4 Ways the Pandemic Has Changed Our Sex Lives
Written by Dr. Sarah Hunter Murray on Mar 24th, 2021
There are no shortage of theories and ideas about how the pandemic is influencing our sex lives.
Some have hypothesized that, due to lockdowns, self-isolation, and increased time at home — and with little else to do — we may be having more sex to pass the time. Others suggest that being home with a partner, and dealing with the stresses from living in a world of uncertainty, might be straining our relationships and making us feel less interested in having sex.
These are, however, just theories and ideas. What does the research have to say?
While empirical research takes time to collect, analyze, and publish, some findings have emerged in the last couple of months which give us an idea of how the pandemic is impacting our sex lives. Here's what we know so far:
1. Some of Us Are Having Less Partnered Sexual Activity
Researchers in China conducted an online study between May 1 and May 5, 2020 with the aim of exploring how the pandemic was impacting participants’ sexual and reproductive health.1
Participants included 967 individuals between 15 and 35 years old (the average age was 26.6) who reported having penetrative sex at least once over the previous 6 months. The researchers were specifically interested in exploring participants' level of sexual desire, sexual frequency, frequency of masturbation, and pornography viewing habits.
The authors’ identified that 22% of their sample (n=212) reported a decrease in sexual desire and 41% (n=396) experienced a decrease in sexual intercourse frequency.
However, despite some participants reporting less partnered sexual activity, 30% (n=291) reported an increase in the frequency of masturbation and 23% (n=227) reported an increase in the use of pornography.
2. Sexual Functioning Appears to Be Decreasing for Some Women
Researchers in Italy were interested in how social distancing measures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic would impact the sexual function and quality of life of reproductive-age women living with their sexual partners.2
Participants consisted of 89 women between the ages of 28 and 50 (the average age was 39) who answered questions about their sexual functioning before the introduction of the restrictive measures and then were invited to answer the same questionnaires 4 weeks after the restrictive measures came into place. The results suggested that the average reported sexual intercourse frequency decreased from 6.3 per month before lock-down to 2.3 times per month after lock-down.
The authors also concluded that women’s sexual functioning (an overall measure of sexual desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, and satisfaction) decreased significantly over the same time period as a direct result of self-isolation measures.
3. Increased Relationship Conflict Can Lead to Less Sexual Activity
Using an online nationally representative survey, researchers explored the potential influence of coronavirus-related relationship conflict on various intimate and sexual behaviors.3 Their sample included 742 participants in relationships who were between 18 and 94 years old. The participants were asked, “Have you experienced increased tension, arguments, or difficulties in your relationship with your romantic partner due to the spread of the new coronavirus and its related restrictions?” Participants were then coded into one of two categories: “some conflict” or “non-conflict” groups.
Participants were also asked to report on their engagement in the following sexual and intimate behaviors: (1) hugging, kissing, holding hands with or cuddling with a romantic/sexual partner; (2) masturbating by oneself; (3) masturbating together with a partner or touching each other’s genitals (e.g. fingering, hand jobs, etc.); (4) giving or receiving oral sex; and (5) engaging in penile-vaginal intercourse.
Among participants in relationships, 34% reported some degree of conflict with their romantic partners due to the spread of COVID-19 and its related restrictions. Compared to those not experiencing coronavirus-related conflict, those experiencing frequent conflict were significantly more likely to report decreased frequency of all five solo and partnered intimate and sexual behaviors listed above, suggesting that stress in our relationships were having a spillover effect into our sex lives.
4. Less Sex Doesn't Mean Less Novelty
Researchers affiliated with the Kinsey Institute conducted an online study to explore how the pandemic influenced various aspects of our intimate lives.4 Their study consisted of 1,559 adults between the ages of 18 and 81 (the average age was 34.1 years old). Just over half the sample (52.7%) identified as heterosexual, 84.1% were White, and 69% reported living with their partner.
The researchers reported that that 43.5 percent of the sample noted a decline in the quality of their sex lives. However, they also noted that one in five participants (20.3% percent) reported expanding their sexual repertoire by incorporating new sexual activities. These new sexual activities included things like sexting, trying new sexual positions, and sharing sexual fantasies.
What’s more? Participants who reported making new additions to their sex lives were three times more likely to report improvements in their sex life.
The pandemic is affecting us in a myriad of ways, in and out of the bedroom. While some may find that the increased time at home is making us feel closer to our partners or more open to experimenting with new sexual activities, some of us are experiencing some detrimental effects on our intimate relationship and sexual functioning. If you fall in the latter camp, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone and that decreases in sexual frequency and desire make are common experiences, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic.