IUPUI prof says pandemics are linked to decreased intimacy among couples

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — How do people’s sexual behaviors change in the middle of a pandemic?

It’s a question sociologist Devon Hensel and her team have been studying since the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March. 

Hensel, an associate professor of sociology at IUPUI, told News 8, “We were curious because we’re all living in this in vivo petri dish. But it’s certainly interesting to be historically where we are now with everyone on the ground floor and what people are experiencing when it comes to relationships.”

Previous research shows pandemics including those involving MERS, SARS and Ebola had negative impacts on sexual behaviors, she writes in the paper, by reducing access to sexual and reproductive health services and supplies and increasing sexual violence.

But Hensel was more interested in couples’ desire to participate in sex and if these activities are different compared to non-pandemic times. She and her team conducted an online, nationally representative survey of 1,010 respondents, ages 18 to 94, from April 10-20 to assess reported behavior changes in those coupled and non-coupled. Behaviors assessed included hugging, kissing, holding hands and engaging in intercourse.

Nearly half of respondents reported a change in intimate behavior, mostly a decrease. Close to 23% said hand holding and the number of hugs and kisses decreased over the study period compared to 19.7% who reported an increase. No change was reported by 57%.

Intercourse decreased in 18.1% of the sample compared to 10.2% who reported an increase while 72% reported no change. 

Shutdowns and quarantines have forced couples to be in close quarters for extended periods of time. So, why the decrease? One possible answer, Hensel said, could be that people are actually feeling more lonely and depressed these days despite having a companion. 

“Not unexpectedly depression and loneliness are heightened for a lot of reasons. But also because our normal habits have been so upended and interrupted,” she said. “We can’t get out. We can’t go to our favorite places. We can’t see our favorite people. And so the idea that two people can live in the same place that you can be close by, but still lonely is not unusual in this context.”

Hensel also points to the heightened stresses of day to day life. The stress of marriages, e-learning, working from home, economic uncertainty and not seeing other family members can spur feelings of despondency and impact mental health.  

“I think a lot of people assume we have a couple of days of cold weather and people don’t want to go outside and there will be a baby boom nine months later. But I think this pandemic will lead to a baby bust. In times like these, people are more likely to control fertility efforts.”

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over 5 years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets. You can follow her on Instagram @reportergillis and Facebook @DrMaryGillis.