Objectives: Physical restrictions imposed to combat COVID-19 dramatically altered sexual lifestyles but the specific impacts on sexual behaviour are still emerging. We investigated physical and virtual sexual activities, sexual frequency and satisfaction in the 4 months following lockdown in Britain in March 2020 and compared with pre-lockdown. Methods: Weighted analyses of web panel survey data collected July/August 2020 from a quota-based sample of 6654 people aged 18–59 years in Britain. Multivariable regression took account of participants’ opportunity for partnered sex, gender and age, to examine their independent associations with perceived changes in sexual frequency and satisfaction. Results: Most participants (86.7%) reported some form of sex following lockdown with physical activities more commonly reported than virtual activities (83.7% vs 52.6%). Altogether, 63.2% reported sex with someone (‘partnered sex’) since lockdown, three-quarters of whom were in steady cohabiting relationships. With decreasing relationship formality, partnered sex was less frequently reported, while masturbation, sex toy use and virtual activities were more frequently reported. Around half of all participants perceived no change in partnered sex frequency compared with the 3 months pre-lockdown, but this was only one-third among those not cohabiting, who were more likely to report increases in non-partnered activities than those cohabiting. Two-thirds of participants perceived no change in sexual satisfaction; declines were more common among those not cohabiting. Relationship informality and younger age were independently associated with perceiving change, often declines, in sexual frequency and satisfaction. Conclusions: Our quasi-representative study of the British population found a substantial minority reported significant shifts in sexual repertoires, frequency and satisfaction following the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions. However, these negative changes were perceived by some more than others; predominantly those not cohabiting and the young. As these groups are most likely to experience adverse sexual health, it is important to monitor behaviour as restrictions ease to understand the longer term consequences, including for health services.


This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Cite as

Mercer, C., Clifton, S., Riddell, J., Tanton, C., Freeman, L., Copas, A., Dema, E., Bosó Pérez, R., Gibbs, J., Macdowall, W., Menezes, D., Ridge, M., Bonell, C., Sonnenberg, P., Field, N. & Mitchell, K. 2021, 'Impacts of COVID-19 on sexual behaviour in Britain: findings from a large, quasi-representative survey (Natsal-COVID)', Sexually Transmitted Infections. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/sextrans-2021-055210

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Last updated: 01 April 2023
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