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Sex and the pandemic: How lockdown has impacted relationships, desires and mental health

Being stuck at home during the pandemic has given rise to anxiety and depression, but it's also impacted sex, bringing down desires in some and up in others.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Domestic bliss may turn out to be cause for a slump in a satisfying sex life for couples living together during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a recent survey from Flo Health, a women’s health app that tracks periods and ovulation and has more than 167 million users worldwide.

Of the women who experienced changes in their sex life while cohabitating with their partners, 64% said they experienced a decrease in sexual desire since the start of lockdown. Within this group, 64% noted a decline in the quality of their sex life and 57% said they orgasm less often.

“Sexual desire is a balance of things hitting your brake pedal (stress, poor sleep and, lack of privacy) and things hitting your gas pedal (novelty, date nights, romance),” Jordan Rullo, PhD, sex therapist and Flo Health board member, told The Whipp. “To experience desire, you need more on the gas pedal than on the brake pedal.”

Cohabitation improves relationships

Even with sexual desires on the decline for some, relationships may be stronger for those cohabitating during lockdown, as 61% of respondents in the survey said the pandemic has positively impacted their relationship.

Other data agrees – a Pew Research Center survey from late fall 2020 found that married and cohabitating adults are as satisfied with their relationships as they were before the pandemic. More than half said their marriage or relationship was going “very well” at the time of the survey, nearly the same response from the same question in 2019.

Another study found that the stress of the pandemic has similarly led relationships to remain the same or strengthen, as reliance on intimate partners has been heightened during the pandemic. During the first few weeks of lockdown, partners actually “became more forgiving and less blaming of their partner’s negative behaviors,” the study, published in Psychological Science, found.

Among those who said their relationship was positively impacted in the Flo Health survey, 68% said they support each other more often, 67% spend more quality time together and 61% have meaningful conversations with their partners more often.

But the same wasn’t true for couples living separately. For some, the pandemic may have been the first big hurdle in the relationship, putting a huge strain on each other.

“Approximately every other woman who experienced changes said that the pandemic negatively impacted the way they interact with their partners,” the survey found.

Contrary to couples who live together, 42% of women who lived separately front their partner and said they experienced a negative impact reported more conflict; 41% said they spend less quality time together; and 38% said they feel irritated by their partner more often.

Distance makes the loins grow fonder

However, sexual desires were hotter among women who lived separately from their partner – 64% said their sexual desire improved.

“Of the women who experienced a change in their sexual desire since the pandemic started, it was surprising to see that the majority of them who live separately from their partner reported an increase in sexual desire,” Rullo told The Whipp. “Some studies suggest that couples who live apart are getting more sexually creative during the pandemic - including exploring virtual sex, ‘sex tech’ and sex toys. This trend might explain why many women living separately from their partners are noticing positive changes in their sexual desire.”

Distance and mystery may be helping fuel the fire, and with Covid-19 restrictions discouraging in-person get togethers, couples living apart are getting more innovative, with technology playing a role.

“Technology is an excellent tool for couples living separately who want to maintain their connection, whether that be sexual (through cybersex or sex tech) or emotional (through Zoom dates),” Rullo said.

Almost half of women (46%) living separately from their partner said the quality of their sex life has improved, while 44% said they orgasm more often.

Prioritizing mental health and self-care

For a lot of women, sexual desire is connected to emotions, physical wellbeing and mental health. The pandemic has hit all those areas of life and more, with 63% of women feeling more stressed, 51% more sensitive and 43% more lonely, Flo Health found. Another 43% said they were having trouble sleeping and 40% noted unhealthy coping patterns.

The sudden changes to everyday life has left many researchers wondering how relationships and marriages have been impacted over the last year, and a number of new studies and surveys are underway to study the effects further.

And for women experiencing an ebb to their sexual health, cut yourself some slack, says Rullo. The survey is proof that life during lockdown isn’t easy on mental health. Flo Health offers different courses on its app to help women deal with mental health loads.

“Many women are experiencing a negative impact on their sexual health and emotional health during the pandemic,” Rullo said. “If you’re experiencing this, you’re not alone! And you don’t need to beat yourself up for how you’ve been struggling. Take this information as evidence that this is a very difficult time for many women, emotionally and sexually, and consider practicing self-compassion.”

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