partner in Guildford, put it, “It wouldn’t be quite so iniquitous if it weren’t for all the other ruddy people you can let into your house and garden. Or the thousands of day-trippers heading to my local beach.”

She’s right. It makes no sense whatsoever. A lovelorn householder, torn asunder from their partner, can let a nanny or cleaner have the run of their home. They can have a gardener, parent or best friend on their lawn so long as they keep two metres’ distance. They can send Year 1 and Year 6 children to school, despite the multiple headcount there. But they can’t kiss the person they trust most.

The current rules are so muddled and absurd even those in authority pay scant attention. Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling of pandemic spread led to lockdown rules, notoriously allowed his married lover to visit him at home within a fortnight of the measures being announced. And the Labour MP Rosie Duffield had to resign as Whip after breaking lockdown rules to see her new partner, who remains married to someone else. On top of all this, we now have a special adviser in Dominic Cummings, who ignored restrictions to take a jaunt to Barnard Castle with impunity. Meanwhile, ordinary Brits are told they can’t take a stroll across town to spend the night with their other half.

A relative in my wider family circle who’s divorced has been unable to see her partner of a year’s standing, because they live separately for their children’s convenience and proximity to work. When she wavered, her teens acted “like the sex police, saying ‘Mum, if we can’t see our friends, you’re not allowed to see your boyfriend!’.” Yet both these adults have seen no one outside immediate family and have no signs of infection. It’s insulting to decree the rule-abiding can’t now enjoy the safe circumstances provided by their adherence to the guidance, while lawmakers get off scot-free.

Everyone I know in the sex, therapy and relationship sector is appalled by the lack of realistic governmental guidance on physical intimacy. In the US, the New York City health department issued guidelines back in March to advise on safe sexual practices. But in Blighty it’s as if the powers that be have reverted to the mentality of, “No sex please! We’re British.”

When I contacted relationship expert Nichi Hodgson, author of The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder, she was near apoplectic, saying: “In these chastened times, the idea that if we don’t live with a partner we are meant to be chaste sounds roundly ridiculous at best, and an infringement on civil liberties at worst.”

Hodgson also pointed out that since the rules were nonsensical, they weren’t being heeded. She told me that amongst her single cohorts, “Everything from flat-share sex parties to petrol station pick-ups are taking place. And why? Because people need to connect and they have always historically risked their health to do so, no matter what the threat of disease.”

Hodgson’s quite right. Andrew Marvell’s line, “The grave’s a fine and private place. But none, I think, do there embrace,” was written in a time of plague and shortened life-spans and its message is timeless – sex feels particularly sweet when the shadow of death hangs over you. Humans have reached out for physical comfort in times of peril for aeons and it’s ridiculous trying to legislate against it. It’s one of the few forms of relaxation and pleasure that can be enjoyed by most adults for free – doubly essential at a time when shops, cinema and sporting stadiums are denied us. Now the sun is out, the sap is rising and all lovers – young and old – are chomping at the bit.

Let’s not forget the hordes of would-be lovers. Lockdown has given single people time to reflect long and hard on their lives and true desires. According to the dating app Bumble, more than half of their UK users are now looking for “more meaningful relationships online after experiencing loneliness during lockdown.”

Gillian McCallum, head matchmaker and CEO of top personal introduction agency Drawing Down the Moon, confirms the trend for romantic soul-searching over lockdown. She says her clients are often hectic, hard-working professionals who’ve suddenly been grounded by Covid-19; they look around their homes and realise the one thing lacking is a significant other. So far from interest dropping off, enquiries “are up 40 per cent year on year".

McCallum believes there have been unexpected upsides to lockdown, as it has necessitated the revival of old-fashioned courtship: “Zoom dates have involved opera, ballet and virtual trips to Paris,” she says. And now the rules have relaxed, “distanced meet-ups in parks and for country walks are starting to happen.”

Even so, she admits those who’ve been “virtually dating” for a while have felt “celibacy fatigue creep in,” which has been exacerbated by seeing law-makers breaking the rules and getting off scot-free. “When you’ve spent two months really getting to know someone, without sex getting in the way, then what you want next is for sex to very definitely impede.” She points to the Netherlands, where the Dutch government has proposed you can select one person in a different house to have sex with, and stick with that choice. This gives former singles “an unparalleled opportunity to establish a deep connection,” says McCallum, and move forward with their relationship.

Is it really too much to ask the British Government for similarly sensible guidance? Or for any sex advice at all, quite frankly, rather than farcical legislation. I often joke about the "sex police” in my articles, but I never thought such intrusive surveillance of our private lives would become a reality. It’s one thing for Britain to be closed for tourism, but it makes no sense whatsoever if it’s closed for sex.