A survey of gay and bisexual men in the United Kingdom has found that one in four has had casual sex during the country’s coronavirus lockdown.
The research, conducted by the University of Westminster, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and others, surveyed almost 1,400 men who have sex with men, AIDS Map reports. The survey was conducted between April 17 and May 8 and focused on users of hookup apps such as Grindr.
While most said they had stopped having casual sex during the COVID-19 pandemic, 24% of respondents reported engaging in casual sex despite the UK’s lockdown.
Of the men who had engaged in casual sex, half reported only one sexual partner during lockdown. However, five percent of respondents said they had been with more than five casual partners since lockdown began.
Among the reasons for breaking lockdown rules, the men said that loneliness and a need for intimate physical contact were the most important factors.
One-third of respondents said they were quarantining alone, compared with one-fifth in lockdown with a romantic partner. One-fifth said they were living with parents or other family, while almost a quarter were living with housemates.
Two-thirds of respondents were single, 16% were in open relationships, 8% were in monogamous relationships, and a further 8% called their relationship status “complicated.”
Of those with a main sexual partner, 60% said they hadn’t been with that partner since social distancing began.
The United Kingdom enacted social distancing measures in March, with the country entering a full lockdown at the end of that month. The country remains in lockdown, though it is starting to reopen and relax restrictions.
“As social restrictions ease, it is highly likely that increasing numbers of men who have sex with men will re-initiate sexual activity with casual partners,” Dr. Charlie Witzel, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told AIDS Map. “Our research shows we’re nearing the time-point when many felt their ability to abstain would decrease. Criminalization of sex, while being unenforceable practically, may also prevent people from accessing sexual health care during the pandemic.”
In addition to casual sex, respondents were asked about pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. Two-thirds of those taking the preventative HIV drug reported that they had stopped taking it during lockdown — with lockdown-enforced celibacy cited by most as the reason.
A majority of men (57%) also said they could abstain from casual sex for six months, with almost a third (30%) saying they could abstain for just three month.
Harvard University recently issued guidelines regarding sex during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that abstinence is “not feasible for many,” and can also have potentially negative psychological effects.
“Sexual expression is a central aspect of human health but is often neglected by [health care providers],” they write. “Messaging around sex being dangerous may have insidious psychological effects at a time when people are especially susceptible to mental health difficulties.”
Researchers also offered suggestions for reducing risk of transmission for sex during the pandemic, including avoiding kissing, wearing a face mask during sex, and reducing numbers of sexual partners — though they noted that any in-person contact “results in substantial risk for disease transmission.”
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