How the pandemic shaped the sex lives of Canadians

A new UBC study, recently published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, uncovers a more nuanced picture of how COVID-19 has shaped the sex lives of Canadians.

At the start of the pandemic, there were ample predictions that more time at home would lead to more time between the sheets.

But a new UBC study, recently published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, uncovers a more nuanced picture of how COVID-19 has shaped the sex lives of Canadians.

Dr. Lori Brotto

“Sexual health is really complex,” says the study’s lead author Dr. Lori Brotto, a UBC professor of obstetrics and gynaecology and executive director of the Women’s Health Research Institute.

The study—which surveyed more than 1,000 Canadians ranging in age from 19 to 81—examined the pandemic’s impact on various facets of sexual health (desire, behaviour, compliance and coercion) at four time points between April and August 2020.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, the researchers found higher levels of COVID-19-related stress actually led to higher levels of sexual desire for a partner.

“Generally, sexual desire decreases with stress, but at the very start of the pandemic, when lockdown measures were at their strictest, the kind of stress people experienced was immediate. And that acute stress kicked off a fight-or-flight response, which we know can create anxious arousal that can be misinterpreted by the body as sexual arousal,” explains Dr. Brotto.

But that libido boost didn’t necessarily translate to people having more sex, she notes.

The high levels of early pandemic stress also led to higher levels of self-reported sexual coercion.

“While overall rates of sexual coercion were low in this study, consistent with what we’ve seen in past pandemics, COVID-19-related stress did lead to increased rates of sexual violence,” says Dr. Brotto. “These results are alarming when you consider the possible long-term effects of stress persisting post-pandemic.”

As the pandemic progressed, the researchers observed falling rates of sexual desire for a partner. Despite this decrease, over the summer months as public health restrictions eased, there was an uptick in sexual activity—but only among those without a live-in romantic partner.

Meanwhile, sexual activity among partners living under the same roof continued to wane.

“Over time, COVID-19 became a chronic stressor on relationships,” says Dr. Brotto. “Existing conflicts were only aggravated by new COVID-19 stresses associated with everything from working from home to childcare and financial difficulties.”

Unlike desire for a partner, desire to masturbate was neither hampered nor boosted by easing restrictions, although people masturbated less as restrictions lifted.

According to Dr. Brotto, with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, safe sex practices are more important than ever.

“For some, there will be a sense of invincibility once they’re vaccinated and a real sense of longing to engage in that part of their life again,” says Dr. Brotto. “In regions of the world where people are fully vaccinated, we’re starting to see a massive resumption of sexual activity, with people even listing their vaccine status on their dating profiles. If we’re not careful, we could see a rise in unprotected sex and sexually transmitted infections.”

On the flip side, Dr. Brotto says there may be new anxieties around sex after COVID-19.

“For those who really struggled with anxiety during the pandemic, we’re going to need to increase sexual health supports and encourage people to engage in activities like mindfulness to re-cultivate their sexual health.”

Interview language: English