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As we know, sexual behavior has changed in many ways during COVID-19, which I've described in detail in previous blog posts (check out this video for a summary of some of the key findings). Most of the research work so far has focused on changes in libido and how much people have sex - but what about safe sex? Specifically, did condom use change during the pandemic?
Some of you may be predicting an increase in condom use. After all, at a time when health concerns are high and people are taking more safety precautions in their daily lives (such as wearing masks in public), it seems reasonable to predict that people will also take more precautions in the bedroom. On a related note, perhaps it is thought that an unplanned pregnancy is a particularly bad time to be pregnant during a time of recession and rationing of health care, which may lead someone with pregnancy concerns to err on the side of safety.
At the same time, however, others might predict a decline in condom use. According to fear management theory, when the prospect of our own death becomes prominent, we can stimulate changes in sexual behavior to ease anxiety about death. One change documented in previous studies is that reminders of death are associated with increased willingness to engage in risky sexual behavior, including condomless sex with a new partner . These behaviors can reduce death anxiety by increasing arousal and excitement (for example, making a person "feel alive") or by creating an enhanced sense of intimacy.
So, what happened during the pandemic? Research is more in line with the latter explanation, pointing to a decline in safe sex.
A new study published in the journal Sexology looked at condom use among 149 sexually active heterosexual adults in Australia. The data were collected between May and June 2020.
The results showed an overall decline in condom use during sex. However, the extent of the decline depends on the state of the relationship. Specifically, those who were in relationships experienced significantly lower declines than those who were single.
This prompted me to investigate whether a similar pattern emerges from the Kinsey Institute's work on sex and relationships during COVID-19. I looked at the initial data we collected from March and April 2020 and found a similar pattern in a sample of more than 2,000 adults.
We asked participants to rate the frequency of condom use before and during the pandemic, ranging from 0% to 100%. On average, before the pandemic, participants reported using condoms during vaginal or anal intercourse 43 percent of the time, compared to 39 percent of the time after the pandemic began. While not a huge drop overall, even a small change in safe sex could have a major public health impact.
But, like the study published in the journal Sexology, I also found that the changes varied depending on relationship status. For example, among people who said they were single and saw others occasionally, their use of condoms was 63 percent before the pandemic and 56 percent during the pandemic. In other words, this group experienced almost twice as much percentage decline as the overall model.
For those who said they were seriously dating someone, the pre-pandemic figure was 46 percent, and now it's 43 percent. For those in a stable relationship with just one person, the numbers didn't change at all -- 33 percent reported using condoms before and now.
Interestingly, a small percentage of people in our sample said they were currently dating more than one person, and they were the only group to show the opposite pattern: They said they were using condoms 45% of the time before the outbreak, compared to 64% of the time they are currently using condoms, which is a considerable increase. This finding was based on only a few dozen people, though, so I'm reluctant to draw too many conclusions or generalize from it, but it does point to the fact that at least some people seem to be taking more precautions -- and those who are voluntarily non-monogamous may be more likely to do so.
In summary, results from several different data sources indicate a general decline in condom use during the early stages of the COVID-19 epidemic. Next, it's important to see how these behavioral patterns change over time (e.g., will the trend continue?). And further explore the psychology behind the decline in safe sex. The above reasoning of terrorist management theory is a plausible explanation, but not the only potential possibility. There may be other factors at work (e.g., is it due to differences in general availability or easy access to condoms?).
While we await further results, the current findings tell us that while the overall number of sexual acts may have declined during the pandemic, the proportion of unprotected sex appears to have increased, raising concerns about a possible rise in sexually transmitted diseases caused by COVID-19. This is despite reports that the incidence of several sexually transmitted diseases has declined during the pandemic, in part because fewer people are being tested for STDS and fewer STDS are being tested due to limited resources. So if unprotected sex is on the rise and detection is on the decline, there must be some cause for concern.
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