How COVID-19 Has Changed American Sex Lives

Pandemic-related stress could either help—or hurt—your libido. Here’s why.

couple hugging

Updated on December 21, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives over the past year—from our health, work, and finances, to the ways we connect with friends and family. And, not surprisingly, it has also affected the ways couples connect in the bedroom.

A September 2020 snapshot from the Community Well-Being Index (CWBI), a collaboration between Sharecare and Boston University’s School of Public Health, found that respondents who are severely stressed were most likely to be having more—or less—sex since the pandemic began.

For the survey, researchers asked a group of more than 7,000 people how they would describe their sex life during the pandemic. Participants were also asked how much financial stress they’ve experienced over the past year.

The CWBI found that the sex lives of people with little or no financial stress haven’t changed. But those with the highest levels of stress were more likely to be having either more or less sex than usual. In other words, stress in the time of COVID has either promoted sex or served as a barrier to it.

This seemingly contradictory news actually lines up pretty well with what sex therapist Diana Wiley, PhD, author of Love in the Time of Corona: Advice From a Sex Therapist for Couples in Quarantine, has seen in her practice.

“The last year has involved a lot of forced togetherness,” she points out. For some couples, that has meant more opportunities for intimacy, and as Wiley says, “sex is free and fun,” a well-established antidote for both stress and boredom.

But for other couples, who may be facing unemployment, health concerns, the stress of overseeing their younger kids’ remote schooling or their older kids’ sudden return to the nest, quarantine togetherness can lead to more strain in the relationship, making sex a relic of pre-pandemic times, along with indoor parties and handshakes.

When stress leads to more sex

For the stressed-out survey respondents who reported having more sex than usual, the increase in intimacy may be due to a desire to connect during uncertain times or simple opportunity (when everyone is stuck at home, it’s easy to take a quick cuddle break). They may also have discovered that sex is one of the best ways to ease their stress, says Wiley.

“There are many studies over the years that have proven the health benefits of sexual activity,” she says. “Having more sex reduces stress and anxiety, and it’s also a great cardiovascular exercise.”

Indeed, studies have linked an active and satisfying sex life with a lower risk of having a heart attack. But if you have heart disease or think you may have symptoms of heart disease, check with your health care provider (HCP) to see if it is safe for you to have sex.

Wiley points out that for those who are constantly bombarded with worries about their family’s health and well-being, the economy, or the general combative state of the world during the last year, sex is also a great way to practice mindfulness. “When you’re focusing on touch and being with your partner, you can stay in the moment and feel more relaxed,” Wiley explains.  

When stress is a barrier to sex

Of course, for some people, the stress brought on by the pandemic and financial uncertainty has acted as a splash of cold water to their sex lives.

“Stress makes it more difficult for men to have an erection and for women to get aroused,” Wiley points out. Add that to the quarantine complications of having to juggle work, chores, and remote schooling, and the shutdown of restaurants, theaters, and bars, and the idea of a “date night” to relax and get in the mood seems like a concept from another century.

But it is possible to switch from being one of the “less sex” couples to one of the “more sex” couples, says Wiley (or at least to get back to where you were before March 2020). Here are her tips for rekindling your sex life:

Start with a few gentle touches. “The more we touch, the more we want to be touched—it’s a feedback loop,” says Wiley, who points out that a 20-second hug has been shown to release oxytocin, the “love” hormone that also reduces blood pressure. She suggests starting with hugs, backrubs, and massages as you ease your way to more intimate touching.

Create a quarantine-friendly version of date night. Getting a babysitter and going out for dinner and a movie may be off the table for now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create a romantic moment at home. Find 30 minutes when the kids, in-laws, or other members of the household are asleep or occupied, change out of your usual work-from-home clothes, pour a beverage of your choice, and sit down to connect with each other. “Go over the story of how you fell in love with other,” Wiley advises. “Share memories of your courtship, look at photos, and listen to the music from when you met,” she suggests. 

Have a laugh together. Not only has research suggested that a sense of humor could make people more attractive, but laughter has been shown to produce feel-good chemicals. Wiley recommends that couples cuddle on the couch together while watching a funny movie to get in the mood. Stream a flick that always makes you burst out in giggles, no matter what else is going on in your life (Bridesmaids, This Is Spinal Tap, and Trading Places are a few good bets).

Tamp down mental distractions. Once you start getting affectionate, it’s crucial to stay in the moment and not let that checklist of worries get in your way. One option is to write down all your negative thoughts in a notebook and then push it aside—a message to your brain that you’ll deal with those things later. And if those distracting thoughts appear just as you’re getting intimate, “envision a giant stop sign to remind yourself to come back to the moment,” Wiley suggests.

Listen to each other. Simply sitting down, looking each other in the eye, and listening to each other may be all you need to get back in the groove. “Tell your partner how, even in the middle of a pandemic, you want to share a connection and intimacy with them,” Wiley says. “The need to feel desired is as important—if not more important—than the sex itself.”

Article sources open article sources

Sharecare Community Well-Being Index (CWBI). September 2020 Snapshot.
American Academy of Family Physicians. “Health Benefits of a Good Sex Life.” May 2020.
Liu H, Waite LJ, Shen S, Wang DH. Is Sex Good for Your Health? A National Study on Partnered Sexuality and Cardiovascular Risk among Older Men and Women. J Health Soc Behav. 2016;57(3):276-296.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Is Sex Dangerous If You Have Heart Disease?”
American Psychological Association. “Stress Effects on the Body.” Nov 2018.
Hamilton LD, Meston CM. Chronic stress and sexual function in women. J Sex Med. 2013;10(10):2443-2454.
Harvard Medical School. “Hugs heartfelt in more ways than one.” March 2014.
il Greengross, Geoffrey Miller. Humor ability reveals intelligence, predicts mating success, and is higher in males. Intelligence. Volume 39, Issue 4, 2011. Pages 188-192.
Sandra Manninen, Lauri Tuominen, Robin I. Dunbar, et al. Social Laughter Triggers Endogenous Opioid Release in Humans. Journal of Neuroscience 21 June 2017, 37 (25) 6125-6131.

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