What the Data Tells Us About Sex, Love, and Desire in the Time of Coronavirus

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We polled our community to understand just how much sex people are having during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and how quarantine is impacting relationships. 

For some people, sex is the last thing on their minds when navigating the stay-at-home orders, toilet paper hoarding, and overall panic that comes with a pandemic. For others, neither the thought of impending sickness nor even death can stop them from naturally longing for love and sex. 

Recently, we created a few polls on tabú’s Instagram about libido, masturbation habits, sexual frequency, and relationships. The results further supported that as a whole, people are ~50/50 when it comes to the amount of sexual desire they experience and express during this time of crisis. Let’s go through the poll results.

Overall Mental Health

Q: Has the recent world news/being in quarantine negatively impacted your mental health?

  • 79% of respondents voted “yes”
  • 21% of respondents voted “not so much”
    212 responses

These results exemplify how elevated levels of stress and uncertainty during this global outbreak can take a toll on a person’s mental health. Not only are many of us fearful of our own health and the health of those closest to us, but we feel limited in the way that we can experience basic human interaction and connection, which brings us to the next question of the poll.

A Look at Desire

Q: What impact has being in quarantine had on your sexual desire for the most part?

  • 42 respondents voted “no change really”
  • 68 respondents voted “it fluctuates”
  • 69 respondents voted “it’s gone down”
  • 73 respondents voted “it’s gone up”
    252 responses

Personally, I’ve noticed a tremendous leap in my sex drive, so it was reassuring to see that many people were going through that as well. On the other hand, I discovered that many people were experiencing a decline in their sexual desire. But why did it seem like typically, either people were extremely horny or not concerned with sex at all, with little to no in-between? 

In a recent article for Sex & Psychology, sex researcher, Dr. Justin Lehmiller, explains the Terror Management Theory, a concept that explains how humans develop coping mechanisms to adapt when faced with the awareness or reality of death. Studies show that people respond differently to reminders of mortality; some may notice increased sexual appetite, while others lean on other stress-relieving methods to cope. It turns out that our self-image is a key predictor in how we do or don’t rely on sexual relief in response to anxiety. Those with a more positive body image and those who are more comfortable with physical intimacy tend to experience higher desire in response to death anxiety.

Masturbate All Day, Or…?

Q: Are you masturbating more frequently or less frequently?

  • 53% of respondents voted “more frequently”
  • 47% of respondents voted “less frequently”
    239 responses

The results were nearly 50/50, but it isn’t surprising that slightly more people reported an increased masturbation frequency. Pornhub Insights has released four installments of analytics on how Coronavirus-related searches have affected Pornhub’s daily traffic. Based on their data, social distancing has had quite an influence on the massive surge in traffic, with more than 9.1 million searches containing either “corona” or “covid.” Sex toy sales are also on the rise, indicating that people are leaning into self-pleasure to bide the time. Even the NYC Health Department recommended masturbation as the safest form of sex right now! Given what we know about the health benefits of masturbation, we would say it’s a great way to incorporate self-care into your routine. 

Too Hot to Handle?

Q: If you have a partner, are you having more sex or less sex?

  • 39% of respondents reported “more often”
  • 61% of respondents reported “less often”
    134 responses

I’ve heard jokes and read a few headlines about the possibility of a baby boom after this pandemic, but it looks like that may not wind up being the case. In fact, as evidenced by our poll results, many couples are actually experiencing mismatched sexual desire at this time. This could be due to the way we experience arousal and desire in the body. According to the Dual Control Model of Sexual Response, people tend to balance their sexual arousal in two systems, similar to how the gas pedal (excitation) and brake pedal (inhibition) operate in a car. You can think of your “gas pedal” as your turn-ons and your “brakes” as your turn-offs.

In certain contexts, you are more inclined to subconsciously press on the brake pedal, making it more difficult to become aroused; this arousal suppression especially tends to be the case during times of anxiety. By contrast, there are other times when your metaphorical foot slams on the gas pedal, signaling increased sexual excitement. This duality between acceleration and resistance can occur due to emotions such as fear and anxiety causing a “fight or flight” response in the brain, neurologically categorizing these responses as sexual arousal. Given the fears surrounding coronavirus, including health uncertainty and financial instability, the expectation of having lots of baby-making sex during quarantine isn’t necessarily the reality for most couples. In fact, it may be the complete opposite… which brings us to our next poll.

Relationship Conflict When There’s No Distance…

Q: If you’re in a relationship, has being in quarantine increased conflict between you and your partner?

  • 54% of respondents reported “no”
  • 46% of respondents reported “yes”
    148 responses

At the beginning of my self-quarantine, I envied the couples who were blessed enough to be living under the same roof because I assumed it would be easier to rely on each other if you’re in constant face-to-face contact; however, this constant contact may not be so bonding after all. Take China for example. The city of Xian and Dazhou both reported record-high numbers of divorce filings in early March, which makes me wonder how quarantine is affecting communication and overall satisfaction in relationships even outside of sex. What is one to do when conflict arises in quarantine with your partner, but there’s nowhere else to go?

Some of our poll participants provided their strategies for conflict management, ranging from “Take 5 minutes apart” or “Leave the room and maybe take a nap” to “Talk it through immediately to get past it.”

On her Quibi show, Sexology, intimacy expert Shan Boodram highlights talking through arguments as a practical way that she and her husband, Jared, communicate while being quarantined together to work through any heated “quarantine quarrels” that may arise. She defers to the “mirror technique,” a method by which each individual takes turns talking back and forth to understand each other’s point of view.

“The mirror technique is when we sit in front of each other and I have to explain to you my perspective and you have to repeat back to me exactly what I said and we can’t change until I feel satisfied that Jared understands my side. Then the mirror switches and I become Jared’s mirror. And after that, you’re in a better position to compromise with each other,” Boodram explains on the show. 

We’re living through unprecedented times right now and even those with the best sex lives prior to quarantine will likely need guidance to figure out the whirlwind of emotions and adjustments that come with a pandemic. Though the ways we navigate human interaction and interpersonal relationships are changing, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Take this time to be precise about your needs concerning your sexual and mental health. Set boundaries and most importantly, be empathetic toward others who may be experiencing this quarantine differently than you.

While we don’t have the demographic breakdown of our poll respondents, for a fuller picture of our Instagram community, as of May 8, 2020…
82% self-identify as women
18% self-identify as men
24% are 18-24 years old
51% are 25-34 years old
15% are 35-44 years old
Our top cities are New York, Los Angeles, London, San Francisco, and Chicago

Want to learn more about The Dual Control Model and how to get on the same page as your partner? Check out Maximize Your Desire, our on-demand class with sex educator and coach Kait Scalisi, MPH.

Tatyannah King

Tatyannah King

Tatyannah graduated from UNC-Greensboro in 2018. She is now a grad student at Widener University, studying social work and human sexuality She is also a sex blogger, travel enthusiast and educational presenter with the Center for Positive Sexuality. To stay up to date with her future workshops and presentations about sexuality, follow her on Instagram @taty_k_king.

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