In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, media headlines started popping up all over about a “coronavirus baby boom.” At the same time, we started hearing about how porn searches were up, sex toy sales were booming, and downloads of online dating apps were soaring.
The overall narrative was really that, with much of the world locked down, what else were people going to do but pleasure themselves and have sex? Intuitively, this might sound pretty plausible. However, there’s one big problem with this line of thinking: this isn’t actually what happened at all.
Some of my colleagues and I at The Kinsey Institute wanted to understand what was really happening in people’s intimate lives during the pandemic, so we conducted a study to find out. We surveyed a few thousand people in mid-March, just as widespread lockdowns and quarantines began. We then followed-up with our participants every couple of weeks for the next six months so that we could look at how things unfolded over time.
We published our first set of findings over the summer in the journal Leisure Sciences, which focused on data collected during the lockdown period. What we found was that, unlike what the popular media narrative suggested, rates of sexual behavior actually declined on average.
We asked people to report how frequently they masturbated and engaged in partnered sexual activities during the past year, and how frequently they had done so since the pandemic began. For both solo and partnered activities, sexual behavior dropped for men and women alike.
In light of this, it’s perhaps not surprising that more than three times as many people said their sex life declined during the pandemic than said it improved (44 percent vs. 14 percent, respectively—the rest reported no change).
That said, a small number of people did report higher levels of sex and masturbation—and some said that their sex lives were better than ever. However, they were the exception rather than the rule.
So why did sex and masturbation decline for so many people? We found that people’s desire for sexual activity had a lot to do with feelings of stress and loneliness. The more isolated and stressed people felt the less interest they had in getting it on.
This makes sense. After all, stress is one of the biggest libido killers there is. For most of us, it’s hard to get in the mood, stay aroused, and have an orgasm when our mind is preoccupied with something that’s stressing us out.
Health concerns are also a factor. Those who said they were more concerned about their own personal health and safety were more likely to say that their sex life had declined.
Of course, another part of the story is that opportunities for sex were—and continue—to be more limited than they were before. For example, widespread closures of bars and nightclubs restrict opportunities for casual sex. Likewise, for couples living with children, the impact of having kids around all of the time coupled with the added stress of homeschooling can limit opportunities for intimacy between parents.
So how have things changed over time? Have our sex and love lives started to return to normal as the world has begun to reopen?
Not so much. When we looked at data collected a few months later (late May to mid-June)—during a time when lockdown restrictions had eased a bit—rates of sexual behavior were still down compared to previous year frequencies. In fact, they had not really changed much at all.
The numbers for our most recent wave of data collection (July and August) tell a similar story. In fact, when reflecting on how their sex lives have changed in the past month, the vast majority of our participants (76%) say that things have either stayed the same or declined further. In short, our intimate lives don’t really appear to be rebounding yet—it’s an ongoing struggle.
So how can we all better manage the challenges of a quarantine relationship or socially-distanced dating? Here are a few practical tips.
1.) Try something new.
Whether you’re living in the midst of a worldwide pandemic or not, it’s easy for your sex life to become routine—to feel like it’s the same thing every time. That’s a problem because people have an inherent need for novelty when it comes to sex.
For example, when people watch the same porn clip every day for a week, they show less arousal to it with each subsequent viewing. Show them a new clip, however, and their arousal jumps.
In our Kinsey Institute study, we found that about 1 in 5 people reported making at least one new addition to their sex lives since the pandemic began—and the people who did so were three times more likely to say their sex lives had improved rather than declined. That’s the power of sexual novelty.
So what were our participants doing? The most common partnered activities people tried for the first time were:
- Trying a new sexual position
- Sharing sexual fantasies
- Acting on sexual fantasies
- Using vibrators or other sex toys
The most common solo and distance-based activities people tried were:
- Sending nude photos
- Watching pornography
- Having cybersex
So whether you’re living alone or with a partner, consider exploring a new sexual side of yourself because that just might help to get your sex life back on track. It doesn’t matter so much what you do so long as it’s consensual and in your comfort zone.
2.) Work on stress management and self-care.
Between this pandemic and everything else going on in the world right now, it’s normal to feel a good degree of stress and anxiety. However, as discussed above, these feelings can put a serious damper on libido.
For this reason, it is vital to find healthy and effective ways of coping right now so that you can open the door to sexual desire and fulfillment.
For some, the answer is exercise, which can be a great stress reliever. You don’t necessarily have to go to the gym if that’s not feasible or safe. Try running or biking instead, or join an online workout class.
For others, practicing mindfulness and meditation techniques can help to clear your head, allowing you to relax and be in the moment. This can not only make it easier to get in the mood for sex, but you can also apply some of these techniques during sex itself, which can let you focus on the physical sensations you’re feeling rather than getting lost in your head.
You might also consider taking regular breaks from technology. Emails, social media feeds, and news sites can serve as constant reminders of the pandemic and other stressful things in our lives, like work. So be sure to take some time to disconnect and focus on you.
3.) Make an effort and be creative.
Whether you’re currently in a relationship or looking for a date, it’s important to put a little effort into your love life and to think of creative ways to show your partner that you care.
For example, if you’re currently in a relationship, you might think about having some regular “date nights” at home if going out on the town isn’t an option or you can’t go out and do the things you normally would. However, just because you’re staying in doesn’t have to take the fun out of it.
You might take turns planning out some things you’ve never tried before, whether that’s cooking a new meal, playing an erotic game, exploring role-play, or something else. But in addition to simply putting a new twist on date night, put the same effort in that you’d put into any other date, which means dressing up like you would if you were going out rather than showing up in your pajamas.
And if you’re looking to start a new relationship, keep in mind that the “rules” of romance are a little different right now. In the past, people used to meet pretty quickly after matching online, but now they’re really taking the time to get to know one another through deep conversations online, or through phone calls and video chats. This is actually one of the silver linings to the current situation: taking the time to establish an intimate connection before you meet face-to-face can potentially help a relationship to start off on more solid footing.
If you’re not comfortable meeting anyone in person just yet, try going on some virtual dates. Pick a shared activity and plan an afternoon or evening around it—but, again, remember to put some effort in to make a good impression.
This pandemic is creating a number of unique challenges for our intimate lives, but it’s important to try to look at those challenges as opportunities. With a little creative thinking, we can find new ways to connect (and reconnect) with our partners and level-up our sex lives.
Lehmiller, J. J., Garcia, J. R., Gesselman, A. N., & Mark, K. P. (2020). Less sex, but more sexual diversity: Changes in sexual behavior during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Leisure Sciences.
Joseph, P. N., Sharma, R. K., Agarwal, A., & Sirot, L. K. (2015). Men ejaculate larger volumes of semen, more motile sperm, and more quickly when exposed to images of novel women. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1(4), 195-200.
O’Donohue, W. T., & Geer, J. H. (1985). The habituation of sexual arousal. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 14, 233-246.