Lockdowns caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic (I can’t wait to never see those words on a screen again) have significantly changed the core of how we live our lives—they’ve changed many of our attitudes towards health but also how we navigate our relationships. Our intimate relationships in comparison, may have taken a back seat. Is sex really that important anyway? If you ask me, yes, it supremely is, and the lack of it has affected many of us in ways that we are only beginning to see as lockdowns start to lift. How, exactly?
Speaking in terms of the UK here, when lockdown first started in March 2020—yep, that long ago—, people from outside of our own households couldn’t meet indoors under most (if not all) circumstances. Effectively, this meant that having any sort of intimate relationship with someone other than who you lived with became criminalised. This disproportionately affected those who were exploring their sexualities or developing relationships, for obvious reasons, and as a majority the group of people affected were young adults. That being said, the impact that lockdown had on every aspect of sexual health and wellbeing as a whole affected nearly every body, understandably.
Sexual relationships form an essential part of intimacy, they increase feelings of safety, closeness and connectedness, and according to a study by the British Psychological Society, in the early days of a relationship “lack of sexual connectedness may threaten the relationship and limit compliance with health directives. In longer term relationships, changes and pressures relating to sexual intimacy may lead to many unwanted outcomes, for example, conflict or dissatisfaction.” Now, this may not come as a surprise, but what may be is the lack of desire for sex that has been a result of COVID-19 lockdowns.
Recent research done by The Conversation has shown that sexual activities within the UK, such as intercourse, solo masturbation and watching porn have decreased significantly since before March 2020. The biggest decrease was in sex with a partner, with over a quarter of the respondents in the study stopping this activity altogether.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Sex Research, also investigated sexual desire, and showed that women reported a lower desire than men overall. Other studies support that this may predominantly be because of the increase in domestic chores and stress for women during lockdowns, especially those with children.
Let’s take a closer look at those without children, and who are at the younger end of the age spectrum or that were single, or dating casually before lockdowns: there were approximately 7.9 million single people living in the UK in 2020, and most lived through the past year without sexual encounters. There are benefits both towards physical and mental health through having sex—this is not new knowledge—it results in a greater sense of confidence among many other things. It is also an important component of people’s identities.
Access to reproductive services in the UK were severely limited, or simply closed, resulting in anxiety towards how young people would stay protected, alongside the anxiety of a global pandemic. Libido undoubtedly dropped because of this reason. Similarly, there is evidence that birth rates have dropped over the past year as well, and now with lockdowns lifting—I wonder how this might change, how will people respond to the extra freedom after having been sexually restricted?
According to Nature, “Without drawing general conclusions or ignoring intrapersonal and interpersonal differences in the meaning of pandemic stress for individuals and couples, high-stress situations and prolonged quarantine have been shown to induce symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress, loneliness, confusion, anger, frustration, boredom, worry and health-related fear.” For some couples, it sadly resulted in them breaking up over the stress of lockdowns, all of which we certainly do not need on top of other reasons we felt upset. Governments were also under scrutiny for not allowing the continuation of sexual relationships whereby allowing communal exercise instead.
However, this is controversial, having physical, in-person sex requires people to get up close and personal obviously, but as a study published in The Journal of Sex put it, “the impact on sexuality and general wellbeing should be considered by policymakers when considering future social restrictions related to COVID-19 or other public health emergencies.”
It has been suggested by The Guardian that we could see a “roaring 20s” as we return to a new sense of normality. Studies have shown that young couples living together became far more adventurous in a sexual sense during lockdown (hoorah for you, by the way), but also that having not had sex for so long, those who are looking for a casual hookup may be unraveling themselves out of lockdown as more timid on the dating scenes—or possibly the total opposite.
Dating undoubtedly has changed, for better or for worse is something only time will tell, however, Doctor Nicholas Christakis, when speaking to The Guardian, commented that possibly by 2024, “all of those [pandemic trends] will be reversed,” he said, adding that “People will relentlessly seek out social interactions.” That could include “sexual licentiousness,” liberal spending, and a “reverse of religiosity.” Bring on the roaring 20s, am I right?
Lockdown as we know it is over, and after each of us had all the time in the world to reevaluate our mere existence, it seems like we are now ready to turn over a new leaf. One reflection in particular that all of us took part in during quarantine, in some way or another, was one that focused on our relationships in general, but as we crawl back into the world, we’ve noticed an impressive rise in romantic breakups, the breakup phase of lockdown perhaps—which makes us question if lust is the new love. To find out why so many couples are breaking up during and after lockdown, I spoke to a few people and found common (and a little less common) reasons.
To visualise the three types of relationships I’ll mainly be talking about, I give you, exhibit a) The vase. The strong and sturdy relationship that once held pretty flowers—but knocked off their perches, were smashed into smithereens. Metaphorically. Think of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with gold lacquer. Or in other words, the ones still fixing their otherwise broken relationships.
Then we have exhibit b) The lightbulb. The clear cut moments of truth. The ones that dumped, or did the dumping. The ones that suddenly realised by seeing clearly, they were better off without each other. I feel for them all, but let’s be honest here, if you can’t make it work during an end of the world type scenario, then they probably weren’t the one for you.
Finally, exhibit c) The bathmat. The one we don’t enjoy investing much in, but buy anyway. The soft, comforting luxury of a relationship that rose and fell in lockdown.
So, who dared to enter the no exit zone of their confined spaces for what felt like never-ending months? Who probably saw sides to their partners they wished they could unsee? There was no place to hide, with no pubs to go to, no brunches with friends, no hungover lunches at family gatherings—just two people stuck together, indefinitely.
Bowel movements became part of the entire household’s agenda. And for those of you out there that like a Hollywood wax to feel sexy, I have extra sentiments for you. Life got real traumatic, the at-home wax almost turned into a trip to A&E, and the over-priced epilator you ordered after scrolling through Amazon recommendations is now gathering cobwebs.
Let’s talk to exhibit a) The Vase, who had a slightly irrational, but somewhat humorous reason to break up—in hindsight. This no longer couple admitted that they simply wanted different things for comfort when things got tough, but it took time in the bedroom to realise that this was the case. Let’s just say, the positioning was just not quite right.
One half of my anonymous interviewees confessed their side of the problem. “I just didn’t want to do anal. Ok?” which is fair enough, but is it enough to break up over? They added that “Just because we were experimenting, spicing things up not to get bored, does not mean that I have to sit on the ultimatum of our relationship based on the fact that I won’t voluntarily leak shit onto the sheets… Glad he asked now and not 5 years down the line locked into a house because of a newborn child.”
What really stands out here is “locked into a house,” with a side of frustration over a bed of newly discovered differences. The vase is a stark example, however it is one that stems from bottled up energy, and that can be related to many of our situationships.
The tensions that rose within relationships of all kinds this year aren’t necessarily surprising, a global-pandemic is enough to send all of our stress levels through the roof.
Now, the all-familiar exhibit b) The light bulb. This no longer couple broke up because one of them suddenly had the urge to ‘live their life’ and ‘figure out what they wanted’ when lockdown was lifted. The grass is always greener on the other side, right? A heartbreaking illusion, or a matter of fact.
Last but by no means least, exhibit c) Our dear bathmat. A relationship that rose and fell during lockdown, the good old FaceTime dater. To give you an idea of what we’re dealing with here, there is no space—no space at all, on a FaceTime call for an awkward silence with someone you barely know. Blame the bad signal all you want.
And the excitement of those ‘what’s your favourite’ something or other texts? It quickly wears off. Then, when you finally meet as lockdown lifts, you’ve exhausted all your chat, both forcing fireworks because you’ve spent so much time on the damn idea of this person that you can’t just back out for boredom now.
In truth though, you can just back out. Of anything. Lockdown has made a lot of people realise that you don’t need to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s made a lot of us more patient in day to day tasks but short-fused when it comes to our affection and time, because we value it more than we did before. I guess we have to ask ourselves, is this person better than all that came before? Now, If this was the end of the world, why stay with a pressure to love over a freedom to love? Beats me.