Sex Ed

How Many People Have Had a New Sexual Partner During the Pandemic?

October 7, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we’ve been urged to keep our distance from other people in order to reduce transmission rates. These social distancing guidelines—combined with lockdowns, quarantines, and closures of popular gathering spots—have had significant implications for our social lives, as well as our sex lives.

In particular, dating and hooking-up have become riskier and more challenging. As a result, it’s not surprising that rates of sexual activity have decreased in general. However, this doesn’t mean that people have stopped pursuing new partners altogether.

So how many people have had one or more new sex partners since the pandemic began? And what are the primary motivations for finding new partners right now?

At The Kinsey Institute, we’ve been conducting a longitudinal study on how COVID-19 is impacting our intimate lives and we’ve looked at how things have been unfolding over time—including whether people have started new sexual and/or romantic relationships.

We started asking the question “How many new sexual partners have you had since the pandemic began?” in our survey that went out in May/June of this year. We found that 10% of our participants reported having at least one new sexual partner at that time.

In our survey that went out in July/August, the number increased to 15%.

It’s important to note that these figures are based on from the overall sample, and more than two-thirds of our participants were living with a partner at the time the pandemic started, most of whom were in monogamous romantic relationships. So if the number of people who reported having new partners seems low to you, keep in mind that most of our participants weren’t really “on the market.” The base rate for pursuing new partners is obviously higher for singles, as well as those in open relationships and those who broke-up during the pandemic.

Among those who reported having a new sexual partner in the July/August survey, 64% said they had just one new partner, 20% reported two new partners, and 16% reported having three or more new partners. The most new partners reported by anyone was six.

For those who had new partners, most (64%) reported discussing whether they had COVID-19 or any symptoms of it before meeting face-to-face. Most (75%) also said they had discussed whether they had been quarantining and social distancing, and many said they took extra precautions before meeting, such as distancing themselves more than usual from others.

The most common reasons for having a new sexual partner were:

  • Sexual fulfillment/being horny (68% reported this)
  • Feeling lonely (50% reported this)
  • Wanting an emotional connection (41% reported this)
  • Not having had sex in a long time (36% reported this)
  • Being bored (34% reported this)
  • Starting a new romantic relationship (32% reported this)
  • Seeking stress relief (27% reported this)
  • Wanting to “feel alive” (20% reported this)
  • Breaking up with a previous partner (18% reported this)
  • Being unable to see one’s primary or usual partner (16% reported this)
  • Falling in love with someone (11% reported this)

What all of this tells us is that dating and hooking-up are definitely still happening during the pandemic, but that most people seem to be approaching it a little differently and taking some extra precautions.

Further, people’s motivations for having sex right now are diverse and varied. This makes sense because we know that, in general, people have sex for a lot of different reasons (in fact, some studies have found as many as 237!). Sex fulfills a lot of purposes in our lives.

Of course, sexual contact is a risk for COVID-19 transmission—after all, you can’t really socially distance during sex. However, it’s not realistic or practical to recommend abstinence and celibacy until the pandemic is over because we know that sexual abstinence instructions in general don’t work. There’s a mountain of research finding that prohibitions on sex, fear- and scare-based tactics, and shaming don’t stop people from having sex—they just push the behavior underground.

Instead, we’re better served by equipping people with tools and skills so that those who decide to have sex can take appropriate precautions and be as safe as possible. For safe-sex guidelines and recommendations during the pandemic, see here and here.

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Image Source: 123RF/Oleg Elkov

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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