Pandemic-related stress stoked Canadians’ sexual desire, until it didn’t, researchers find

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians’ desire for sex went up, but the amount of sex they were actually having did not, according to a new study from researchers at the University of British Columbia.

The study, published last week in the International Journal of Sexual Health, looked at the effect of pandemic-related stress on a variety of aspects of people’s sexuality. 

Researchers surveyed 1,019 people four times each over the course of the pandemic’s first wave and first round of reopening, from April to August last year. Respondents were recruited through social media advertisements and ranged in age from 19 to 81.

In the earliest responses collected, researchers found elevated levels of coronavirus-related stress, as well as elevated levels of sexual desire for a partner.

Dr. Lori Brotto, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at UBC and the executive director of the Women’s Health Research Institute, led the study. In a news release from UBC, she explained that this correlation between stress and sexual desire is somewhat counterintuitive.

“Generally, sexual desire decreases with stress,” Brotto said in the release. “But, at the very start of the pandemic, when lockdown measures were at their strictest, the kind of stress people experienced was immediate. And that acute stress kicked off a fight-or-flight response, which we know can create anxious arousal that can be misinterpreted by the body as sexual arousal.”

Increased desire for sex didn’t necessarily correlate to increased sexual activity, however.

Instead, among people who lived with their sexual partners, both desire and activity declined over the course of the four surveys, even as provinces reopened and COVID-19 related stress decreased.

People who didn’t have live-in sexual partners reported an increase in sexual activity as reopening progressed, even though their desire for sex with a partner had also waned over time.

“These findings contribute to an already well-established literature showing that the relationship between sexual desire and sexual behaviour is not linear and positive, but rather complex and probably multi-determined, and impacted by the environment,” the authors wrote in their paper.

In addition to sexual desire and behaviour, the study looked at sexual compliance – defined as consensual but unwanted sexual activity – and sexual coercion, a category that includes everything “from subtle manipulation to overt threats or use of violence,” according to the authors.

The overall rate of sexual coercion reported by study participants was low, but it was highest among those experiencing high levels of pandemic-related stress, and it remained consistent even as time went on and restrictions loosened.

“Consistent with what we’ve seen in past pandemics, COVID-19-related stress did lead to increased rates of sexual violence,” Brotto said in the UBC release. “These results are alarming when you consider the possible long-term effects of stress persisting post-pandemic.”

The rate of sexual compliance, meanwhile, did not change over the course of the pandemic, prompting the authors to observe that changes in sexual behaviour during COVID-19 “may have little to do with desire and compliance, and perhaps more to do with the availability of a partner.”

The authors note a few limitations to their study, including the way in which the sample was collected and its relative representativeness of the Canadian population, but they add that their work contributes to “the growing body of literature documenting the complex effects of COVID-19 pandemic measures on different facets of sexuality.” 

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