Study Finds 60% Of Adults In Lockdown Aren't Having Sex, Including Masturbation

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Thoughtful Woman Resting Her Head on Her Partner's Shoulder

Image by Brianna Lee / Stocksy

One thing's for sure: This pandemic is messing with our sex lives. 

Some research suggests sex is getting worse amid COVID, with some women's sexual satisfaction and sexual functioning deteriorating. Meanwhile therapists are seeing their clients' body confidence plummet, which can affect sexual desire, among other new libido changes in lockdown.

Now, another new study suggests many people's sexual activity has altogether vanished since this all started in March.

For some, sex has become inaccessible. 

The study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, surveyed 868 British adults about how much sexual activity they were having each week since they began self-isolating and social distancing. Sexual activity was defined as "sexual intercourse, masturbation, petting, or fondling." 

The results? Just 40% of people reported engaging sexual activity on a weekly basis. That means 60% of people weren't having sex⁠—including masturbation—even once a week.

Some of the reasons for this are obvious: People who are single or who aren't cohabitating with a partner don't have anyone to have sex with during self-isolation. Among couples who are sheltering in place together, the overwhelming stress and anxiety of the pandemic can trample sexual desire and make it hard to really get in the mood, even if you are spending a lot of time at home with your partner. 

"Any kind of instability that leads to anxiety, there's nothing sexy about that," AASECT-certified sex therapist Holly Richmond, Ph.D., LMFT, CST, tells mbg. "It's hard to ground yourself. It's hard to be present with your partner if you're worried about things. And it's probably worth mentioning too: If couples have older parents or if they have friends that are sick or if they have a lot of anxiety about themselves getting sick, just the umbrella of that anxiety is going to diminish libido."

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What about masturbation?

Importantly, those six in 10 people who aren't sexually active are also not masturbating, according to the study—which in some ways may be more concerning. (For reference, a 2019 survey of over 10,000 people found 61% of British adults masturbated at least once a week.)

Among the many benefits of masturbation, masturbating is a form of stress relief and self-care. It can relieve stress, improve your mood, help you feel more energized, and even support better cognitive function. "It's a great pressure-free way to gain pleasure, self-exploration, and promote self-care," therapist and certified sex educator Lexx Brown-James, Ph.D., LMFT, tells mbg.

Especially in times of stress, masturbating can be an easy way to access pleasure and relaxation. So the fact that we may be doing less of it amid this pandemic is worrisome.

Part of the issue may be that people locked down with a partner, roommates, or family members may find themselves without enough privacy to be able to masturbate. Couples, in particular, may worry about masturbating when their partner is home, thinking it could offend their partner in some way. But Brown-James emphasizes it's absolutely OK to masturbate with your partner in the house; it's just about communicating with them about and letting them know that your solo pleasure practice is in no way a replacement for sex. People in relationships should get to masturbate, too.

Why less sex might be a problem.

We already know an echo pandemic of mental health issues following COVID is coming, meaning we can all use all the self-care we can get. Both partnered sex and masturbation can help reduce stress, improve mood, and generally enhance life satisfaction, in addition to surprising health benefits of sex like lower cardiovascular risks and improved longevity.

Lee Smith, Ph.D., public health researcher at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K. and one of the study's lead researchers, says having an active sex life is important for overall mental well-being.

"A frequent and trouble-free sex life is associated with a plethora of physical and mental health benefits," Smith and his fellow researchers write in their paper on their findings. "It is possible that maintaining an active sex life or reintroducing frequent sexual activity into one's life during self-isolation/social distancing may mitigate some of the potential detrimental consequences of COVID-19 self-isolation."

In general, having a healthy sexual life goes hand-in-hand with having a happy life overall. Obviously some people value sex more than others, and these days, sex may simply be low on the priority list. That's OK. But if sex is usually something you care about that's simply been on the back-burner amid lockdown, it might be worth finding ways to reprioritize it again when you're ready.

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