Background: Worldwide, efforts to control SARS-CoV-2 transmission have included lockdowns and restrictions on contact with others, including sexual partners. Our research (Natsal-COVID) indicates that in the UK, 10% of people aged 18–59 had physical or sexual contact with a romantic or sexual partner outside their household (PCOH) during a period in which contact was limited. We explored motivations and decision-making among people reporting PCOH in the four months following the initial national lockdown on 23rd March 2020.

Method: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 18 individuals reporting PCOH during a period in which physical distancing measures were in place. Participants were recruited through a large, quasi-representative survey investigating sexual behaviour in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic (Natsal-COVID). Interviews were analysed thematically.

Results: Participants were single (n=8) or in long-term, non-cohabiting, relationships (n=10). While participants in the two groups differed in their reported motivations for PCOH, all demonstrated complex and individualised decision-making, weighing up risks such as SARS-CoV-2 transmission, judgement of peers, and benefits, including feelings of security and improved mental health. For those in relationships, the primary motivation was continuity: participants expected to continue seeing their romantic partner. Participants rationalised this contact as ‘low risk’ in relation to other ‘risks’ of COVID-19 exposure, and reduced other activities (such as shopping, seeing friends) to maintain this contact. For single participants, loneliness and boredom were reported as the primary motivators for PCOH, with dating apps often used to facilitate contact. For both groups, evidence of considered decision-making was clear, with participants referencing government guidance, personal situations, and risk when describing their deliberations.

Conclusion: Individuals did not make decisions about PCOH lightly. However, physical contact with partners was considered important and thus rationalised. Public health policy-makers must therefore consider sexual behaviour and needs for physical contact in designing effective future public health messaging.


© Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2021. No commercial re-use. See rights and permissions. Published by BMJ.

Cite as

Maxwell, K., Freeman, L., Bosó Pérez, R., Reid, D., Menezes, D., Sonnenberg, P., Mercer, C., Mitchell, K. & Field, N. 2021, 'Sexual Contact With Partners Outside of Household During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Investigating Motivations and Decision-Making Using Natsal-COVID Data', Sexually Transmitted Infections, 97(Suppl 1). http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/sextrans-2021-sti.79

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Last updated: 15 November 2022
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