8 Fascinating Things Scientists Discovered About Sex In 2020
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
While most of the world's eyes remained understandably glued to the ongoing research around the coronavirus, immunity, and vaccine science, there were actually plenty of fascinating developments in the world of sexuality research. Behold, a small sampling of the many interesting studies about sex published this year.
1. People's sex drives responded to the pandemic in a variety of ways.
When much of the world went into lockdown in March to stave off the spread of the virus, some early research found our collective libido also seemed to creak to a halt. One study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in May found that since the pandemic kicked off, 60% of British adults reported not having sex or even masturbating at least weekly.
But another study published in the International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics found women were actually having more sex—and generally felt more sexual desire—in the early months of the pandemic. That said, the quality of sex had gotten worse for women, with researchers finding a "significant deterioration" in women's sexual functioning, which includes things like arousal, lubrication, and ability to orgasm.
Together, these diverging studies suggest there are many different ways the pandemic has affected sex, which dovetails with what sex therapists have been telling us about the complex relationship between stress and libido. For some people, stress can tank your sex drive—but for others, sex can be a go-to stress reliever.
2. There's a link between gratitude and good sex.
Gratitude practices might have some sexual benefits for people in relationships, according to a study published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal. Researchers found that both feeling gratitude and receiving gratitude in your relationship tended to make people care more about their partner's pleasure—which in turn tended to lead to better sex for both parties. Why? When a person feels grateful for their partner (and their partner is showing appreciation for them), they're likely to want to invest more into all the things that keep the relationship healthy and happy—including good sex.
3. You can smell when a woman is aroused.
Apparently, the experience of arousal comes with a certain scent—and it's one that other people might be able to pick up. A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that men could tell the difference between women who were sexually aroused and women who weren't, all just by smelling their sweat. Previous research has indeed found that other emotional states—like sadness and fear—also have identifiable scents, aka "chemosignals." According to this latest study, sexual arousal seems to be no different.
4. There are two types of low sexual desire among women.
In a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers surveyed over 500 women in long-term relationships to try to identify a typology of desire. They found women struggling with low sexual desire can be categorized into one of two distinct groups: "globally distressed women" and "sexually dissatisfied women." Globally distressed women had low sexual desire relative to other women, but they were also dealing with very low relationship satisfaction and high overall life stress. In comparison, sexually dissatisfied women also had relatively low sexual desire, but they had more normal levels of relationship satisfaction and life stress—suggesting their issues were contained to the bedroom.
"It is possible that women with low sexual desire share a similar outcome but have followed unique trajectories to get to this point," the researchers write in the paper on their findings, suggesting that there needs to be a more nuanced approach to supporting women based on what type of low sexual desire they're experiencing.
5. One in 4 women want a good sex life after menopause.
Contrary to what may still be popular belief, plenty of women over 40 continue to care about having a good sex life. A study presented at the 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting of the Normal American Menopause Society found 45% of women believe sex is important early in midlife, and 27% of women believe sex continues to be highly important throughout midlife.
"Studies like these provide valuable insights to health care providers who may otherwise dismiss a woman's waning sexual desire as a natural part of aging," NAMS medical director Stephanie Faubion, M.D., MBA, said in a news release. "Often there are other treatable reasons, such as vaginal dryness or depression, as to why a woman's interest in sex may have decreased."
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6. Viewing sex as an exchange of favors tends to backfire.
While no one would fault you for caring about fairness in the bedroom, psychologists have found that viewing sex as an exchange of benefits between partners may actually make sex feel less intimate and more transactional.
"When people endorse exchange norms, they give benefits with the expectation of receiving equal or comparable benefits in return and are concerned with keeping track of benefits to keep things even between partners," researchers wrote in a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior this year.
That study found couples who use this approach to sex tended to be less committed to each other, had more negative sexual interactions, and generally seemed to have less satisfying sex when compared to couples whose approach to sex was more about giving pleasure just to give. The researchers also found people with a more avoidant attachment style (aka people who tend to avoid intimacy) were more likely to have that exchange approach.
7. Growing up with unavailable parents can affect your sex life as an adult.
People who grew up with neglectful or unavailable parents tend to have more sexual difficulties, according to a study published in the International Journal of Sexual Health. That included less satisfying sex, more sexual dysfunction, and negative feelings around sex. Why? Growing up with unavailable parents makes a person more likely to have a less stable sense of self, the researchers found. A child's interactions with their parents are what help them develop a "rich and coherent sense of self," they write, and it's also how they learn to feel secure in who they are and what they need from others.
"The development of the child's sense of self and the child's understanding of their own and others' mental states could be thought of as essential skills for a positive and healthy sexuality later on," the researchers write in the paper on their findings. "These results suggest that, years after having experienced neglect from attachment figures, it can still influence a person's sexual life through its repercussions on impaired identity."
8. Sex talk can buoy the sex lives of couples with depression.
We've known that depression (and antidepressants) can both reduce a person's sex drive, and couples in which one or both partners have depression can find themselves avoiding sex because of all the other relationship challenges they face. But a study published in the Communication Research journal found just talking about sex as a couple can offset those negative effects of depression.
A lot of past research has found sexual communication is key to good sex, and for couples with depression, talking about sexual desires, challenges, and solutions together is particularly important to make sure sex doesn't fall by the wayside.
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