Worldwide impact of sex life during Lockdown: Report

Sex life in lockdown: Lockdown significantly affected our health (for good and bad), our work and how we socialise. These consequences have been widely discussed, but far less attention has been given to the effect on our sex lives. Studies from around the world tell a similar story. Research conducted in India,Italy,Turkey,US,UK and Europe in 2020 all points to the decline in sex with partners as well as solo acts, directly attributed to lockdown.

For most, pandemic-induced lockdowns created an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. Many experienced unprecedented health-related anxiety, financial insecurity and other significant life changes. Stress caused by these factors – not to mention the problems that arise from spending too much time with another person in a cramped, indoor space – contributed to the notable decline in partnered people’s sex lives.

In ways, the Covid-19 world has proven toxic for sexuality – so will we be able to snap back into our sexual selves after pandemic stress dissipates, or have our relationships suffered long-lasting damage?

When lockdown came into force in the UK in March 2020, people from outside the same household were not allowed to meet indoors, and only at set distances outdoors. This meant that sex between people who didn’t live together was effectively criminalised.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced just about everyone in the United States to spend over a year inside, which can add complications to some romantic relationships.

A new study, done by Love Connection, compiled data from dating apps, law firms, and numerous other studies to figure out how the pandemic affected couples across the country in 2020. It seems many haven’t been handling it very well.

According to the study, couples’ intimacy suffered throughout the past year as 50% of partners reported a decline in their sex life, while 27% even said they felt a decrease in relationship satisfaction. However, 46% said they had not really noticed any significant changes.

The pandemic has also done some damage to marriages in the United States, as divorce applications reportedly rose from 40% to 45% in 2020, and 20% of new marriages that had lasted under five months found it difficult to survive these trying times.

The dating world seems to have been hit hard as well. 45% of those who claim to have been going on dates before the virus hit have stopped since, but online dating through apps such as Match, Tinder, and Bumble actually thrived — the industry saw a 13% increase throughout 2020.

In some ways, these restrictions disproportionately affected young adults, who are more likely than older adults to be exploring their sexuality and developing romantic relationships. But the impact of lockdown on people’s sexual desires and sex lives and how this affected their sense of wellbeing was not known. We decided to find out.

For our study, we surveyed 565 people aged 18-32 in the UK at the end of peak lockdown restrictions in May 2020. People were recruited using a survey recruitment site. They were a convenience sample, meaning they were people who were easily available rather than representative of the population as a whole.

Respondents were asked if they engaged in a list of sexual activities both before lockdown and during lockdown. This included intercourse, solo masturbation, and watching pornography. They were also asked to rate their health and wellbeing.

The number of respondents who engaged in each of these activities during lockdown decreased compared with before lockdown. The biggest decrease was for sex with a partner, with just over a quarter of respondents stopping this activity during lockdown (25.5 percent).

For those participants who continued to engage in sexual activities, we also asked whether the frequency increased or decreased during the period. There were both increases and decreases. Regarding increases, just over a quarter (26 percent) of people masturbated more often on their own, 20 percent reported having more intercourse with their partner, and 20 percent reported watching more pornography on their own.

Yet the same three sexual activities also decreased in frequency for some participants, with a third of people having less sex with their partner, a quarter masturbating alone less, and around a fifth (22 percent) watching less pornography alone.

People were more likely to report increases in sexual activity if they were male, in a serious relationship, and if they weren’t heterosexual.

We also investigated sexual desire. In our sample, women reported lower sexual desire than men overall, with a significant decrease in sexual desire during lockdown compared with before lockdown. Women with a greater enjoyment of casual sex reported a greater perceived effect of lockdown on their wellbeing.

Our findings, which are published in the Journal of Sex Research, support other reports into the effects of lockdown restrictions. Lockdown measures have disproportionately affected some groups more than others. The reported increase in domestic chores and stress for women during the lockdown may explain the decrease in sexual desire and the negative effect on wellbeing.

Moving out of lockdown
There are many health benefits, both physical and mental, to engaging in regular sexual activity. Sex can be an important component of people’s lives and their identity, particularly for sexual minorities.

There are other concerns about COVID-19 and sexuality. Most sexual health and reproductive services in the UK have been severely limited or closed. There is evidence that access to condoms and contraception was disrupted for young adults during social lockdown.

Some sexual health charities have been offering home testing kits of sexually transmitted infection screenings, but there will be people who do not or cannot use these services. Similarly, there is evidence that birth rates have dropped significantly over the year, which might lead to an associated large increase in births over the next 12 months once people see some stability returning to their lives.

As the UK follows the road map out of lockdown, it is important to consider how those whose sex lives have been restricted will respond to the extra freedom. It has been suggested that we could see a new “roaring 20s” as we return to a new sense of normality.

Sex isn’t necessarily doomed, however. Researchers at the Kinsey Institute suggested one specific behaviour to improve couples’ sex lives: shaking things up. One in five study participants tried something new in bed, and it helped revive desire and intimacy.

“People who tried new things were much more likely to report improvements,” says Lehmiller. New activities that helped improve partners’ sex lives included “trying new positions, acting on fantasies, engaging in BDSM and giving massages”, per the study.

But for those in relationships where sexual activity dwindled over the past year and has not picked back up, will there be lasting damage? It depends, say experts.

Government policy ignored sex during lockdown. It needs to actively support sexual health and wellbeing as we return to some kind of normality.

But, for many, there’s hope. With more people getting vaccinated, businesses are reopening, and some workers are returning to the office. “People are starting to fall back into their old routine,” says Jamea. She’s seeing the positive effects of this on couples in her practice.

Any sort of return to “normalcy” is a good indicator for partners whose struggles began during the pandemic. “It’s possible that some of these couples, once the pandemic is under control… will go back to the way that things were before,” and “That stressor is now removed, and their sex lives will improve.”

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