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Our sexual patterns change with the seasons. Historically, summer has been the peak of sexual activity. But is our usual summer summit being held in the age of COVID-19?
Before we get into the present, let's review. Studies have found that sexual activity generally increases during the warmer months. For example, consider patient attendance data from the Centre for Sexual Health in Melbourne, Australia, between 2006 and 2014. Researchers examined diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and changes in the number of sexual partners patients reported in the past three months over a year.
They found that regardless of sexual orientation, both men and women had more new partners when they went to the clinic in the summer than in the winter.
In addition, the incidence of several sexually transmitted infections is higher in summer than in winter. For example, men who have sex with men are more likely to be diagnosed with urethral gonorrhea, while men who have sex with women are more likely to be diagnosed with non-gonococcal urethritis (or NGU, the most common urinary tract infection caused by chlamydia).
In women, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) diagnoses peak in the fall. Since the most common causes of PID are untreated chlamydia and gonorrhea, the peak of PID diagnoses in the fall coincides with the high incidence of sexually transmitted infections in the summer.
Consistent with these results, an analysis of Google search trends shows that searches for pornography, prostitution and online dating also increase during the summer, suggesting that some things seem to make people happy during the summer.
What accounts for seasonal differences in sexual behavior? We don't know for sure based on the data; One possibility, however, is that this could be because people take more holidays in the summer. This makes sense, since studies have found a possible link between vacations and sex.
That said, the past isn't always a prelude -- people are not in their usual summer patterns right now because of COVID-19. First, social distancing measures make dating and hooking up more difficult, especially at a time when most bars and nightclubs are closed. Similarly, travel restrictions make it harder to plan serious holidays.
Since mid-March, some of my Colleagues at the Kinsey Institute and I have been conducting a longitudinal study exploring the impact of the epidemic on people's intimate lives -- and we've found that the recent trend is a decline in sexual activity.
In particular, during periods of lockdown, rates of sexual activity among single and partnered people declined significantly. Although many restrictions have been lifted, rates of sexual activity have not really changed much.
For example, when we surveyed people during the Lockdown/quarantine period between March and April, only about 1% of participants reported that they had engaged in online dating during that time. In our fourth follow-up survey, conducted from late May to mid-June, the number of people dating was almost the same :1 percent.
Similarly, when studying specific sexual behaviors, we asked people to report in the first survey how often they had been in the past year before the epidemic. On average, 49% of participants said they had had vaginal sex once or more per week in the year prior to COVID-19. During the lockdown/quarantine period, this figure dropped to 39 per cent. That's up from 36 percent in the late May to mid-June follow-up.
Data on other sexual behaviors followed a similar pattern. It doesn't matter what the sexual act is (e.g., masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, etc.). Alone or with partners), people seem to be having less sex than they did before the pandemic.
So with the relaxation of social distancing measures and the lifting of lockdown restrictions, we haven't really seen a rebound in sexual activity rates, let alone an increase. Given the ongoing uncertainty, anxiety and stress surrounding the pandemic, this makes sense. While we can interact with the world more freely than during lockdown, there is a level of stress and anxiety that wasn't there before the pandemic -- factors that we know tend to suppress libido. Combined with limited opportunities to meet each other, it's no wonder sex is still less frequent than normal.
So while historically we tend to have more sex in the summer, the summer of COVID-19 seems to be the exception to the rule.