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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Between lockdowns and quarantines, the COVID-19 pandemic freed up a lot of time for sexually active couples. However, people feeling mental and physical stress were less likely to enjoy the extra time in bed. Instead, new research suggests that individuals who viewed sex as a leisure activity were more likely to have more satisfying and active sex lives before and during the pandemic.

“When sexual activity is pleasurable, freely chosen, and intrinsically motivated, it aligns with most definitions of leisure activity,” says Liza Berdychevsky, a professor of recreation, sport, and tourism at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in a university release. “The sex-as-leisure mindset affects sexual inhibitions, attitudes, and practices, and it is congruent with the view of sexual health as key to our overall wellbeing and quality of life.”

Between February and May 2021, the study authors sent out an online survey to 675 adults between the ages of 18 to 76 living in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Two in three were women (66%). Roughly 68 percent of the respondents had a regular sexual partner, and 12 percent had a casual partner.

Sex as leisure minimized pandemic effects

In their first study, the team looked at people’s perception of sex as leisure — relaxation, recreation, self-gratification, or personal development — before and during the pandemic. They connected these responses to people’s frequency and quality of sex.

People who had sex for fun showed more resilient sex lives. These individuals reported higher sexual desire and a greater variety, frequency, and quality of sex than people who did not view sex as relaxing or fun.

“Viewing sex as leisure minimized the negative effects of the pandemic on people’s sex lives and was linked with greater ability to reach orgasm, heightened sexual intimacy, and more touching and caressing,” says Berdychevsky. “These individuals used the additional time with their partners to devote more time to sexual intimacy, communication, and experimentation. Adopting this approach may have been a powerful means for individuals and couples to feel both safe and adventurous in their sex lives during a rather scary time.”

Getting friskier during lockdown

A second paper studied people’s use of sex as a coping mechanism. In this study, the team asked people whether they engaged in sex for comfort, pleasure, or stress relief. Additionally, they also asked people who viewed sex as a recreational activity about their use of different sex positions, toys, or activities such as bondage, domination, or sexual role-playing. Technology-assisted coping strategies include watching porn, sexting, and using geo-social networking apps.

Half of the survey participants found sex-as-leisure to be a good way to cope with the pandemic. Those that did reported greater feelings of creativity, playfulness, and spontaneity. More than two-thirds of people said sex was a source of pleasure and also helped with stress relief, distraction, or passing the time.

During the pandemic, over 20 percent said they were able to indulge in long-suppressed sexual fantasies, 41 percent tried new sex positions, 26 percent explored sex toys, 18 percent tried bondage or domination, and 13 percent engaged in sexual role-playing. The pandemic also allowed people to express themselves sexually, such as by flirting or sexting online, without worries about safety or social distancing.

Overall, the study authors found that people’s idea of sex predicted if their sex lives flourished or deteriorated during the pandemic.

“These results demonstrate that a strong tendency to view sex as leisure served as a protective factor against the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s sex lives,” Berdychevsy concludes. “The decline in people’s tendency to view sex as a form of leisure activity is a potentially problematic health risk factor because this perspective is positively related to all aspects of sexuality, including sexual desire, intimacy, and satisfaction.”

Both studies are published in the journal Leisure Sciences.

About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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