Safe Sex, Sex Ed

We Usually Have More Sex in the Summer–But Will We During the Pandemic?

August 17, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller

Our sexual behavior patterns change with the seasons. Historically, there has been a reliable peak in sexual activity during the summer months. But is our usual summer peak going to happen in the era of COVID-19?

Before we get to the present, let’s look at the past. Studies have found that sexual activity usually increases during the warmer weather months. For example, consider data obtained from patient visits to the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre in Melbourne, Australia between the years 2006-2014 [1]. Researchers looked at how diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and patients’ reports of the number of partners they’d had in the past 3 months changed throughout the year.

Regardless of sexual orientation, they found that men and women alike reported having a higher number of recent partners when they visited the clinic during the summer compared to the winter.

Moreover, rates of several STIs were higher in the summer than in the winter. For instance, men who have sex with men had higher odds of being diagnosed with urethral gonorrhea, while men who have sex with women had higher odds of being diagnosed with non-gonococcal urethritis (or NGU, an infection of the urethra most commonly caused by chlamydia).

In women, diagnoses of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) peaked in the autumn. Because PID is most commonly caused by untreated cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea, the peak in autumn diagnoses of PID is consistent with higher rates of STIs being contracted in the summer.

Consistent with these results, an analysis of Google search trends revealed that searches for pornography, prostitution, and online dating reliably increase during the summer months as well [2], which also suggests that something about summer seems to get people in the mood.

What accounts for this seasonal difference in sexual behavior? We can’t say definitively based on the data; however, one possibility is that it could be a function of people taking more vacations in the summer. This would make sense in light of research finding that there’s a likely link between vacationing and sex.

That said, past isn’t always prologue—and people aren’t in their usual summer patterns right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For one thing, social distancing measures make it harder to date and hook-up, especially with most bars and nightclubs being closed. Likewise, travel restrictions make it more challenging to make serious vacation plans.

Some of my colleagues and I at the Kinsey Institute have been conducing a longitudinal study since mid-march to explore the impact of this pandemic on people’s intimate lives—and we’ve found that the trend has been toward less sexual activity lately.

During the lockdown and quarantine period specifically, rates of sexual activity decreased substantially for both singles and those in relationships. And even since many restrictions have been lifted, rates of sexual activity haven’t really changed all that much.

For example, when we surveyed people during the March-April lockdown/quarantine period, only about 1% of our participants reported having had an online hookup during that time. During our fourth follow-up, which took place between late May and mid-June, the number who had hooked-up was about the same: 1%.

Likewise, when looking at specific sexual behaviors, we asked people in our very first survey to report on pre-pandemic frequencies over the past year. On average, 49% of participants said they had vaginal intercourse once per week or more in the year prior to COVID-19. During lockdown/quarantine, that number dropped to 39%. In the late May to mid-June follow-up, the number was 36%.

The numbers for other sexual behaviors followed a similar pattern. Regardless of what the sexual activity is (e.g., solo or partnered masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, etc.), people don’t seem to be engaging in it at the same level they were before the pandemic.

So as social distancing measures have been relaxed and lockdown restrictions have been lifted, we haven’t really seen a rebound in rates of sexual activity, let alone an increase. This makes sense in light of the ongoing uncertainty, anxiety, and stress surrounding this pandemic. While we can interact with the world a little more freely than we did during lockdown, there’s a level of stress and anxiety that wasn’t there before the pandemic—and we know that these factors have a tendency to put a damper on libido. When this is coupled with limited opportunities to meet up, it’s no wonder that sexual activity rates remain below their usual level.

Thus, while we’ve historically had a tendency to have more sex in the summer, the summer of COVID-19 appears to be the exception to the rule.

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[1] Cornelisse, V. J., Chow, E. P., Chen, M. Y., Bradshaw, C. S., & Fairley, C. K. (2016). Summer heat: A cross-sectional analysis of seasonal differences in sexual behaviour and sexually transmissible diseases in Melbourne, Australia. Sexually Transmitted Infections.

[2] Seasonal changes in Google search trends for pornography, prostitution, and online dating: Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2013). Seasonal variation in internet keyword searches: A proxy assessment of sex mating behaviors. Archives of Sexual Behavior42(4), 515-521.

Image Credit: 123RF/zegers06

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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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