Dating & Relationships

Sex Has Decreased During the Pandemic, in Part, Because Relationship Conflict has Increased

September 30, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller

In our Kinsey Institute study on how the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is affecting our intimate lives, we found that rates of sexual activity decreased during lockdown compared to prior year frequencies—and they’ve stayed lower than normal even as the world has started opening back up.

There are a lot of potential reasons behind this pandemic “sex recession,” some of which we’ve discussed in our past publications, such as high rates of stress and loneliness tamping down the desire for sex.

However, a new study out of Indiana University points to another reason for declining rates of sex among persons in relationships specifically: increased conflict stemming from the pandemic.

In this study, recently published in The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, researchers obtained a nationally representative sample of 1,010 Americans aged 18-94. They focused specifically on the subset of participants (782) who reported being in some type of sexual or romantic relationships at the time (note that the researchers did not report relationship duration or relationship type, such as sexually exclusive or non-exclusive, so we don’t know how any effects might differ based on how long people have been together or what kind of relationship they were in). Data were collected in mid-April of this year, a period during which lockdowns were still widespread.

Participants were asked the following question about conflict: “Have you experienced increased tension, arguments, or difficulties in your relationship with your romantic partner due to the spread of the new coronavirus and its related restrictions?” Participants were lumped into two categories based on whether they reported no changes in conflict versus those who reported at least some increase.

In total, 34% of participants reported experiencing some conflict stemming from the pandemic or its associated restrictions. The researchers then looked at how this conflict was related to sexual activity.

Those who reported conflict reported lower odds of engaging in both intimate activities (e.g., hugging, kissing, cuddling) as well as sexual behaviors (e.g., genital touch, oral sex, intercourse). They also reported lower levels of solo masturbation.

These effects tended to be strongest for those living with a partner, and they tended to be weaker for those who were living apart.

Conflict was also linked to lower odds of reporting an orgasm during sex (when sex occurred)—and it was also linked to feeling less emotionally connected to one’s partner during the act itself.

What these findings tell us is that part of the reason sex has declined during the pandemic (and why we’re unlikely to see a COVID-19 “baby boom”) is because many people in relationships experienced a rise in conflict stemming directly from the pandemic and the rules and restrictions accompanying it. This conflict seems to have spilled over into the bedroom and beyond, reducing rates of both intimate and sexual behavior.

This points to a need for sex educators, researchers, and therapists to help those in relationships develop productive strategies for defusing and managing conflict during these challenging times in order to help their relationships weather this prolonged period of ultra-high stress.

Looking for some tips on how to stay connected with your partner during the pandemic? Check out this article.

Want to learn more about Sex and Psychology? Click here for previous articles or follow the blog on Facebook (, Twitter (@JustinLehmiller), or Reddit ( to receive updates. You can also follow Dr. Lehmiller on YouTube and Instagram.

To learn more about this research, see: Luetke, M., Hensel, D., Herbenick, D., & Rosenberg, M. (2020). Romantic Relationship Conflict Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Changes in Intimate and Sexual Behaviors in a Nationally Representative Sample of American Adults. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 1-16.

Image Source: 123RF/Roman Samborskyi

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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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