Will the stay-at-home orders issued in March and April result in a "coronavirus baby boom," as some have predicted?
Perhaps not, according to a new survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults, conducted by researchers from Indiana University.
Around half of the people questioned reported no change in their sex lives during the early part of the coronavirus quarantine from mid-March to mid-April -- when a majority of Americans were at home under shelter-in-place orders.
The other half said their sex lives had changed -- with some reporting increases and many reporting decreases across 10 sexual behaviors, including hugging, kissing, holding hands, or cuddling with a romantic partner, solo masturbation, vaginal sex and "sexting."
The varying findings of the survey -- that some had more sex, some had less sex, and many stayed consistent -- reflect the unique and complex set of factors at play when most of the world was stuck at home.
"If you were quarantined with a partner, you might find comfort in maintaining a sexual connection with that partner," said study co-author Devon Hensel, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
"The other side of the coin might be that you have a lot going on at home -- the loss of child care, homeschooling, trying to work at home, balancing a lot of new obligations in a very small amount of space -- might have made people more stressed and less interested in sex," she noted.
Decreases in sexual activity were more common than increases, according to the survey. Certain factors, like having older kids at home, stressing about COVID-19 risk and symptoms of depression, seemed to really put a damper on sex lives.
People who said they'd felt depressed or lonely during the quarantine were more likely to report a decrease in sex acts with their partner. The same held true for those who felt vulnerable to COVID-19 medical consequences. Those who thought they might lose their job were also more likely to report a decrease in sexual behaviors with their partner.
Instead of shying away from sexual connection when you're feeling anxious or depressed, Dr. Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Boston, urged people to consider utilizing affection and touch as a way of calming anxieties.
"Recognize that touch is an incredibly powerful force in a relationship and that here we are at an incredibly anxiety-provoking time, and we have this easy, medication-free way of decreasing our anxiety," Olds said.
Age of kids played a part in parents' levels of sexual activity
One of the most interesting findings, according to Hensel, was that the age of children at home had a significant impact on the self-reported sex lives of parents.
People with very young children -- under the age of 5 -- were three times more likely to report increases in "partner-bonding activities," like hugging, kissing, cuddling or holding hands with a partner.
People with elementary school-aged children -- between the ages of 5 and 12 -- were more likely to report decreases in partner-bonding activities and partnered sexual activity. The survey found no significant effect of having teenage kids in the house on parents' sexual activity.
The researchers hypothesized that parents of small children might be more used to having their children at home, and therefore could more easily maintain pre-pandemic schedules -- such as naps and earlier bedtimes. Parents of older, school-age children may have had to upend their routines to supervise their children, leaving little time for sex.
Parents may also feel more self-conscious being affectionate with their partner when older children are around all the time, according to Olds.
"I have talked in my practice to many people who feel self-conscious when their children are always around them, especially junior high and high school children, but also elementary school children," Olds explained.
Appreciate time spent with your partner
When possible, Olds encouraged parents to be affectionate with each other around their kids, regardless of age.
"Parents make a mistake in not being affectionate with each other and only being affectionate with the kids. It gives wrong messages," she said. "All those niceties -- kissing, hugging, hand-holding and cuddling -- are not just important for having good sex with a partner, but they're also little signals to the school-age children that marriage is fun."
Olds added that children are "always on the alert for signs of how their parents' relationship is doing."
Although stay-at-home orders have been lifted in most parts of the country, Olds said that people should try to appreciate a potential silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic -- spending additional time with their partners and families.
She advised all couples to reflect on the time they had together in quarantine -- both the good and the bad. "Most couples need to take time to take stock of what they've learned about their relationship because you very rarely get this time for close scrutiny," Olds said.
In practice, she said couples could ask each other questions like, "What have we learned that we cherish about each other?" and "What have we learned really gets on our nerves about each other?"
While some couples can engage in these discussions by themselves, others may need another person to facilitate the conversation. Hensel advised couples to consider telemedicine for therapy.
"We've seen telemedicine work across the board, and I think that might be one solid recommendation in terms of the ways that people can work their way through sexuality-related troubles during pandemic times," she said.
The study was released recently as a preprint on medRxiv. Findings were not subject to peer review and should be considered preliminary.
The American Psychological Association has more on COVID-19 and mental health.