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Sex

The Year Sex Fizzled

Declining sexual activity during the pandemic may be straining mental health.

Key points

  • While rates of sexual activity have been declining for two decades, they have dipped even further during the pandemic.
  • Couples may find it hard to find privacy with kids at home, and public health restrictions may make it challenging for young adults to hook up.
  • Sex can initiate biological, cognitive and social effects that help prevent mental health problems.
  • Sex may be just what we need to resist the trend towards increasing rates of depression and anxiety after months of social isolation.

Far from the hookup culture we imagine, or bored couples seeking amusement in the bedroom during long periods of unemployment, the pandemic has left us stressed and our libido as depressed as the occupancy rates at the hotels we used to go to for zesty getaways.

There are a number of scholarly papers being published that suggest a complex set of patterns when it comes to sex during the pandemic. First, sexual activity among adults between 18 and 44 has, in general, been declining for the past two decades, according to a report published in JAMA in 2020. Men have reported the largest declines in sexual activity with a partner, and men earning less than $50,000 a year are those most likely to be sexually inactive entirely. This same declining rate of sexual activity has been happening for several years among teenagers. There is also evidence of a declining birth rate as a consequence of the pandemic, and a hidden epidemic of loneliness.

It is an odd thing to say, but a little more spontaneous sexual activity may be what we need to fight depression and the creeping increase in anxiety, which is promising to thwart an easy psychological recovery from the pandemic.

Declining Sexual Satisfaction

International studies echo the same trends. People’s satisfaction with sex, especially women’s, are declining too. It seems that all that time with your spouse may not be a relationship boost after all, especially if there are children at home, coming in and out of the bedroom at all times of the day and night. The only bright spot might be among older adults who are less likely to be economically affected by the pandemic and have more control over the pressures of parenting. They are also far better resourced when it comes to finding some private time with their partner.

I was reminded of the problem younger adults especially are having with sex while picking up my mail at the mailbox that is at the entrance to my subdivision. Two cars were carefully parked so that the larger one partially blocked the smaller one, which was (to put it politely) rocking on its springs. It was hard to miss the two bodies in the driver's seat, one facing towards the front, the other towards the back. In our quiet subdivision, at two in the afternoon, I’m more likely to see deer cross the road than randy acts of ecstasy among kids who live in 3,000-square-foot homes with basement bedrooms and plenty of privacy. Except, of course, the pandemic has changed young people's ability to hook up, given parents are home all the time and public health officials are warning families to remain separated.

I smiled at the sight and looked away. Can’t blame them for breaking the monotony of these many months or for having to get out of their homes to have sex. I did wonder, though, where they had stashed their masks and I hoped they weren't breathing heavy around more than one partner in any month.

The Benefits of Sex

That little incident reminded me that we’re awfully hung up on sex — who is doing what to whom and putting which genitalia where. In fact, we should be trying to get everyone, including young adults, more sexually active, not less. Sex can bring out our best (or our worst). A consensual, mildly covert, hookup (hopefully in line with public health rules) releases oxytocin and dopamine and initiates a cascade of biological, cognitive and social benefits that helps prevent mental health problems. While there are other ways to realize these same benefits (philanthropy, meditation, contact with nature), the vast majority of people find sex the easiest path to wellbeing.

As the end of the pandemic approaches, we may want to plan some well-deserved intimacy. My bet is that cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts will be booked solid for months to come and that there will be an explosion in the birthrate once we all get back to our normal work routines (and the kids are back at school). All that sex may be just what the doctor ordered if we are to fight back against the after-effects of a year that has caused far more social isolation than is good for us.

References

Karagöz, M.A., Gül, A., Borg, C. et al. Influence of COVID-19 pandemic on sexuality: a cross-sectional study among couples in Turkey. Int J Impot Res (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41443-020-00378-4

Ueda, P., Mercer, C. H., Ghaznavi, C., & Herbenick, D. (2020). Trends in Frequency of Sexual Activity and Number of Sexual Partners Among Adults Aged 18 to 44 Years in the US, 2000-2018. JAMA network open, 3(6), e203833. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.3833

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