The COVID-19 pandemic has altered how Australians live their lives.
It has impacted our normal routines, our careers, our ability to visit friends and family, our travel plans and our sex lives.
In early March, as the pandemic took hold in Australia and we started to work from home, our research team at the Sexual Health Unit at the University of Melbourne started to wonder what impact the pandemic and the restrictions imposed to control its spread were having on the sexual and reproductive health of people living here.
We wanted to understand whether people were having more or less sex during the pandemic? Who were they having sex with? Have their sexual practices changed? Were people still using dating apps to hook up?
The answers to these questions will help us plan what sort of services need to be available during periods of lockdown. Given time and resource constraints, we opted to conduct an online survey to explore these questions and others.
For two and a half weeks during the first, Australia-wide lockdown that extended from late March to early May 2020, nearly 1000 people living in Australia, aged over 18 were recruited via social media.
They told us how the pandemic was impacting their sexual and reproductive health.
Our latest study, which includes the initial findings from this survey, shows a decline in sexual activity during lockdown; more than half of our participants reported having less sex during lockdown compared to 2019.
People who were sexually active during the lockdown were more likely to report having sex with their cohabitating partner, and less likely to report sex with a partner they do not live with or a casual hook up.
We think there are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, there was a lot of confusion during the first phase of the pandemic about whether people in intimate relationships who do not live together could visit each other and advice varied from state to state.
It seems likely that the people in our study were erring on the side of caution, and mostly not visiting intimate partners they did not live with. Of course, people may also have partners who live several hours away or in a different state, making visiting them very difficult amid border closures and restrictions on travel.
Secondly, the pandemic is impacting individuals and their relationships very differently.
Some participants reported having more sex with their partner because they were at home with them all the time, while others said they were having less sex with their partner for the same reason.
Some participants said that the anxiety caused by the pandemic was impacting their mental health and, therefore, their desire to have sex; while others said that they had more desire for sex but were stuck at home without an intimate partner.
Those who were stuck at home without an intimate partner found other ways to satisfy their sexual needs.
During the first lockdown adult stores reported a surge in sales. In our study, nearly 12 per cent reported buying a new sex toy and, of these, nearly a quarter said it was their first toy.
Participants who reported less or no sex during lockdown were also much more likely to report masturbating or using a sex toy during lockdown than they were in 2019 when compared with those reporting more sex during lockdown.
Given that we were all asked to remain at home for an extended period of time – many without an intimate partner to spend the time with – we were interested in whether people were using dating apps, and if so, what they were using them for.
Our participants reported a decline in dating app use during the lockdown compared to 2019. This contrasts with what has been reported elsewhere, with the dating app platforms themselves reporting a surge in use.
Perhaps the participants in our study valued the ability of the apps to facilitate in-person connections, and without that, their use became less attractive.
For those participants who were using dating apps, most were doing so for physically distant activities, including chatting and organising virtual dates.
Although sexual behaviour clearly changed during lockdown, our findings show that people continued to have sex – pandemic or not. So, it’s vital that all people have access to their contraceptive method of choice, termination of pregnancy services, and sexually transmitted infections (STI) testing during global emergencies like the current pandemic.
A lot has happened since we conducted our first survey.
Victorians, particularly Melbournians, were subject to strict lockdown measures for months as the state grappled with its second wave, an experience not shared by the rest of the country.
While Victoria has successfully quashed its second wave, what impact this extended lockdown had on its residents compared to people living in other states is unclear.
It will be important to continue to monitor how sexual behaviour and access to sexual and reproductive health services changes over time.
The team is continuing to collect data on the impact of COVID-19 on sexual and reproductive health. The fourth and final survey for 2020 will be open soon and you can email to participate and keep up to date with the latest findings on the project website.
The pandemic is having a significant impact on wellbeing. If you need any help or support, or know someone who might, you can contact Lifeline or Beyond Blue. For sexual and reproductive health support, contact your local Family Planning clinic (there is one in every state), or Marie Stopes Australia.
The team would like to thank all of the participants who took part in the survey, without which this work would not have been possible.
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