What Will Sex and Relationships Look Like After COVID-19?
May 12, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller
One of the questions I’m asked most often by journalists these days is what sex and relationships will look like after the pandemic. As a result, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about this. The truth, of course, is that there’s just so much we don’t yet know, so it’s hard to make concrete predictions. However, I’ve identified a few key areas we should keep our eyes on, which is what I’m going to explore in this post.
The Future of Relationships and Marriage
The number of American adults living single has been on the rise for decades. In fact, since the 1970s, it has increased by more than two-thirds, with about 27% living single today.
Something I wonder about is whether we’re going to see a reversal in this trend in the aftermath of COVID-19. While the rise of adults living single was long celebrated by many as a sign of independence, what we saw during the pandemic is that people living alone struggled more than those living with a partner. So will we see fewer people living single in the future? Has living with a partner become more important?
Likewise, the U.S. marriage rate was at a record low prior to the pandemic, with the average age of first marriage steadily increasing. In fact, it is nearing age 30. However, recent data points to a rise in people seeking committed over casual relationships, so an important question to ask is whether we’re going to see a rise in the marriage rate—and also whether people will decide to get hitched at younger ages again.
The Future of Sex
Condom use has been on the decline, with rates of usage among teens and men who have sex with men dropping the most over the last decade. However, people are now reporting more interest in using condoms as we emerge from the pandemic. So will COVID-19 be the thing that potentially blunts or reverses the trend toward lower condom use?
Also, while much has been said and written about college hook-up culture over the last two decades, rates of sexlessness among college-age adults (especially men) have been on the rise. In fact, before the pandemic, one in three 18-24-year-old men reported no sex in the past year.
We know that, during the pandemic, rates of sexlessness increased overall and that there’s more hesitancy around sex (especially casual sex) right now. So what does this mean for the sexuality of younger adults? Will rates of sexlessness rise even more? If so, what are the psychological implications of this? And if we have a generation of folks for whom sexual development is stunted, what will this mean going forward for their emotional development and the way that they approach romantic relationships?
The Future of Fertility
It is estimated that there will be 300,000-500,000 fewer births in 2021 in the U.S. alone. This is on top of a substantial drop in births over the past decade. It’s possible that some of these births are just being delayed or postponed, but it’s also possible that many of them will never happen at all.
This raises some important social, economic, and political questions. For example, what will it mean to have smaller cohorts of children? Will those children thrive in the presence of more individualized attention, or will they experience more loneliness? Also, while being part of a smaller generational cohort may make it easier to get jobs later on due to a smaller workforce, this will also result in less tax revenue and collection for social security.
This raises the question of whether government intervention is on the horizon to promote more births in the United States. In other countries with declining birth rates and growing elderly populations (e.g., Japan, South Korea), we’ve seen governments getting involved in an effort to increase the birth rate, albeit with quite limited success.
Beyond this, there are also questions to be raised about how COVID-19 itself affects reproductive health. For example, some studies point to impaired sperm counts in men infected with COVID-19, perhaps due to an elevated immune response in the testes. Other studies suggest that COVID-19 may have negative effects on reproductive processes in women. We don’t know whether these effects are temporary or permanent because we don’t have long-term data yet. However, this had led some scientists to wonder whether the pandemic will create another kind of fertility crisis—one that heightens the need for assisted reproduction.
The Future of STIs
Although rates of sexual activity dropped during the pandemic, sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing and surveillance dropped at the same time. Thus, the full picture of what happened with STIs during the past year is unclear.
Several STDs were at a record high before COVID-19—but since the pandemic began, people with asymptomatic infections haven’t been getting tested. For example, some research has shown that while cases of gonorrhea dropped overall during the pandemic, this was primarily due to a decrease in asymptomatic cases showing up for testing. There was no change in number of symptomatic people who came in. In other words, people who were infected but didn’t have symptoms didn’t show up for routine testing, which raises the possibility of a hidden STI epidemic.
This is particularly concerning when you consider other research showing a decline in condom use during the pandemic, particularly among single adults.
This raises some important questions for sexual health experts, including how we get people back in the habit of regular STI testing. It also raises additional questions about the future of condom use because, while some data suggest that people say they are more likely to use condoms going forward (as I mentioned above), this obviously seems at odds with the finding that condom use dropped last year—so what accounts for this discrepancy? What’s really going to happen with condom use?
The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to substantially alter the future of sex, relationships, fertility, and sexual health. We don’t know how all of this is going to play out—and we won’t know for quite some time. However, it’s important for us to keep an eye on these key areas so tha
t we can be prepared for what’s ahead.
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & 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.Read full bio >