How did lockdown affect people’s sex lives in Britain?

Published: 17 December 2021

Younger people and those not living with a partner reported the greatest changes in their sex lives during lockdown.

Published 17th December 2021

Lockdown affected people’s sex lives in a variety of different ways with young people and those not living with a partner reporting the greatest changes, according to researchers from the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, UCL, and the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

The peer-reviewed paper, which is the largest national study of sexual behaviours since the beginning of the pandemic, is published today in BMJ Sexually Transmitted Infections. It reports the findings from 6,654 people aged between 18 and 59 who took part in a Natsal-COVID web-panel survey undertaken by Ipsos MORI.

Data was collected between 29th July and 10th August 2020 and participants were asked a series of questions about their sexual behaviour (including physical and virtual activities) during the first four months of lockdown.

Professor Cath Mercer (UCL Institute for Global Health) explained: “During the first nationwide lockdown, many people in Britain were unable to have physical contact with anyone outside their household and we wanted to find out how this affected their sexual behaviour.

“What we found was a very varied picture depending on people’s circumstances at the start of lockdown: for some people, their sex lives improved, for some it stayed the same, while for many it got worse. Although many adults, especially if they were living with a partner, continued to be sexually active and reported little change, for those who didn’t live with a partner, Covid-19 restrictions were particularly detrimental.”

Altogether, 63% of adults reported having physical sex with someone after lockdown started, and of those people, three quarters (76%) said they were in cohabiting relationships. When participants were asked how often they engaged in sexual activities, just over half (57%) of those sexually experienced (defined as those who reported ever having partnered sex) said there was no change in the number of times they had sex with a partner compared to the three months before lockdown.

However, among sexually-experienced young people aged 18-24 were more likely to report a change in their sexual frequency – around 60% reported this – and of these, two-thirds (66%) perceived this to be a decline. A similar pattern for young people was seen in how they perceived changes in their sexual satisfaction.

Participants were also asked about whether they engaged in virtual sexual activities during the first lockdown. More than half (53%) reported a virtual sexual activity such as sexting or watching pornography compared to 84% who reported some form of physical sexual activity with a partner or by themselves. The proportion of people reporting virtual activities since lockdown was largely driven by watching pornography, reported by 65% of men and 21% of women.

Professor Kirstin Mitchell (MRC/CSO Social and Public Helath Sciences Unit) said: “Physical touch is a fundamental human need and crucial in developing intimacy. Virtual ways of being sexual can feel less satisfying because they don’t allow that. We found the reduction in opportunity to give and receive intimate touch was not experienced equally across the population.”

The Natsal Resource is supported by Wellcome with contributions from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). The UCL Coronavirus Rapid Response Fund and the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit also supported the Natsal COVID-19 survey.

Impacts of COVID-19 on sexual behaviour in Britain: findings from a large, quasi-representative survey (Natsal-COVID) is published in BMJ Sexually Transmitted Infections.

First published: 17 December 2021

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