By Hannah Smothers
If, over the past two years, you’ve changed a little something about your sex and dating life, you’re not alone. In a summer 2021 report by Bumble, about 40% of respondents said they approached their sex lives differently in 2021 than they did prior to 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic affected so much about how we go about our day-to-day lives, and sex is no exception.
But how exactly have folks’ sex lives evolved? That’s less obvious. To find out what’s shifted, we talked with experts and daters about what the differences have been between pre-pandemic life and now.
There was more intention
Not that daters weren’t intentional before, but as sex and relationships therapist Megan Fleming says, both couples and single people have been more decisive about what they wanted versus before the pandemic.
Single folks were confronted with difficult dating scenarios, which forced intentionality around who they were hooking up with, and why. Safe sex became a bit more fraught, as did our approach to safety in general. Before meeting up with someone new, things like vaccination status and dating activity had to be discussed. And because meeting up with a new person meant risking COVID exposure, single people put more consideration into who was ultimately worth dating.
Madison, 22, says the pandemic absolutely influenced her decision to have sex for the first time this past year. She was never in a rush, but the isolation of the pandemic made every interaction feel more intense and intimate. “I was feeling deprived of closeness and feeling urgency like, I don’t know if life will ever be like it was, so I jumped at the first opportunity to finally have sex,” Madison says.
Meanwhile, couples who were cooped up together in quarantine had endless time to explore the bounds of their sex lives. They had time and space to think about what they wanted from each other, which led to hard conversations about sex and exploration. “Amongst couples, we’ve been seeing that they’ve been having more sex and are trying more experimentation,” says Fleming. “I think some people realized life is short and seized the moment to get the most out of their sex lives.”
Many people coupled up
The past couple of years were, for many people, far more isolated than most. As Fleming says, some responded to that isolation by seeking out relationships for the first time in years. “I definitely see more people moving away from casual sex, and becoming more interested in relationships,” says Fleming.
The pandemic made truly casual sex a difficult proposition. As a result, Fleming noticed single people looking for more serious relationships, whether that meant partnership or an agreement to only sleep with one another.
Justin Lehmiller, a researcher and author of “Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life,” observed not only people coupling up, but those already in relationships coming out stronger.
“A majority of people are saying that their relationship is better across the board,” says Lehmiller. “I think that points to a lot of resilience. People adapted, and found a way to work through these really challenging circumstances.”
Things got kinkier
Both Fleming and Lehmiller say that people picked up more sex toys and explored kink in new ways. Lehmiller attributes part of that experimentation to the stress of the past year. “Some people, when they’re stressed or anxious, turn to sex as a way to cope,” says Lehmiller. “For some, this was a time where they had to find ways to cope with the boredom of not being able to do their normal routines in daily life. And a lot of those people turned toward sexual novelty.”
One of those people is Sara, 25, who says she leaned into kink more than ever in the past year. “I went very deep into my relationship with sexuality,” says Sara. “I explored a lot of kink and intimacy, and focused on finding safe new ways to connect on an erotic level with myself and my partners.”
Ultimately, Madison and Sara represent just two examples of how people changed their approach to sex in the past year—so whether you find yourself among them or not, whatever changes you made to your own sex life are valid. Fleming says it’s expected that an event as disruptive as the pandemic (plus everything else that’s happened in the past two years) would change the way people think about the most intimate parts of their lives. And, if you haven’t switched things up just yet and want to, there’s still plenty of time.