Has COVID killed our sex lives?

Every decade since 1990, the UK has carried out a detailed National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal). In 2020-21 it was replaced by the smaller Natsal-Covid study, which painted a complicated picture: of those in cohabiting relationships, 78% saw a change in their sex life, usually for the worse. One in 10 reported sexual difficulties that started or worsened in lockdown. Even though 63% reported some sexual activity, 75% of those who did were in a cohabiting relationship. Times have inevitably been even leaner for couples who weren’t living together. As for people who weren’t in a relationship, the lockdown months were a catastrophe: only one in 30 women and one in 10 men had a new sexual partner.

A rise in sexual activity can often be detected by a rise in STI rates, but these are hard to judge at present. Anecdotally, professionals have reported a jump. Will Nutland of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who is co-founder of the not-for-profit Love Tank, which researches health inequalities, says: “All my clinical colleagues have noted STIs rising. There’s been a big increase in syphilis, particularly among straight women.” But the general feeling is that Covid-driven lack of STI services means these are mostly stored-up cases from 2020. In summary: just as summer failed to materialise, so did the love.