‘Jagged love cycle’: How the coronavirus pandemic changed sex, dating and intimacy

“I think with COVID we’ve had this period of being by ourselves, independent, and we’re coming out of it going, do we even need dating?”

Alita Brydon, the founder of Bad Dates of Melbourne posed this question on a recent Slow Love podcast. Has intimacy, dating and sex changed dramatically as a result of COVID?

Recent research conducted by the Kinsey Institute indicated that over half of the people surveyed reported a decline in their sex lives since March 2020.

Bumble Australia statistics also indicate that more than half of single Aussies think their approach and attitudes to sexual intimacy will or has changed as a result of COVID. Furthermore, 52 per cent reported that they would be more cautious when it came to physical intimacy.

So, what’s going on?

Singles have reported thy will be more cautious in the post-pandemic world. Photo: Getty 

Research indicates that people are having less sex, but they’re also changing their understanding of sex and intimacy.

As a PhD researcher on dating apps and intimacy and the host of Slow Love, a podcast on sex, dating and intimacy – I’ve tracked this topic throughout 2020.

The trends have been curious.

Jagged love cycle

In March 2020 dating apps and media reported a surge in dating app use. Users typically described a greater number of matches, more DM chats and even a plethora of new profiles – and most people got busy.

By that I mean, they entered a period of hyper-dating app use – which resulted in a love/hate dating app loop. The cycle involved frenetically using dating apps, becoming quickly disillusioned (as a result of the experience turning exhausting for many), deletion of the dating apps, quickly followed by re-download and a return to the loop.

Dr Jodi McAlister and I coined this the ‘jagged love cycle.’ It was intense and emotional – but most definitely cyclical.

Users were seeking an iso-partner, or simply a connection in an unprecedented time of uncertainty. Others were looking covertly for hook-ups.

While no one was professing their hook-up prowess during COVID – there was also mention of a certain ‘flatmate’ or ‘friend-of-a-friend,’ who was sneaking out for the odd hook-up.

We then entered a period which was jovially referred to as, ‘Jane-Austen-esque’.

Pandemic restrictions meant people had to take things much slower than usual. Photo: Getty 

Physical distancing meant we were forced to adopt the regency stance (1.5 meters of separation) but also take things slower. The face-mask, and walks around the park certainly weren’t conducive to developing a relationship.

Lost were the usual social lubricants of a restaurant, food and wine. People described the ‘awkwardness’ of these pseudo dates, and the lack of intimacy which transpired.

But, how Jane-Austen-esque was this period?

Coronavirus celibacy?

Sex toy sales boomed, and platforms like OnlyFans sky-rocketed.

The Hot Spot, one of Australia’s largest online adult toy stores, reported an increase of 42 per cent in the same month of March 2020, as compared to 2019. OnlyFans has seen a 75 per cent month on month in signup since we plunged into COVID.

It makes sense that with physical connection restricted, virtual sex-platforms and the DIY-world space would grow. In relation to OnlyFans, there was a fiscal benefit for those who had lost jobs, or were in unstable employment.

Contemporaneous to these changes, came the statistics relating to sexual decline, and a shift in our understanding of intimacy. According to Bumble, almost one in three (30 per cent) of Australian singles have changed what they want from a partner as a result of the pandemic.

The idea that ‘sex’ and intimacy is shifting, is not a novel one, and whilst it may have been exacerbated by COVID-19, the trend was already afoot.

Sekkusu shinai shokogun, or the Japanese ‘celibacy syndrome’ has long been reported in Japan, and aversion to intimacy and sex is becoming more prevalent around the world.

Despite millennials having a reputation as the ‘hook-up generation’, they are actually having far less sex then Gen-xers and Boomers.

While the Kinsey Institute identified stress and anxiety as two factors which contribute to the drop-off in sex (during COVID), other researchers like Jean M. Twenge indicate other factors like the notion that people are taking longer to progress to adulthood.

Millennials are having less sex than older generations due to stress. Photo: Getty 

Renowned sexologist Jacqueline Hellyer also identifies the role of stress, distraction, technology and porn.

“There’s no connection – and sex and intimacy comes from connection. If we add to that, for young people, growing up watching porn … in the absence of contextualising what porn is, which is essentially visual titillation … if you think that’s what good sex is, or what you should be doing … you’re setting yourself up for trauma.”

Dr Dawn Michael, Certified Clinical Sexologist and sexuality Counsellor and author of My Husband Won’t Have Sex with Me said: “Many Millennials have grown up with access to pornography. Some may say this is a bad impression and some may say it is a good impression. My experience is two-fold: It takes the curiosity out of the equation, and places anxiety in its place.”

Research also indicates that there is a drop-in sex, but also an interest in trying new sexual and relationship configurations. The ‘monogamy halo’ seemed to dim ever so slightly in 2020 – as people started to question if spending the rest of their life with one person was an unrealistic expectation.

Slow Love podcast guest Guido indicated, “It just seems like you’re setting yourself up for failure with a monogamous relationship … there’s no way one person can be all things to you.”

For women, the impact of greater economic and social independence, the change of cultural expectations and personal desires by both feminist and queer movements, impacts on how we conceptualise relationships.

This can be said in different ways for non-binary people and men. The flow on effect are questions like – can life-long partners be just friends?

Are traditional relationship paradigms being laid to the rest?

Lisa Portolan is a PhD researcher on dating apps and intimacy at Western Sydney University, and the author of Pretty Girls (2020) and Happy As (2018). She is the host of the Slow Love podcast (produced in conjunction with Contento), a podcast on sex, intimacy and relationships
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