How has COVID-19 affected America's sex life?

By John Murphy
Published August 14, 2020

Key Takeaways

For about half of American adults, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed their sex life—mostly for the worse, according to various reports.

A recent study by researchers at Indiana University (IU) found that nearly half (49.2%) of a nationally representative sample of 1,010 American adults reported some kind of change—most commonly, a decrease—in their sexual behavior during the COVID-19 outbreak.

An online NBC News poll of more than 11,000 respondents revealed that more than half (at the time of this writing) said coronavirus has negatively impacted their love life.

According to an online survey of 1,200 Americans conducted by Lovehoney, a site that sells erotic toys and lingerie, only 32% of American couples report being “sexually happy” during the pandemic. The crisis has resulted in intimacy challenges for 63% of couples, and 19% of couples aren’t having any sex at all, the survey found.

What’s happening?

“A lot of people in quarantine aren't feeling their best, or feeling as sexy,” Ian Kerner, PhD, a psychotherapist and sex counselor, told Health magazine. “If you're home all day and you're not changing out of your pajamas or applying as much self-care or going to the gym, your sexual self-esteem can start to go down. You may stop seeing your partner as sexy too and think of them as just someone familiar.” 

As Mark Twain wrote, “Familiarity breeds contempt—and children.” It remains to be seen, though, whether “familiarity” from the COVID-19 crisis will lead to a baby boom, as it did with Hurricane Sandy. More likely, close quarters have more frequently bred contempt, with 32% of respondents to the Lovehoney survey saying that lockdown stress has increased the number of arguments between partners.

Uptick for some, downturn for others

The crisis hasn’t led to a romantic lull for everyone, of course, as stay-at-home orders have offered an opportunity for more sex and intimacy for some Americans. According to the Lovehoney survey, 38% of couples said that lockdown has improved their sex life (if not their sexual frequency). And more than half (54%) of couples have become more sexually adventurous.

But the survey also found that nearly one-quarter (24%) of respondents haven’t been able to get together with their partners because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“Inevitably, overall sexual activity has declined, because so many of us are obliged to live apart and cease physical contact, but many couples are sexting and enjoying video sex sessions through Facetime, Zoom and Skype to make separation more bearable,” said Annabelle Knight, Lovehoney’s resident sex and relationship expert.

The survey reported that 89% of couples are relying on sexting and 48% on virtual sex to remain intimate. Meanwhile, the IU study found that phone or video sex chatting increased among only 8% of couples during lockdown (and decreased among 9%).

“In the first month of social distancing and stay at home guidance, many people experienced substantial change in their relationships,” said Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH, co-author of IU study and professor in sexual and reproductive health at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington. “While some people found themselves spending time constantly with their romantic or sexual partners, others found themselves separated from partners or unable to date or meet up with potential partners.”

The IU researchers found that frequency of sexual intercourse increased for 12.5% of the study’s respondents but decreased for 19.4%, and stayed the same for 68%. Romantic activities (like hugging, kissing, cuddling, or holding hands) as well as certain sexual activities (like oral sex and masturbating as a couple) decreased among more couples than increased. Conversely, behaviors like masturbating alone, sending sexy pictures, and watching sexually explicit videos saw greater increases than decreases.

The increase or decrease seemed to depend on whether a couple has children and how old the children are. “We found that having any children under the age of 5 at home was associated with greater likelihood of stability and/or increase in several partnered behaviors, while having elementary aged children was often linked to decreased reports of these behaviors,” the researchers wrote.

Why the difference? “Parents of smaller children may be better able to maintain pre-pandemic schedules and routines (e.g. naptimes and/or earlier bedtimes) that free some consistent time for partnered sex in ways that may be more challenging for parents of older school-aged children to do,” the IU researchers wrote.

Age and regional factors that affect sex

Age and location have also affected intimacy during the coronavirus. Americans aged 18-34 reported a 14% decline in sexual activity while those aged 35 and older reported a 4% increase in activity, according to the Lovehoney survey. The decline among younger Americans may be attributed to the fact that many couples under age 35 don’t live together, and shelter-in-place orders prevent them from seeing one another as often.

Regionally, residents of Florida reported a 14% increase in sexual activity, while Californians have had a 19% decrease, the Lovehoney survey showed. These numbers may reflect differences in lockdown restrictions in the respective states. Residents of other states also reported decreased sexual activity, including those in Pennsylvania (-15%), New York (-11%), Texas (-10%), and Illinois (-3%).

How people are managing mentally with the pandemic seems to be impacting their sexual behavior as well. “Global research has raised concerns that social distancing measures, though necessary to control COVID-19, can exacerbate feelings of depression and loneliness for some people,” the IU researchers wrote.

Indeed, people who felt depressed and lonely reported decreases in both intimate behaviors—such as hugging, cuddling, holding hands, and kissing—and in sexual activity with partners, the IU study showed.

“This study is a reminder that pandemics impact every aspect of the human experience, including sexuality,” said Devon Hensel, PhD, co-author of the IU study and associate research professor of pediatrics at the IU School of Medicine. “Better understanding of how real-life pandemic management—such as childcare, mental health challenges, and worries about getting sick—impacts solo and partnered sex aids professionals in helping people tailor solutions to any sexual challenges they may have.”

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