Healthy Body

5 Ways the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Changed Our Sex Lives and Relationships

Photo: Stocksy/ Santi Nuñez
There’s been a lot of speculation about how the COVID-19 pandemic would change our sex lives. At first, when people thought they were facing just a couple of weeks at home, there were predictions of a new baby boom. The assumption was that lots of people would spend their newfound free time having hot, passionate sex.

Then, when it became clear that quarantine would last a long time (and the pandemic would have a devastating impact), predictions of a divorce boom started rolling in — for the first time ever, people were stuck inside with their spouses, and maybe their children, without an escape. Surely that would lead to a lot of breakups. Finally, we had “hot vax summer.” Once the vaccines started rolling out, we once again predicted that people would use their relative freedom to start hooking up all the time.

But none of this actually happened. New data from the National Coalition for Sexual Health and the Kinsey Institute looks at how American sex lives actually changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. For one, instead of igniting sexual fires, the pandemic cooled many of us way down. But it also seems to have strengthened relationships and encouraged sexual exploration.

Here are some of the ways our sex lives have changed since March of 2020:

1. People are having less sex overall

The survey finds that over half of Americans aged 18-35 reported sexual difficulties during the pandemic, including low sexual interest, mismatched sex drives with their partners, and trouble orgasming.

These results aren’t too surprising. There are a couple of big reasons people may have had less sex than they did pre-pandemic. For one, couples may have simply had less opportunity, says Justin Lehmiller, PhD, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute who led the survey and data analysis. The prediction that everyone would have lots of sex, overlooked couples who had children at home. With everyone home all the time and no way to get childcare, parents were likely hard-pressed to find time for sex. People who were in long-distance relationships also lost opportunities for partnered, in-person sex, as did people who were single.

But perhaps the biggest reason people saw a dip in libido or trouble orgasming is the stress and uncertainty COVID-19 caused across the world, says Raegan McDonald-Mosley, MD, an OB/GYN and CEO of Power to Decide. For a lot of people, stress and anxiety are big libido killers, and the pandemic gave us many, many reasons to be stressed. Millions of people lost jobs, many became part-time teachers in addition to stay-at-home parents, and all of us had to worry about ourselves or someone we love getting sick. So even though coupled up people had more time with their partners, they weren’t necessarily in the mood for sex.

“People’s focus was on survival, especially at the beginning when there was so much uncertainty about the level of infectiousness of the virus and how to protect yourself,” Dr. McDonald-Mosley says. Instead of sexual pleasure, many of us focused on basic needs.

2. Instead of a baby boom, there was a baby bust

The baby boom prediction isn’t exactly a new one. Anytime there’s a big storm that forces people to stay home for a while, people speculate about an influx of births. The logic makes sense—there’s a chance people will have more sex when stuck at home and, statistically, more sex should equal more babies. But this prediction ignores both the libido-killing stress of the pandemic and the existence of very effective contraceptives.

“If you look at the reasons why people have sex, having sex to have a baby is actually one of the least common reasons,” Dr. Lehmiller says. And it became even less common during the pandemic. Birth rates in the U.S. declined after the pandemic was declared a national emergency. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 763 fewer births each day in December 2020 than there were in December 2019. With hospitals packed with COVID-19 patients, fears of catching the virus, and economic reasons like job loss, it’s not hard to see why couples would purposefully delay having a baby during the pandemic.

3. Couples are communicating more

Not everything about the way COVID-19 changed our relationships was doom and gloom. In fact, the data imply that many couples learned how to communicate more effectively during the pandemic. Instead of the predicted divorce boom, people figured out how to make their relationships work.

“The pandemic really tested people in ways they hadn’t been tested before,” Dr. Lehmiller says. “And it prompted a lot of people to have more meaningful conversations about their relationships and what they want.”

The survey showed that 47 percent of people in relationships increased their communication with partners to deal with sexual problems, as opposed to only 15 percent of singles. Of course, there were still breakups and divorces, but the overall trend for relationships was surprisingly positive. “It suggests that our relationships are more resilient than we give them credit for,” Dr. Lehmiller says.

Because society places so much shame on sex drive, whether you think yours is too low or too high, it can be really difficult to talk about your sexual desires or problems you notice in your sex life. It’s wonderful to see more couples speaking candidly. If you’re interested in talking to your partner or future partners about sex, the National Coalition for Sexual Health has put together a guide to thinking through sexual concerns and having the conversation.

4. People are exploring sex toys, lube, and kinks

One other silver lining for many couples, and some singles, was a push toward sexual exploration. The data shows that many people tried sex toys for the first time during the pandemic. “People got more sexually exploratory in a lot of ways,” Dr. Lehmiller says. Couples who could easily be together explored new forms of pleasure as well as having sex in new positions or new places, while singles tried virtual solutions like sexting and phone sex.

Those who tried new things were more likely to report improvement in their sex lives than those who didn’t, Dr. Lehmiller says. The data show that among people in relationships, 42 percent reported more satisfying sex lives during the pandemic, compared to 20 percent of singles. This may indicate that sexual exploration can be an adaptive way to maintain a healthy sex life during a stressful time, according to Dr. Lehmiller. Sometimes the solution is as simple as trying a new way or place to have sex or using lube or a sex toy for the first time.

5. Online dating is on the rise

As much as we hear about online dating, most Americans still haven’t tried it. As of 2020, only about one in three Americans had ever dated online, Dr. Lehmiller says. Yet, the pandemic likely added fuel to the trend. Dr. Lehmiller’s data finds that many people tried online dating for the first time during the pandemic.

“One of the things we saw in our Kinsey Institute data was that the nature of online dating is different now than it was before,” he says. People are having longer, more meaningful and intimate conversations online. Prior to the pandemic, many people used dating apps as a way to find someone to date, send a few messages, and meet up in person as soon as possible.

Now, people are taking the time to really get to know someone online first. There’s a rise also in virtual dates, which helps them test the waters before meeting someone in person. A virtual date has the benefit of being totally free and giving you an easy escape if you need it. “So I think the model for relationships going forward is shifting,” Dr. Lehmiller says. He sees a future where many people use virtual dates as a step between connecting online and meeting in person.

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