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Affectivity and sexuality during lockdown: interview with Daniela Fantini

We are pleased to present an interview with Daniela Fantini, a medical specialist in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the CEMP Clinic in Milan, co-founder of the Sexual Violence Rescue centre of the Mangiagalli Clinic in Milan. 

MGM. How did you talk about sexuality during the lockdown? Can we expect an increase in births due to lockdown, or changes in the use of contraceptive methods?

DF. During the pre-lockdown phase, the apparent problem was the attention that had to be paid to other people. One could not know who had contracted COVID-19 and who had not: this was the complication, and we can assume that sexuality was interrupted, or at least controlled at that time. This kind of problem no longer existed with the beginning of the lockdown, or rather, it depended on the situation – especially the living situation – in which the single couple found themselves. We saw an increase in the number of pregnant women, divided between those who were seeking this pregnancy and those who were not; in fact, at the reopening of the clinics we received many requests for voluntary termination of pregnancy and other types of pathways. And this leads us to note that contraception was not considered an urgent request: the Lombardy Region did not give any directives on the matter, on the contrary, it excluded requests for contraception as urgent visits.

In this regard, even mechanical contraceptives, such as condoms, do not protect against the contagion of COVID-19, since it is not a sexually transmitted virus. Still, it would have been an excellent opportunity to do some health education since transmission occurs through saliva and proximity.

MGM. How were the scheduled and emergency visits during the lockdown?

DF. In our ASST, we did triage checks by calling home, to see if anyone had problems with possible contagion, but without starting telemedicine pathways. I only did courses online for school kids, which I consider essential anyway.

For the visits that we maintained, the staff wore protective gowns, gloves and mask, and the women kept the mask during the visit. I repeat, however, that not considering contraception as an emergency was a big mistake. It is never recognised as useful and essential.

MGM. From the national resolution, in Italy, you could meet relatives up to the sixth degree, but no other kind of relationships and this perhaps penalised sexuality: would you like to comment?

DF. Surely sexuality has been penalised, because couples who did not live together did not see each other for a long time, and extra-family relationships were not considered to be relations between relatives. Contraception was not considered, but sexuality was not considered either: nobody talked about it, as if it was something to be put in the background, or worse, as if it did not exist, and yet it is fundamental for our life.

MGM. Now that we are in the phase of “reopening”, what advice would you give for achieving good sexuality, intimacy and the pleasure of being in the body?

DF. I believe that the pandemic has affected mental health, also triggering situations of depression. The culture of omnipotence, of “it doesn’t touch me”, is very present, especially in young people; this time, instead, the virus – as a risk and as imaginary – was very present, it was everywhere, leading to a different awareness than one has typically towards other viruses, which “can’t be seen”. Let’s take for example the papillomavirus (HPV): you can’t see it, and you don’t talk about it, there is no public discourse about it, and you don’t use condoms, even if one of the possible consequences of contracting it is cancer. Yet, there is no awareness of this risk. In some people, more fragile for mental health, with COVID-19 the perception of risk has also increased because it has led many people to consider possible their illness, their loneliness and even their death – I am thinking of a colleague who works at an Eating Disorders Center who in just one week has recorded three cases of suicide, attempted or occurred.

Contrary to viruses such as HPV or HIV, remaining “invisible” in the sense I mentioned, COVID-19 deaths had impressive images. The photos and videos of military vehicles coming out of Bergamo, for example, have transformed something that you are not afraid of – a virus, that you do not see – into something visible, thus affecting your imagination about the virus and the risk of contagion.

The question of intimacy is different, in the sense that, beyond the COVID-19, you should also work on relationships and their construction, without which sexuality remains a mere exercise.

MGM. The famous Magritte’s Kiss with the two people veiled, as well as statues and paintings kissing with the mask on, was all over the media… What is left of the Kiss?

DF. I’ve used Magritte’s Kiss many times as an image, but I must admit that it reminds me more to the idea of the closed box: I don’t compare it with the mask. The closed box, in this sense, is that of the relationship: the person is inside, not the one you see superficially. This Kiss, then, is for me more linked to the inside, to intimacy, to uncertainty than to protection.

The situation triggered by COVID-19 was experienced – and interpreted – in a very different way, compared to other pathologies: for some people, the enemy could be anyone. And perhaps it affected the imagination more profoundly because the mask “can be seen”, the condom cannot.

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