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How sex life has changed since COVID-19 lockdowns

By Harriet Piercy

Apr 9, 2021

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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?