Sex: Another casualty of the pandemic?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published April 15, 2021

Key Takeaways

COVID-19 has affected nearly every facet of American life—and that includes sex. New research is pulling the covers back on how the pandemic is affecting this important aspect of life, with less-than-rosy findings.

In particular, the stay-at-home orders that were instituted around the country by the end of March 2020 may have exerted a major negative influence on sexual behaviors and associated well-being, according to results of a study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. 

“These strict, but necessary, measures have often resulted in families and romantic and/or sexual partners being mostly confined together in their homes, or, alternatively, sequestered from one another in order to reduce risk for particularly vulnerable individuals,” the authors wrote.

 When MDLinx visited the topic of sex and the pandemic last August, we reported that the ongoing outbreak had changed the sex lives of about half of American adults—largely for the worse.  

Now that we’re a little more than a year into the pandemic, let’s take a closer look at how it has influenced sex among Americans.


Most conspicuously, the pandemic has played a role in decreased sexual frequency among partners. Investigators from the Kinsey Institute’s Condom Use Research Team (CURT) team surveyed 1,117 married Americans (both hetero- and homosexual married couples) between 30-50 years old, with regard to various factors, including sexual frequency.

They found that 52% of women in either heterosexual or same-sex marriages reported about as much sex during the pandemic as before, while 24% reported more sex and 24% reported less sex. With regard to men, 55% of those in same-sex marriages reported more sex, whereas 35% of men in heterosexual marriages reported this finding.

Moreover, men and women both reported engaging in more talking with their spouse about sex, sharing the same bed, cuddling, and touching.

But was the sex satisfying? The researchers found 74% of women reported no change in sexual satisfaction, whereas 17% reported a decrease in sexual satisfaction, and 9% reported an increase in sexual satisfaction. (Complementary statistical findings for men were not readily available.)

In a yet unpublished or peer-reviewed study distributed by medRxiv, researchers set out to examine self-reported changes in solo and other sexual behaviors in American adults during the early stages of the public health response to the coronavirus. They conducted a survey of 1,010 US adults between April 10-20, 2020, and found that almost half of all adults reported a change in their sex lives, most commonly a decrease in sexual behaviors.

The authors wrote, “Having elementary aged children at home, past month depressive symptoms and loneliness and enacting more COVID-19 protective behaviors were associated with both reduced partnered bonding behaviors, such as hugging, cuddling, holding hands and kissing, as well as reduced partnered sexual behaviors, such as oral sex, partnered genital touching and vaginal sex. Greater COVID-19 risk perception and greater COVID-19 knowledge were associated with mixed effects in behavior outcomes.”


Based on the aforementioned survey findings published by medRxiv, the authors of the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy study predicted that the dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic and requisite stay-at-home mandates may boost relationship conflict, resulting in worse emotional well-being among sexual partners.

By assessing probability survey data from 1,010 American adults in April 2020, the investigators found that 34% of individuals in relationships reported some degree of conflict with romantic partners due to COVID-19 and its restrictions. Furthermore, those individuals who reported frequent coronavirus-related conflict were more likely to note decreased frequency of either solo or partner intimate and sexual behaviors compared with these behaviors in those not experiencing conflict. With respect to partnered sexual behaviors, a dose-response trend with conflict was observed.

“During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, reducing the spillover effect of stress into the relationship domain as well as ameliorating existing relationship conflict will be critical to assisting romantic partners and families adapt and thrive in new and challenging conditions,” the authors wrote. 

“To address these challenges, sex therapists, educators, and clinicians might help their clients and patients by promoting techniques to prevent of stress, increase emotional support and intimacy, and resolve conflict. Additionally, among partners living together, methods that balance connectedness between partners with personal autonomy and self-differentiation may help address sexual desire reductions caused by overfamiliarity,” they advised.

Sexual diversity

Authors of another survey-based study (n=1,559), published in Leisure Sciences, also found that nearly half of respondents reported a decline in sexual activity. They did, however, find a silver lining. According to their results, one of five surveyed upped their bedroom game by trying new things.

“The most common new additions included trying new sexual positions, sexting, sending nude photos, sharing sexual fantasies, watching pornography, searching for sex-related information online, having cybersex, filming oneself masturbating, and acting on sexual fantasies,” the authors wrote. “New additions that occurred with lower frequency included visiting ‘camming’ sites (as a customer or performer), using apps to track sexual behavior, and using advanced sexual technologies.”

Of note, those switching up their sex lives were more likely to be younger, living alone, and feeling stressed or lonely. Moreover, those adding to their repertoire were three times more likely to note improvements in their sex life.

“Even in the face of drastic changes to daily life, many adults are adapting their sexual lives in creative ways,” the authors concluded.

Bottom line

A substantial number of Americans are reporting a decrease in sexual activity during the pandemic. Lock-downs in many states could have played a role by increasing partner conflict. According to the research, sexual frequency is associated with greater well-being.

Importantly, some couples have found ways to cope with the stress of the pandemic via the addition of varied sexual practices to their bedroom repertoire. Other couples have reported an increase in other intimacies, including cuddling, touching, and talking. For those who desire it, healing can also come by engaging in sexual therapy with a licensed professional. 

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