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Less 'Risky' Sex Still Evident a Year After First COVID-19 National Lockdown

Lower prevalence of 'risky' sex observed during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic measures was still evident a year after the UK's first lockdown, according to a study.

Changes in sexual behaviour during the early months of 2020 stemmed mainly from reduced opportunities to have sex for people who were not cohabiting with a partner. Whilst many people reported no changes, most studies found that frequency of partnered sex declined overall.

Researchers from University College London and the University of Glasgow set out to determine the extent to which changes in sexual behaviour and outcomes persisted a year after the first UK lockdown.

They used data from the National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) COVID study, which captured information on sexual behaviour, sexual relationships, pregnancy, abortion, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) during the pandemic in around 6500 adults aged 18 to 59. The survey was carried out in two waves, with the first sampling people's experiences in the 4 months after the first national lockdown, and the second, in late March to late April 2021, capturing data on the impact a year later.

Responses from the second wave of the survey – Natsal COVID-2 – were compared with results from the Natsal-3 survey of 15,162 adults aged 16 to 74 who were interviewed between 2010 and 2012 about sexual behaviour, attitudes to sex, and prevalence of STIs.  

Less 'Risky' Behaviour, But Also Less STI Testing

The study, published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections, found that compared with results from the Natsal-3 survey, there was less risky sexual behaviour – defined as lower reporting of multiple partners, new partners, and condomless sex with new partners – reported one year after the first national lockdown. Also, when compared with surveillance trends from 2010 to 2019, the researchers found lower than expected use of STI-related services and HIV testing, lower levels of chlamydia testing, and fewer conceptions and abortions.

In the year after the first lockdown, 71.8% of women and 69.9% of men reported one or more sexual partners, and 10.4% of women and 16.8% of men reported a new partner.

Compared with surveillance trends from 2010 to 2019, use of sexual health services and testing for HIV and chlamydia were found to be lower. Only 16% of participants who said they had at least one new partner in Natsal-COVID-2 reported a chlamydia test in the past year compared with nearly 39% of respondents in Natsal-3.

Pregnancies were fewer than in 2010 to 2012, and less likely to be reported as unplanned.

The median number of times respondents said they had sex was twice a month, compared with three in 2010. However, the researchers noted that this average had been falling since 1990 and might therefore reflect a trend unrelated to the pandemic.

The researchers also highlighted that around a quarter of men (22.8%) and one-fifth of women (19.3%) perceived their sex life in 2021 to be worse than in the previous year, and suggested this had probably been influenced by the pandemic response. Also, an increased level of sexual distress and avoidance of sex among men who have sex with men (MSM) was "striking", they said.

The researchers noted several drawbacks to their investigation, including differences in the profiles of sample groups.

The study authors declared no competing interests.