Does less money equal more sex?

picture-32One quiet night a couple of weeks ago, I was pumping away on my sewing machine in my apartment in Bed-Stuy when my neighbor, Stephanie, knocked on my door to ask if I could hem a skirt for her. She took out a bag from Cookie’s, the children’s department store on Fulton Street, and proceeded to lay out all the makings of a Catholic school girl’s uniform: knee socks, hair ribbons, a pleated skirt in a girl’s size large.

Her explanation? The guy she was planning on seeing Saturday night had requested this particular getup for their rendezvous.

I imagined her closet next door must be bursting with French maid outfits and teddies purchased in more flush times—outfits that were probably being sported more than ever, thanks to all her newfound free time and the desire for any kind of distraction from despair. Truth be told, this postulation made me feel a little jealous. I have a lovely—and very willing—boyfriend who lives just a couple of neighborhoods away, but, thanks to poverty-induced depression, my libido has recently waned. Yet I’ve figured that I’m the pathetic exception, surrounded by countless creative, vibrant Brooklynites busy giving debauchery a good name. Right?

In this time of empty pockets and frozen dinners, it seems like a good old romp must be the perfect distraction. Sex is cheap, it’s fun, it’s good exercise, and even can provide some form of caloric intake (hey—you’ve thought about it, too).  That’s why I’ve been walking around looking at Brooklyn as if it were one big horny beast right now covered with so many libidinous ants: laid-off junior execs staying in bed ‘til noon, hipsters skipping the $7 cocktails at Enids in favor of McCarren Park makeout sessions and brown-bagged cans of Pabst, cubicle dwellers-turned-wannabe novelists brushing hands as they reach to plug in their iBook cords at the Tea Lounge.  Because that’s the reality, right?

Sort of. Not really. Not tonight.

Illustration by Kim Herbst.
Illustration by Kim Herbst

As Stephanie and I sewed and talked, it soon became clear to me that she hadn’t seen this guy in months. The making of this outfit (purchased for a grand total of $18—not including the shoplifted blazer) was providing more distraction than anything she’d been finding in her bedroom.  Most nights, the only noise I hear on the other side of our joint wall is the TV.

Bikini waxes, contraception, fees, alcohol, laundered sheets—there can be a lot of ancillary costs to having a good sex life, and they add up. But even when money isn’t the deciding factor, it’s easy to be too tired after working two crapola jobs or to spiral into bouts of despair that can take hacksaws to desire. Yes, Craigslist’s Casual Encounters is free, but so are a lot of creepy, formerly incarcerated people– it was recently reported that  Brooklyn neighborhoods are home to the highest concentration of sex offenders in all of New York—yeesh.

“Places are dropping their covers and offering loads of drink specials. It feels like the debauchery has risen to a new level,” says Kate, a 26-year-old musician. “But I’ve been focused on things other than sex and dating lately—keeping my job, thinking of new ways to make money, etc.”

“My sex life is in a deep recession,” says my friend Denise, a 31-year-old mother in Bay Ridge who is doing around-the-clock childcare for her toddler while her husband works extra hours. An editor at a Manhattan news service, he’s been putting in 70-hour weeks doing the work that was left by all the folks who were let go in his department. “On the rare nights when I actually see him, he’s wiped out or I’m exhausted from raising our child basically alone and managing a household single-handedly,” she says. “Feeling like you’re at the epicenter of a storm is hardly conducive to romance.”

Could it be possible that this isn’t just a local phenomenon? Consumer Reports’ joins the ranks of those imagining all the great sex that’s going on out there…but then they go onto report what seems like the opposite. Under the heading “Economy isn’t hurting Americans’ sex lives,” they recently published a poll of 1000 adults; 5 percent of them reported having more sex than they did last year, the magazine’s summary pointed out. I’m not a statistician, but doesn’t that leave 950 people who aren’t doing quite that well? The supposedly hopeful summary goes on to point out that “insomnia and poor health could be taking a toll.” Nothing like exhaustion and a touch of cholera to get me feeling randy…

Still, walking down Bedford Avenue on Friday nights, I’ve been guilty of imagining that all the hipper-than-thou young people going at it like bunnies behind every window, skipping out on the costly formalities of dating and going straight home to their futons. But a random sampling of those young people didn’t inspire much confidence.

Keith, a 24-year-old living in Williamsburg, tells me that losing one of his part-time jobs in January means that he can’t splurge on airfare to visit his boyfriend, who lives in Atlanta. “It’s been three months now since I’ve seen him last,” he says. “We’ve learned to embrace the art of phone sex…but only when we can take advantage of free minutes on nights and weekends.” Still, neither of their phones has been ringing off the proverbial hook. “By the time it gets to the end of the day, we’re usually either too exhausted or too grumpy to open the sex flood gate.”

Kate, a fellow Williamsburgian who is 26 and a musician, knows what I mean about feeling convinced that there must be a lot of sex happening out there. “Places are dropping their covers and offering loads of drink specials. It feels like the debauchery has risen to a new level,” she says. But her own personal experience? She jokingly uses the word “frigid” to describe herself of late. “I’ve been focused on things other than sex and dating lately. Keeping my job, thinking of ways to make additional money, etc. The anxiety has caught up with me from time to time, and I’m sure that it’s been making me blind to potentially lovely opportunities. It’s also gotten me to go out less, in a desperate attempt to save money.  I’m sort of stuck having one-on-one time with my closest pals, which is gratifying, but it’s not helping me to meet other people that I could have a romantic relationship with.”

“Roommates!” says Rosie, 33, a former copyeditor who now spends her days hitting the “refresh” button on “I couldn’t afford to live alone, so I moved into this place with three other girls. The walls are like paper, and I get paranoid they’d hear the bed squeak if I ever had anyone over. But I started taking Prozac after I got laid off and it’s pretty much zapped my interest in sex anyway. I see people being sexy on TV and I think, “I don’t remember what that feels like…and I don’t really care.” Isn’t that sad?”

Sad indeed. Sad like a titty bar that is surviving on donations—last week reported that Lucky 13 Saloon, the stripper club, sent regular patrons a link to a Paypal account and a plea for help.

But here’s a mood elevator:  Babeland on Bergen Street has been offering free workshops each month. They report that sales of the affordable stuff—that’s you, vibrating ducky—are down and people are instead investing in more expensive high quality, longer lasting items.

Who is buying these things? Perhaps it’s double-income households? Indeed, people who’ve long been coupled seem to be faring slightly better—those who are no longer courting (or tomcatting) and have settled into the huggily-snuggily Netflix-ing stage of a relationship and are weathering the storm a deux.

Audrey, a thirty-something makeup artist in Brooklyn Heights, has been falling in love all over again with her boyfriend ever since he got laid-off. “Now that he’s home, we’re doing more outdoorsy things like riding bikes, taking long walks, exploring new neighborhoods,” she says. “We are organizing and clearing out the junk in our apartment, and he’s making an effort to cook meals when I’m at work late. It all feels less rushed and more balanced on some level, and I think that makes us in the mood more often…”

Abigail, a writer in Crown Heights who is also in her thirties, was hit with a 20-percent pay cut last winter, but it’s drawn her closer to her live-in boyfriend. “We’re more conscious about our budget,” she says. “It’s forced us to work together to reduce our spending, and has challenged him to be more willing to help with cleaning and cooking, and therefore has improved our relationship—I don’t feel like the mom, maid and secretary so much any more. I have more time to feel like his sex kitten.”

But for those who aren’t in these kinds of safe, domesticated (and childless) coupleships, just ruminating on coitus might have to do for now.

So it goes with Stephanie: Mr. Saturday night? He never showed.

Read more from Anna Jane Grossman at, and see more of Kim Herbst’s illustrations at

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