Sex Ed

Will COVID-19 Change Our Sex Lives Permanently?

December 21, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller

Throughout this pandemic, I’ve been interviewed by dozens of journalists about the impact COVID-19 has had on our intimate lives. One question that keeps coming up in these interviews is: What are the long-term effects going to be? 

We know that there have been substantial shifts in sexual behavior, which I’ve explored extensively on the blog and in our published research; however, the million-dollar question right now is whether this is a temporary blip on the radar, or whether it signals some permanent shifts in the way that we approach sex.

Of course, we won’t know the answer until we have data well into the future; however, in our Sex and Relationships in the Time of COVID-19 study at The Kinsey Institute, we did ask people what they thought the future might hold. In this post, I’ll explore what our participants said.

For context, I’m looking at results from our fifth wave of data collection. We started a longitudinal study in mid-March of 2020 and followed-up with participants every 2-4 weeks afterwards through the fall. The specific data I’ll be discussing come from later in the summer, when we were in the midst of the second major wave of infections. That’s when we started adding questions about what people thought the future might hold.

We asked people to think about what their sex life looked like before the pandemic began, and then to consider how they think it might be different in the future. Here’s what our participants said:

· 55% said they don’t expect much to be different because their sex life hasn’t really changed all that much during the pandemic.

· 36% said they expect their sex life to be different temporarily, but anticipate a return to normal when a vaccine is widely available and the pandemic is under control.

· 9% said they expect their sex life to be different permanently, no matter how things turn out with this pandemic.

Regardless of how they answered the question above, we then asked a series of follow-up questions about several specific ways in which people think their sex lives might be different in the future. In total, 40.5% of participants endorsed one or more of these. Thus, when you start inquiring about specific types of changes, it’s clear that more people anticipate that at least some things will be different about their sex lives. Here’s the breakdown of what our participants said:

· 16% said they will be more selective about their sexual partners.

· 15% said they will communicate more about sexual risks with partners.

· 14% said they will be more anxious about having sex.

· 13% said they will spend a longer time getting to know people before having sex with them.

· 9% said they will probably masturbate more.

· 8% said they will probably have less partnered sex.

· 7% said they will probably engage in more virtual or online behaviors.

· 7% said they will place more importance on the role of sex in their relationship.

· 6% said they will probably seek out more sex partners.

· 6% said they will practice safer sex to reduce health risks.

· 5% said they will probably abstain from sex with new partners.

In addition to the above, participants were given the opportunity to put in their own words any other types of changes they anticipated in their future sex lives. In total, 11% of them expected other changes. Here are a few of the things people said:

·  “I am less likely to pursue male partners because I perceive them to be less responsible about health measures.”

· “I think it will just be more challenging to trust and become physically close to new people.”

· “I will be more excited about having sex in this future because I haven’t had the chance to in a while.”

· “I will have higher standards for the partners I get close to. Life is too short to tolerate bad matches and I’ve come to value my solitude more in quarantine.”

· “Less group sex or time spent at our kink community center.”

I should mention that our findings do not come from a representative sample of the population, so we cannot say for sure how well the results generalize broadly. Our sample was recruited online and participants were predominately White, heterosexual, and currently in relationships. It is therefore possible that different subgroups of the population (e.g., singles, persons at higher risk) might expect or experience different shifts. Also, as the pandemic has gone on, it’s possible that people’s views on this issue may have shifted.

That said, our results suggest that most people do not anticipate that COVID-19 will permanently alter the course of their sex lives and that any changes they have experienced are temporary. However, about 4 in 10 expect at least some things to change.

The most common changes people anticipate revolve around being more selective about partners, communicating more, taking things slower, and having more anxiety around sex.

It’s worth noting that some people expect this pandemic to impact their sex lives in a positive or healthy way, such as by talking more, taking more safety precautions, and being more excited about sex. By contrast, others expect more negative outcomes, including more anxiety and less sex.

Again, we won’t know the answers for sure until we have future data, and we should be mindful of the fact that people aren’t always accurate at predicting what their future behaviors will be, sexually and otherwise. However, these findings suggest that, for at least some people, there will likely be lingering effects of this pandemic on their sex lives for years to come, for better or for worse.

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Image Source: 123RF/Andrey Kiselev

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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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