4 Ways Sex Is Different Because of the Pandemic, Say Sex Researchers

Whether you were quarantined with a partner or not, sex changed drastically for many people during the pandemic...and ever since.

There’s a lot that changed for people since 2020. Things that might have seemed unique are way more common now: people wear masks for their wellness, fewer workers head in to the office…and in terms of our collective intimate lives, even our means and patterns of having sex have transformed in noticeable ways.

“We have seen change,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Erin Rayburn, LMFT, LPC-MHSP, NCC, who adds that this shift “consequently affects [people’s] sexuality and sexual expression.”

While spending more time at home may seem like a blessing for many, the number of sexual encounters people regularly experience has shifted—even if you’re already living with the partner you desire most. Here are a few of the ways Rayburn says sex changed because of the pandemic for individuals who are single or dating, as well as for couples in committed relationships.

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Social distancing results in fewer sexual encounters

Naturally, as the world was actively social distancing from one another, Rayburn says the number of sexual encounters decreased significantly.

Research from around the world backs this up. One 2022 review through the School of Nursing at the University of Hong Kong concluded from a survey of Hong Kong residents that sexual encounters with casual partners, as well as dating app usage, have decreased significantly.

Another 2020 study found that because fewer sexual encounters were happening, people (including adolescents) looked to fill their sexual needs elsewhere, such as through masturbation or connecting with partners through video.

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More “sexting” is happening

Because fewer people were experiencing in-person sexual encounters, for some, desire steered them to other means of connection. “People’s needs still drove them to connect, so there was an increase in sexting,” says Rayburn.

In a 2021 study called “Love in Quarantine: Sexting, Stress, and Coping During the COVID-19 Lockdown” published in the peer-reviewed academic journal, Sexuality Research and Social Policy, researchers evaluated 1,929 adults in their early twenties and found that sexting was a coping tool during COVID-19 lockdown due to pandemic-related stress.

Another 2022 study review in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that on average, the more isolated a person was, the greater their willingness to engage in sexting. The study concluded that exchanging intimate information was a way to connect and adapt during difficult circumstances. Living through a pandemic definitely fits that bill.

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Committed partners experience less sex than before

Even for many individuals who lived with their partners, Rayburn explains that it didn’t always result in more sexual encounters taking place. “Consequently, those in committed partnerships may have experienced a decline in their sexual activity if they were experiencing relationship tension due to too much time spent together,” she explains.

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research may demonstrate these points, as it found that 22% of study participants reported decreased sexual desire, 41% experienced a decrease in sexual intercourse frequency, and 31% reported deterioration of partner relationships.

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Some are more willing to get adventurous

While many people were experiencing less sex during the COVID-19 pandemic—whether due to social distancing, or a decreased sexual desire around their partner—others were using that time to let themselves explore new sexual encounters.

One 2020 research article published in Leisure Sciences reviewed the results of an online survey where one in every five participants said they expanded their sexual repertoire by incorporating new activities and becoming more sexually diverse in their types of encounters. So while nearly half of the study participants said they had less sex, a fifth of participants felt their feelings of stress and loneliness gave them a willingness to try new things.

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