By Sophie Saint Thomas
Pre-COVID, Alice, 30, “was very much of the heterosexual and very monogamous mindset,” she says. During lockdown, when attending events in person wasn’t an option, Alice found herself alone—and with the thought of sex with other women on her mind. “I always thought that women were beautiful, but I was so ashamed of my own body and my sexuality,” she says. Over lockdown, she had the time and solitude to become acquainted with her body, so when the world began to open up again—and after a conversation with her boyfriend)—Alice began to safely explore sex with another woman.
Alice is far from the only person whose sexual orientation evolved over lockdown. In a recent Bumble survey, 14% of respondents reported a shift in their sexual preferences since 2020. Many people, having been left alone to ponder desires they’d never fulfilled, came out as queer during the pandemic. Lockdown gave people time to explore their sexual orientation, according to experts.
“The pandemic created space, and that’s not something that people typically create for themselves,” says psychologist and sexologist Dr. Denise Renye. Before all that alone time, “it may have been tough to get in touch with what’s going on inside, like any discomfort someone might have been sitting with for years around their sexual orientation,” says Dr. Renye.
In addition to providing more time to pause, the pandemic offered a respite from external judgment from others, further helping people explore what they want from their relationships and sex lives. As queer-friendly psychologist Dr. Liz Powell points out, the retreat of quarantine allowed folks to spend time alone with their thoughts and desires without fear of society’s reactions.
For Alexandra, 33, the pandemic pause allowed her to sit and really consider her sexuality. “I’ve had the time to think about my sexual orientation and properly define it for myself,” she says. “I’ve been attracted to my [own] gender since I can remember, but during months of solo quarantine, I dissected what it is to be bi, what it is to be queer, and what it was to be a woman, and what all of those identities meant to me.” Alexandra says she didn’t make a big deal out of her bisexual thoughts and fantasies pre-COVID, but now, on the other side of lockdown, she’s noticed she’s less attracted to men and more interested in pursuing women.
Staying home for so long also allowed for many to experiment with their sexuality in a physically safe space—especially important for those living far from sex-positive, progressive urban bubbles. Fear of stigmatization was part of the reason Alexandra waited so long to explore. “When my nephew came out publicly last year, he received backlash from some people in our family, which absolutely should not have shocked me in the manner that it did,” she says. During lockdown, she surrounded herself—virtually, of course—with “a much more open, diverse, accepting, queer crowd” who affirmed her identity.
It may seem obvious, but many felt emboldened to come out during the pandemic because COVID served as a reminder of our mortality. “Being in touch with the finite aspect of life can help people live their lives to the fullest and to get in touch with who they truly are,” says Dr. Renye.
For Mitchell, 35, this urge to live authentically helped him finally explore his interest in other men. He’s only ever dated women, but spent most of his adult life wondering what intimacy with other men would be like. “I was single during lockdown, so I spent a lot of time by myself,” he says. He made a promise to himself that he’d at least go on a date with another man once it was a possibility again. “And if I don’t like it, I’m fine with that and love women,” he says. “But I don’t want to die without at least trying.”
While we’re not out of the woods, many of us are vaccinated, and businesses are opening back up. As Dr. Powell points out, people whose orientation evolved during the pandemic are now faced with the prospect of living authentically outside of lockdown—and potentially facing stigma. “For some folks, this reopening and return to humanity may be a question of, ‘Do I want to backtrack, do I want to re-closet and go back to these more normative ways of being, if that’s the only way I can hold on to my community?” Dr. Powell says.
It’s important to prioritize your physical safety, but if you’re nervous about expressing your evolved sexuality in a post-vaccine world, experts advise you to embrace it. According to sex therapist Dr. Holly Richmond, living in fear only hinders your chance of finding love. “I advise my clients in this position to lead with curiosity rather than projection, which is often anxiety-based,” she says. In other words, when exploring your sexual identity, it’s best to go in with an open mind.