During the first lockdown, which started in March 2020, people in the UK were only allowed to leave the house for an hour of daily exercise, visit essential shops and seek medical care. With few exceptions – such as caring for a sick relative, child custody exchanges, and trips to Barnard Castle for an eye exam – it was illegal to socialise with members of another household. Unfortunately for many single people and others who wished they were single, sex with somebody outside their home was considered by then-health minister Matt Hancock as “non-essential contact”.
And yet contact outside the home did take place. Researchers conducted two surveys as part of the NATSAL-Covid (The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles) study: one in July-August 2020 and another in March-April 2021.
The survey looked at the UK population between 18–59 years of age with the aim of providing national data on the impact of the pandemic on sexual and reproductive health. In a sampling of 6,654 people taken in the first study in 2020, almost 10 per cent reported intimate physical contact with somebody outside their home in the four weeks prior to the survey. Couples living in different households reported the highest number of rule-breaking sexual acts at 56.3 per cent, followed by young people aged 18-24 at 17.7 per cent.
In the second survey taken in early 2021, a third of all young participants reported a new sexual partner in the last year. This may seem like a high number given the lockdown restrictions, but it is a decrease from the NATSAL study taken ten years earlier in which 55 per cent of young men reported a new sexual partner.
Those who reported a new sexual partner in the 12 months prior to the second survey were 66 per cent more likely to report condomless sex on the first encounter. This was coupled with high rates of sex under the influence of alcohol.
It is worth noting that those who did break the rules thought long and hard about it first. Two-thirds of those who stepped outside their homes for sex said they only engaged with somebody in a support bubble, and interviews taken at the time of the study also showed that rule breakers thought about the safest way to mitigate risks of spreading the virus.
Lockdown wasn’t necessarily rosier for those living with their significant others. Almost 80 per cent of responders in steady relationships said they noticed some change in the quality of the sex they were having with their partner, and most said it was not for the better. Sexual performance also suffered with 10 per cent of the non-singles reporting sexual difficulties that began or worsened during lockdown.
“During lockdown all the normal escape valves that couples employ to get some space away from their partner were gone,” says Ammanda Major, a psychosexual therapist and head of service quality at Relate.
“That made things a lot worse for many couples. On top of that there were new anxieties including fear of getting Covid stress of having children at home and financial strain. All of those things often made relationship issues that existed before lockdown more difficult to cope with.”
She says that many couples experienced a disconnect between feeling loved and cared for during the day, and then finding the other partner wanting sex at night.
“Sex becomes distant from the emotional commitment which people look for in their relationships. People also judge themselves unfairly against what the media says is a normal amount of sex.”
One surprising finding was that many of the couples who reported a change in the quality of the sex they were having also said that the quality of their relationships improved. According to Major, the stress of the pandemic brought some couples together in unpredictable ways. By living in proximity and confronting difficulties head on, couples were forced to communicate with one another about the challenges they faced.
“Couples had to plan together and work together in a way they didn’t have to before. There is a feeling of success at getting through the day as a couple,” she says.
If lockdown was a period of great abstinence, the months that followed were a period of great intemperance. The vast majority of survey responders (86.7 per cent) reported some form of sexual activity in the four months following the first lockdown, and fortunately most of it was in person (83 per cent) and not on a virtual platform such as Zoom (52 per cent).
A drawback to in-person sex is that it comes with an increased risk of catching an sexually transmitted disease (STI). Due to lockdown measures, many sexual health clinics were forced to do most of their testing online. According to Public Health England, in-person sexual health consultations decreased by 35 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019, but online consultations increased five-fold. Even with more consultations moving online there was a 10 per cent decrease in 2020 of the overall number of consultations, and a 32 per cent decrease in the number of STI diagnoses.
Fewer STIs is not necessarily good news. With restrictions in force, some people might have forgone testing because they felt guilty about breaking lockdown rules.
Mark Lawton, a doctor of sexual health at the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, points to rates of gonorrhoea as an indication of how much sex Brits are having, and notes that rates of the STI tend to rise and fall in tandem with societal changes. Since 2010 the number of cases has increased due to what he calls the “Tinder and Grindr” phenomena of finding sex at the swipe of a phone.
“The rate of gonorrhoea only dropped in 2020 to where it was in 2018. It didn’t drop to the numbers we saw 10 years ago. This implies people were having 2018 levels of sex during lockdown,” says Lawton.
One explanation for the decrease in the STI is that many people waited longer periods of time before finding a new sexual partner. The lengthened interim may have been long enough for the sexually active to notice symptoms and get them treated before passing them on to a new partner.
“There is probably a reservoir of STIs out there. But if there are fewer people catching it, there are fewer people to pass them on,” says Lawton. He did highlight, however, many STIs have no symptoms so would still encourage regular testing.
With new lockdown measures a looming possibility this holiday season, UK health ministers of Covid future can find inspiration for better policy decisions from health ministers of Covid past. Matt Hancock’s flaunting of lockdown restrictions and inability to define “an established relationship” show just how difficult understanding and following Covid restrictions can be.