A mannequin inside an open sex shop wears a face shield amid the novel coronavirus pandemic on April 23, 2020, in Rapid City, South Dakota. - South Dakota, known for corn fields and cattle ranches, is one of only five US states without a lockdown order. Wearing face masks is almost an exception, the recommended "social distancing" of six feet (1.8 meters) is rarely respected, and some shake hands or hug as if the virus had magically stopped at the borders of this sparsely populated rural state. (Photo by Kerem Yucel / AFP) (Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)
© Kerem Yucal/AFP/Getty

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As it turns out, we didn’t all spend the quarantine having sex. Despite early predictions of a coronavirus-induced baby boom, it seems that during lockdown we were less eager to jump into bed than some had imagined.

Justin Garcia, a sex researcher at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University found, in a study of global sexual habits from mid-March to mid-May, that nearly half of those surveyed said they had sex less frequently and enjoyed it less during the pandemic (although some reported sexual experimentation).

He thinks there will be no baby boom to show for those two months of lockdown: “People report pretty high rates of feeling stressed and worried, and those are not psychological states conducive to sexuality,” he told the Financial Times.

“Two gazelles don’t mate in front of a lion and we don’t stop to have a good chat in the middle of a fire. For many people, their bodies and brains are responding as if they are in the midst of a fire,” he added.

The couples surveyed reported that their relationships improved in other ways under lockdown, even if they had less sex. And some 20 per cent said they “expanded their sexual repertoire” during quarantine.

But Mr Garcia predicts they may struggle with a new challenge, as lockdown lifts: “If one partner is going to the store and not wearing a mask and the other partner is very cautious, then the blame game changes,” he says. That may mean that in terms of sex, “my sense is that things will not rebound until people feel safe”.

So if we weren’t all busy procreating, what did we do with our quarantine instead? As much of the US reopens, it’s worth reflecting on some survey data that shows what we did with our love and our money during lockdown: will new sex and spending habits endure in a world that now hopes to pass for normal?

Jamie Foster Campbell, who researches how technology shapes acts of intimacy, says many Americans are spending far more time online with elderly relatives now: “People in their mid-60s say the pandemic has reinvigorated relations with their adult children”. Will family rituals, such as meals prepared and shared in synch on video chat, endure, or will we all go back to planning to call every month, but only managing it on birthdays?

Online shopping took up a lot of time, especially if it involved jockeying for scarce grocery delivery timeslots or finding a pork chop once they became scarce due to pandemic-induced closures of meatpacking facilities.

According to data from Nielsen, the consumer research company, two of the fastest year-on-year growth categories in the US in the week to May 23 were oat milk, which saw its sales up 254 per cent, and fresh meat alternatives, up by 178 per cent. They may have benefited from the general green-spiritedness and health consciousness of the public under lockdown, since obesity is a risk factor for Covid-19, say consumer experts. It’s not clear whether any of that will persist, however.

Flea and tick shampoo sales were up by nearly one-quarter over the same week last year, so it can’t be seasonal. Instead, it must be all those pandemic puppies we bought for company during lockdown. Hair-colour sales were up 20 per cent and nail polish up one-third. It will be bad news for salon owners, if consumers decide they can now do all their grooming at home.

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Lobster sales were up by three-quarters and scented candles by nearly two-thirds: is there finally romance in the air? Lockdown may have limited our ability and desire to have sex in some ways that were utterly predictable, and others that were surprising, experts say. E.B­ Cotenord is a sex worker near Chicago: she has an asthmatic 10-year-old at home and so she stopped seeing clients several weeks ago, and started working 60 to 70 hours a week providing video and phone sex instead. She says she won’t return to real-world sex work “until there is a vaccine”, although it is far more lucrative. The danger to her at-risk child would be too great.

The US economy may be reopening, but sex and spending habits could turn out to be lagging indicators. Go short on condoms, then, and long on sex toys: we may be having less, but kinkier sex for some time to come.


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