At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, UBC researchers found higher levels of COVID-19-related stress actually led to higher levels of sexual desire in Canadians, a new study says.
“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,“ said study lead author Dr. Lori Brotto. “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.”
The study surveyed some 1,000 Canadians aged from 19 to 81 and examined the pandemic’s impact on various facets of sexual health such as desire, behaviour, compliance and coercion at four time points between April and August 2020.
But, said the study, which was recently published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, how COVID-19 has shaped the sex lives of Canadians is quite nuanced.
Higher COVID-19 stress predicted higher baseline dyadic (involving two or more) sexual desire, lower relationship satisfaction, higher desire for solitary sexual behaviour, and higher likelihood of experiencing sexual coercion among people with a live-in romantic partner, the study said.
It also found dyadic sexual desire and pandemic-related stress both decreased with time, while solitary sexual behaviour decreased and dyadic sexual behaviour increased among participants without a live-in romantic partner.
“Sexual health is really complex,” said Brotto, a UBC professor of obstetrics and gynaecology and executive director of the Women’s Health Research Institute.
But, she added, the stress-fed libido boost didn’t necessarily translate to people having more sex.
Further, Brotto said, 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,” Brotto said. “These results are alarming when you consider the possible long-term effects of stress persisting post-pandemic.”
Further, as the pandemic progressed, researchers observed falling rates of sexual desire for a partner. 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,” Brotto said. “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.
What’s more, Brotto said, 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,” she said. “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.”
However, Brotto stressed, 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,” Brotto said.