The UK has been in various states of lockdown for a year now, and if you live in the north, as I do, hook-ups have been pretty much illegal for every damn minute of that. Yes, from June of last year people who live alone could “bubble” with another household, allowing those in relationships to finally meet up, but bubbles, shmubbles. I don’t have a partner and I’d be damned if I was going to waste my one allocated bubble on a Tinder match.
So, for me and countless others, it’s been a year of enforced celibacy. I was whinging about this to my actual bubble buddy when we were out enjoying our government-approved walk, and said how lucky she was to be in lockdown with her husband, when she laughed and flatly told me they hadn’t been having sex either. All of which got me wondering: just how has a year of lockdown, Covid, and social distancing affected the sex life of the nation?
i’s opinion newsletter: talking points from today
As a sex historian, this is a question I have been asked a lot. How will the last year change how we have sex? The honest answer to that is I don’t know. Nobody knows. We can look to past pandemics, like the Spanish flu of 1919, to try and make an educated guess, but it is a guess, nonetheless.
I think we can appreciate what the “roaring 20s” were all about in a way we simply couldn’t before. After years of World War and a pandemic that claimed anywhere between 50 and 100 million lives, I can see why people wanted to get jiggy and jitterbug. But we have also spent 12 long months in a state of hyper-vigilance, scared to get too close to other people, and viewing everyone as a potential biohazard.
Will we be able to shake that off when the time comes, or will those who live through this retain anxieties about personal space and touch? In years to come, will we still be wearing masks and hoarding toilet rolls, as children not yet born laugh and say, “you don’t need to do that now, grandma”? But, one thing is sure, Covid has already changed, and will continue to change, how we have sex.
We have all heard a great deal about ‘the science’ over the past year, but it isn’t just the virologists and immunologists who have been gathering data on Covid. Sociologists and sexologists have been intensely studying the effects the pandemic has had on our sex lives. Despite early jokes about a baby-boom nine months after the first lockdown, we are now 12 months in and not only is there no baby boom, but birth rates are actually plummeting. They are currently the lowest in the UK since records began.
We are also, on average, having less sex than we were before the pandemic hit – and that’s everyone, not just singletons like me. Of course, there have been people breaking lockdown to have sex, and the research reflects that. The latest Natsal-COVID survey, for example, found that 20 per cent of sexually active 18-24-year-olds reported having sex with someone outside their bubble within the last four weeks. A study on men who have sex with men, carried out at 56 Dean Street, London’s busiest sexual health clinic, found that 76 per cent of respondents reported sexual activity during Covid restrictions, but even then, that three-quarters reported far fewer partners than they had pre-Covid. Less partners and less sex are trends found across multiple studies into sex and the pandemic.
The Kinsey Institute has conducted several studies on sexual behaviour throughout lockdown and found that “sexual activity, frequency, and risky behaviours declined significantly among young men and women”. Another study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found 60 per cent of British people were not engaging in regular sexual activity during the lockdown. While a study of sexually active Australians found ‘significant declines’ in sexual activity compared to pre-pandemic levels, with some 53.5 per cent of respondents reporting less sex during lockdown than in 2019. One study in India reported similar declines in sexual activity and concluded that the ‘financial anxiety stress… high depression, anxiety and mental stress’ the pandemic has induced has poured a metaphorical bucket of cold water of the head of the nation’s libido. Similar patterns have been found all over the world. But perhaps you didn’t need a scientist to tell you, lockdown is just not sexy.
Everyone I spoke to for this article reported feeling less sexy, less horny, and frankly, just less bothered about sex. Rachel has been married for nine years and for most of that has been enjoying regular sex with her husband, Raz, but this has changed over the last year. “I hope we get it back’” she laughed. “But, right now, it’s the furthest thing from my mind. We still cuddle a lot and I love curling up together in bed, but I think we’re just too exhausted to want sex! Our whole routine went out the window with the kids being home-schooled and working from home. I hope we get our groove back when all this is done.”
Jess lives with her girlfriend Nell in North London and she too has struggled to bring her A-game to the bedroom. “I really thought being locked down together would be amazing and we’d have loads of sex, and for the first few weeks I think we did, but we just aren’t anymore. We have both talked about this and keep checking in. I keep apologising and so does she, but I spend my days in endless online meetings and Nell spends hers worrying that she’s not going to have a job to go back too, and by the end of it, neither of us has anything left to give. We just lie there, watching crap documentaries on Netflix!”
And I know just what she means. Speaking as a singleton, it’s not just that having sex with someone risked death and broke the law that has dampened my desire. The mental effort it takes to simply get up and get through the day, in the face of such devastating, ongoing global events beyond your control is immense. At the start of lockdown, knowing I couldn’t have sex kicked my libido into overdrive, and I know I’m not alone in that because the data gathered by PornHub throughout the pandemic shows a huge surge of people watching porn in the first months of Covid-19. But as the lockdowns kept coming, I wasn’t coming at all. My once raging horn has withered to a whimpering, very tired, wish to just meet a mate for a couple of coffee without risking arrest.
But, maybe it’s not all as bleak as all that. Yes, the last year has been awful for everyone. Single people, married people, people living with their lovers, people who don’t, it doesn’t matter – the last year has been truly shit and very unsexy. But maybe positive things will come from this. Covid and lockdown have changed how we have sex, but human beings are nothing is not adaptable when it comes to getting their ends away. And while we are having less sex, it seems that we are becoming more diverse in the kinds of sex we are having.
One recent study, published in Leisure Sciences found that “while nearly half of the sample reported a decline in their sex life, one in five participants reported expanding their sexual repertoire by incorporating new activities”. These activities included things like sexting, trying new sexual positions, and sharing sexual fantasies.
Armed with this new data, I asked Jess if she and Nell had explored any new sexual activities. “I don’t think we’ve been exploring new sex, because we haven’t been having any” she said. “But when I think about it, we have been doing things together we haven’t done before. We have baths together every night. I think because we’re not having sex, we are being more intimate with each other in other ways. Instead of initiating sex, we are just lying together and holding each other. Actually, that’s been really lovely, and I hope we keep doing that when we’ve got our mojo back.”
Rachel too said that she has learnt more about her partner in lockdown than she has in nine years of marriage. “I can’t say we’ve been more creative, but I really do feel closer to him than I have before. It’s weird, but it feels like we’re in this together. I have his back and he has mine. We’re a proper team taking on the pandemic. I really do love him more than ever, even if we’ve both got fat and stopped regularly showering!”
And me? I have learnt to value connections in a way I haven’t before. I have learnt that sex is just one expression of a fundamental need for contact and closeness. I have had to learn how to ‘court’ partners online, instead of using sex as an ice-breaker in person, which has led to some amazing, albeit online, connections. Yes, I miss the sex. But I think I miss people even more. I am hopeful we will be able to return to something approaching normal, and that our sex lives will similarly recover. Personally, I am hoping for another roaring 20s, but whatever happens, I know I will never take sex for granted again.