Back in spring, as catastrophic headlines accumulated, media outlets tried their best to convince us that there would be a lockdown baby boom. It was a hopeful, silly, slightly saucy story to accompany the otherwise devastating news. It was also, according to the latest Europe-wide figures, spurious. Turns out that we weren’t all having more sex in the first half of 2020, even as the atmosphere of fear and dread coincided with a sudden interest in at-home cocktail making.
If you were in a couple, you were too busy dealing with childcare, housework, work emergencies or cocooning loved ones to find time for sex. Single people shared those concerns while also contending with the fact that finding a new sexual partner had suddenly become perilous and immoral. Covid-19 is not sexually transmitted but it is, of course, spread by close contact, which makes casual sex, even months after the peak of the virus, feel risky. The only people I know who are having regular, passionate sex in 2020 are those in very new relationships, secured just before coronavirus hit.
The data would seem to back up my suspicion that most people are having worse sex. According to a recent Kinsey Institute study, all types of sexual activity – including masturbation – were down during spring 2020. Meanwhile, the same study found that 43.5% of people reported a decline in the quality of their sex life during that same time. Only a small cohort (13%) experienced an uptick in pleasure.
Dr Justin Lehmiller, author of the book Tell Me What You Want and a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, co-authored the study. When we discuss the more positive findings of the research, he tells me that “while many people have found themselves having less interest in sex and have become less active, others are having more sex than before – and some are trying new and different things in the bedroom”.
The study found that roughly 20% of people had made “a new addition” to their sex life since the pandemic started. This included sharing or acting on a sexual fantasy, using a sex toy or incorporating more technology into their sex lives. “Those who reported making new additions were the most likely to report improvements in their intimate lives,” says Dr Lehmiller.
The only people I know who are having regular, passionate sex in 2020 are those in very new relationships, secured just before coronavirus hit.
So, as we have all become dependent on technology to communicate with colleagues and family, has there been a similar increase in sexting and cyber sex? Emma Sayle, founder of Killing Kittens, the members-only sex community aimed at the “sexual elite”, says that they witnessed a 330% increase in traffic to the website when lockdown was announced. Members who would usually descend on the parties from around the UK and Ireland (“We have a lot of members from Ireland,” Sayle says) were forced onto Zoom as real-life contact was banned.
“It was a slightly crazy time,” Sayle admits, “as we had to test the tech to see if the parties would work. We then had to come up with a concept that would entertain everyone and keep the feel of a real-life KK party but online.”
The parties, and the community’s sex education workshops, have now been operating successfully online for several months and according to Sayle, “the future of Killing Kittens will be very much in the digital world”, with the online events continuing even when the real-life parties eventually return.
For the more inhibited, however, a sudden switch to online and phone sex was tricky. One friend admits to desperately calling exes over the past several months, initiating phone sex – but, she says, “it has mainly been awful”. Another friend, who moved in with his more vulnerable parents at the beginning of the crisis and has curtailed his sex life for fear of catching and passing on the virus, says his only online encounter ended abruptly when he became worried about its audibility.
Dr Lehmiller confirms that there has been an increased interested in online sex in 2020. “Our study found that many people reported engaging in things like phone sex, cyber sex, and sexting for the very first time during the pandemic,” he says. “What’s not yet clear is whether this signals a new trend, or if it’s just a temporary replacement for more in-person, partnered sexual activity. It’s possible that the pandemic will accelerate the trend of more of our intimate lives taking place in virtual spaces but we’ll really need to have long-term studies to know.”
As we approach the end of 2020, it’s becoming clear that the pandemic has the potential to change the way we live – and perhaps the way we have sex – forever. Most people, however, are likely to be hoping that as dread recedes, their desire returns; and as restrictions continue to ease, meeting a new partner becomes more possible. A friend who recently had sex for the first time all year tells me that she felt like a nervous virgin as she made the journey to her date’s house. Before Covid, sex was just sex, she says – but after months of celibacy and worry and joylessness, it felt like a new and different experience. It felt like something you couldn’t do over Zoom…
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