Effect of COVID-19 pandemic on human sexual behaviors

A new study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine evaluates the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on human sexual behaviors in the United States. This study is based on a cross-sectional online survey conducted in October 2020 to address various partnered and solitary sexual behaviors, sexual functioning and satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, and intimate partner violence.

Study: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Sexual Behaviors: Findings From a National Survey in the United States. Image Credit: GoodStudio / Shutterstock.com

Importance of sexual health

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 worldwide outbreak as a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. To curb the spread of the virus, most countries implemented strict mitigation measures, which led to limited interpersonal contact; thus, it is possible that these measures affect human sexual behavior.

Sexual health experts are concerned about the negative effects that the pandemic may have on sexual health. To this end, there is a rising concern pertaining to increases in sexual dysfunction and relationship conflict.

In addition to potentially limited access to sexual healthcare, relationship conflict may also potentially increase intimate partner violence. Sexual health is essential for physical and mental well-being; therefore, the public health response to the global pandemic requires attention to sexual health as well.

Previous studies

The concerns of sexual health experts are supported by preliminary evidence. A national survey in the United States showed that 34% of people in a relationship reported relationship conflict due to COVID-19. Moreover, couples with more conflict reported a decrease in solitary and partnered sexual activities.

Another survey from the United States conducted on married people recorded 32% of people reporting a strain on their marriage due to the pandemic. Conversely, 74% of people reported a strengthening of their marital relationship. Interestingly, the reports on the impact on sexual frequency were mixed, while 32% reported an increase and 20% reported a decrease.

A longitudinal survey revealed that stress related to the pandemic increased relationship satisfaction and decreased sex drive and sexual activity both within-person and between-person.

Other studies from the United States and other countries have suggested additional changes in sexual behavior like decreased incidences of casual sex, increased use of pornography and sexting, or cybersex. One study observed that exploring novel sexual activities during the pandemic was protective against the negative effects on sexual satisfaction.

Many of the reported studies have limitations, as the number of participants is small, convenience-based, and limited to certain groups in the population like women, LGBTQ+ individuals or married couples. Additionally, all studies published to date were mostly conducted in the duration of the first few months of the pandemic when lockdown measures had just begun.

About the study

The current study builds on the findings of previous research, wherein the researchers particularly focus on the duration after several months into the pandemic. At the time when the current study was conducted, the government and population already had several months to adapt to the novel circumstances. This provided the possibility of observing the continued impact of COVID-19 on sexual behaviors after several months.

This study involved 1,051 participants across the United States recruited from the Amazon Mechanical Turk (Mturk) platform. Participants had to retrospectively answer questions related to sexual frequency, sexual and romantic satisfaction, sexual and physical violence, relevant demographic, substance use, COVID-19 exposure information, and depression symptoms.

All participants were also asked five questions to check for attention while filling the questionnaire. Statistical analyses were employed to compare data before and after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Study results

According to this survey, there was a small decrease in partnered sexual activities. Men reported a slight increase in masturbation and pornography use.

The data did not suggest a change in relationship satisfaction or intimate partner violence. However, men and women reported a small decrease in sexual pleasure. The women also reported a small decrease in sexual desire.

Casual sex, hookups, and the number of partners were greatly reduced. Notably, most participants reported diminished sexual enjoyment. Taken together, these reductions could be attributed to depression symptoms, relationship status, and perceived importance of social distancing.

Less than half of the participants who engaged with casual sex partners before the start of the pandemic discontinued this behavior completely after the start of the pandemic. In addition, participants reported waiting on average 6–7 weeks before involving in casual sex.

Limitations

This study employs a convenience sampling method and cross-sectional design; therefore, the results cannot be generalized. An additional limitation of the current study is that the answers provided by the participants may have been influenced by recall bias.

Study implications

This is the first published study using a large nationwide sample assessing sexual behavior several months after the implementation of pandemic restrictions. The results of this survey indicate that the changes in sexual behavior reported by other studies during the early months of the pandemic have continued several months into the pandemic. This study can also aid in informing public health responses to the impact of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic may affect the birth rate, post-pandemic sexual behaviors, and psychological health in the long term. Therefore, future research should propose ways to minimize the negative outcomes. Sexual health therapists and healthcare providers should be equipped to address these issues.

Journal reference:
Dr. Shital Sarah Ahaley

Written by

Dr. Shital Sarah Ahaley

Dr. Shital Sarah Ahaley is a medical writer. She completed her Bachelor's and Master's degree in Microbiology at the University of Pune. She then completed her Ph.D. at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru where she studied muscle development and muscle diseases. After her Ph.D., she worked at the Indian Institute of Science, Education, and Research, Pune as a post-doctoral fellow. She then acquired and executed an independent grant from the DBT-Wellcome Trust India Alliance as an Early Career Fellow. Her work focused on RNA binding proteins and Hedgehog signaling.

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