GMFA Sex and the pandemic: have our sex lives changed forever? The last year has felt like a long decade. In a moment, our regular way of life was taken away from us. Once vibrant sex lives were snuffed out in an instant. Or were they? How much sex have we actually had during the COVID-19 pandemic? Has it changed the way we have sex? And how have we been looking after our sexual health with our lives restricted? We surveyed 244 people to find out how lockdowns and restrictions have changed the way we fornicate. WHAT ARE WE HAVING? WE ASKED: Have you had sex since the pandemic started? Yes with my live-in partner/boyfriend - 30% No I haven’t had sex - 25% Yes with a regular fuck buddy - 25% Yes with people I meet on sex apps - 25% Yes but I have sex virtually - 13% Yes with my partner (lives separately) - 11% Yes with people I meet at cruising grounds - 8% Yes but I have phone sex - 6% Yes at sex parties/chill outs - 3% Ian Howley, Chief Executive of LGBT HERO, the parent organisation of GMFA, commented on the stats. He said, “I think it goes without saying the last year was a year like no other. I don’t think anyone at LGBT HERO thought we’d ever have to tell people not to have sex but, as we didn’t know the full extent of what we were dealing with, that’s exactly what we had to do. The messaging worked and most people didn’t hook-up. But as lockdown restrictions eased, it was natural for people to start having sex again. I think it was ridiculous to think people could abstain for such a long time. The desire to have sex is a human instinct, however looking at these stats it’s clear how people are having sex has changed, with an increase in outdoor sex and video calls.” For the people who are having sex, what type of sex are they actually having? WE ASKED: What type of sex have you had since the pandemic started? Wanking (alone) - 68% Oral sex 67% Wanking (with someone) 62% Anal sex - 52% Rimming - 40% Outdoors - 16% Threesome - 15% Watersports - 10% S&M - 9% Other fetish - 9% Fisting - 6% Group - 6% Foursome - 5% Chem sex - 5% Cottaging - 4% While 25% told us they didn’t have sex, the pandemic didn’t slow everybody’s roll. But just how good was the sex they were having? “I had sex outdoors. I met an old friend who sucked me off and then fingered me while I wanked him. I was wearing a mask,” Danny, 34, tells us. “I went to a cruise bar during a lower COVID risk period. Sex was permitted but it was supposed to be with a partner or support bubble. I had sex with strangers. As I’d had no sex during the previous few months it was particularly rewarding,” says Jamie, 55. David, 46, goes into some detail, “I was on holiday, and a hot guy followed me into the toilet to tell me he and his boyfriend wanted a threesome. They then followed me back to my hotel room where I serviced them both orally and took two massive loads in my mouth.” Some people had it so sporadically it was hard to recall, like G, 44. “It’s hard to remember. I reckon I’ve had sex maybe five times or less. When I did, I guess it was with a regular fuck buddy at the beginning of the year/pandemic.”While some people have it on tap. “My husband and I have the best sex always,” says Tyrone, 38. However, even though you’re getting laid, it’s not always great. “I had a hook-up and about five minutes in they said ‘I want you to be my boyfriend’” David, 32, tells us. G, 44, says: “The last time I had sex in September, was with someone I’d matched with on Tinder or Hinge. I didn’t want to have sex, but felt I had to because it had been so long. I haven’t had sex since.” Dan, 25, explains that he was out of practice. “It was the first time in a while and it hurt too much, so we had to stop.” “I tried virtual sex. I really don’t find the virtual parties satisfying,” laments Jamie, 55. 30-year-old Shaun puts a more positive spin on less satisfying entanglements. “It’s like pizza; even when it’s not the best pizza it’s still pizza.” However, sometimes bad sex can be a bit more serious, as Steve, 37, explains: “I was cruising in the park and I ended up getting arrested by the police.” Ian Howley commented on the perils of having sex outdoors during a pandemic. He said, “Before the pandemic, having sex outdoors was not illegal. As long as you are in a safe spot that’s not within a distance where people can see you, you can have sexoutdoors. Where we are at now, it’s illegal to meet a random person to have sex outdoors. You can only go outside for exercise, not to socialise... that includes hooking up. However, if you are meeting people outdoors it’s important that you find a safe and secure location and we recommend that you use mask and don’t engage in kissing. Try and have the best sex you can with the least risk.” LOOKING BACK How does the sex we are having since the pandemic started compare to previous years? WE ASKED: Have you had more or less sex during the pandemic than you did previously? Less sex - 65% About the same - 20% More sex - 13% I never have sex - 1% “I share a house with housemates, so I haven’t felt comfortable having anyone over with the restrictions in place. I might have taken the risk during the summer when things were opening up if I lived alone. Generally, I had very little social interaction and have completely stopped online dating as it feels pointless when you can’t meet. Also, even though I don’t personally feel at risk of complications from COVID, I don’t want to spread the virus. My housemate’s dad was shielding and there are people who work in shops near me who may well be vulnerable. I don’t want to be responsible for someone dying,” explains Shaun, 40. “During the first lockdown, I didn’t meet up with anyone at all,” Joel, 36, tells us. “Once the initial lockdown ended, I looked for a fuck buddy in order to minimise the risk. My aim was to find one fuck buddy to last the pandemic, but two fuck buddy relationships didn’t last more than a month or so each - though each was exclusive at the time. But it has meant in those times I’ve had more sex than I normally would have.” “I have COVID anxiety. Everyone is reluctant to meet and I am also reluctant. Everyone wants it but people are being careful and waiting for less risky situation,” says Dean, 45. Dan, 41, sticks to the rules rigidly: “I take the lockdown and pandemic seriously. Sex can wait.” Sex rapidly reduced for those who prefer or rely on sex venues, such as 51-year-old Ocadhla. “The sex I have, as a single man, is usually at saunas and sex clubs. I like this because everyone is there for the same reasons and it’s just simple, uninhibited fun without all the faff. These places have all been closed since March and I have never really got to grips with the Grindr.” While the majority of respondents had less sex, sometimes the pandemic boosted relationships. “I normally travel a lot for work,” says James, 38, “so being at home together (with my partner) has given us more time together.” “I have a live in boyfriend. We had threesomes when some socialising was allowed, with similar sort of precautions for testing for coronavirus as you would when doing sexual health testing either side of a condom-less hook-up to make sure we weren’t passing it on,” says Shaun, 30. LOOKING FORWARD For some, the pandemic changed the way they felt about sex, at least during and after the first lockdown. “I was nervous the first Grindr hook up,” divulges John, 38. “But then it became more normal. After having visited cruising grounds which were busier than they’ve ever been - there were hundreds of people presumably people who would’ve been in clubs or saunas - I realised that the majority of gay men are just carrying on as normal, so didn’t feel guilty about it after that.” Steve, 44, says, “ I was nervous as obviously don’t want to get COVID but I discussed first about what we had been up to and who with, whether we’d seen anyone recently, before playing.” “I was more nervous about sex. I got angry and stopped a hook-up as he tried to touch my face and kiss,” says Peter, 45. “Yes I changed the way I looked at things,” James, 24, explains. “I would go on walking dates in the park or along the river for a while. Then when I felt comfortable that he’s sensible or being safe, I invited him back to mine for the evening.” “I was slightly more nervous. Both feelings of fear of catching the virus itself, but also of guilt breaking or bending rules, even though we were being pragmatic with risk and limiting risk as best as possible with periods of isolation at home and testing. I think we had probably the same amount of threesomes in the spring and summer, but this rapidly declined in the October, November and December,” Shaun, 30, tells us. Ian Howley commented, “I can imagine people must be worried and feel anxious about hooking up right now. Humans need physical contact and for lots of gay men the only time they get to be around other gay men is in LGBTQ+ venues. With venues closed, a lot of gay men are isolated and have no physical contact. If meeting someone for sex allows you to have the necessary contact, it’s important that you and the person hooking up have a chat to assess your risk to yourself and the people you are in contact with. If you live within an area that has access to lateral flow testing, then you could both agree to get tested before you meet. A positive result should be confirmed within 30 mins. Use masks and have sex in a secure outdoor setting and prepare to self-isolate for a while after. But it’s important to remember it is illegal to hook up with strangers right now so if you do engage in hooking up you are at risk of being arrested and/or fined and you could be putting others at risk.” Phil Samba, the Strategic Lead for PrEP for queer men of colour at Prepster, spoke with us about the impact lack of sex and intimacy can have on our community. "As we are now in our third lockdown, the rules say you can’t meet anyone socially unless you live with them, or they are part of your support bubble. So, unless you are with your partner or they’re in your bubble, it’s against the rules to have sex with anyone else. Sexual abstinence isn’t possible or sustainable for everyone. Sex and intimacy are two of the most natural things in the world; they’re both so important for our mental health and, to be frank, they feel amazing and make us feel amazing. To say that everyone who doesn’t live with their partner or have them in a bubble just shouldn’t have sex is unrealistic and unpractical. As queer men, there is already something inherent in us about when we discover our sexuality. The internalised shame becomes ingrained in us, affecting the way we interact with the world and people we’re intimate with. HIV supported those notions that we are 'not right'. The pandemic has robbed us from the sex and intimacy that we have and reinforces those beliefs that something is wrong with us for having normal desires of just wanting to feel loved, feel needed, to be held, to be validated or to have sex because we’re horny. These tips can help you make an evaluation for what works best for you and your partners and help reduce COVID risks. Have virtual sex – online sex is the safest form of sex you can have with someone else without actually being there. Don’t have sex if you feel sick – if you notice any COVID symptoms, stay at home! Get tested – regular STI testing is advised to quickly diagnose and treat any STIs you might have, restarting your PrEP if you take it is a good shout, Find a fuck buddy – hook up with one person for the time being. Less hook-ups – the more people you are in close contact with, the more likely it is you’ll be exposed to COVID. If you’re having sex, then reduce the numbers of hook ups you have will reduce your risks. Get kinky and creative - limit the amount of physical contact that happens during sex. You could wear a face covering or have sex where you face away from each other. You could also have sex using glory holes or sex that doesn’t involve touching like watching each other wank. Take it outside - You’re more likely to be exposed to COVID if you’re in a tightly-packed crowd with little ventilation. You’ll reduce your risk by staying away from crowds, or sex scenes with lots of people." DEEP IN LOCKDOWN There were periods during 2020 where restrictions were eased and it made it easier to maintain a sex life, but how did we cope during the lockdown periods themselves? WE ASKED: How did the lockdown periods specifically impact your sex life? I had less sex - 43% I didn’t have sex during this time - 36% I had sex with my live-in partner - 22% I had sex virtually - 16% I continued to meet a fuck buddy/buddies - 12% I still hooked up via sex and dating apps - 10% I had more sex outdoors - 7% I still went to group sex/chill outs - 2% “I didn’t want to blatantly flout Tier 4 or lockdown rules from a legal perspective, but there was also a social responsibility given cases were so high in London,” says Shaun, 30. “I had COVID anxiety. I may have had it in March, and I was in fear of my life as I had difficulty breathing. I don’t want to repeat that again, so decided not to meet for casual dates,” says Dean, 45. Steve, 44, tells us : “Your sex drive unfortunately does not decrease in a pandemic and though sex was reduced dramatically, it didn’t stop completely. “During the second lockdown, my then fuck buddy and I had oral sex in a park one night, as neither of our places were available. But otherwise, during the first two lockdowns I did not physically meet with guys. In this lockdown, I’m still seeing my current fuck buddy, who lives alone,” explains Joel, 36. STAYING SAFE COVID-19 isn’t the only thing you could be at risk from when having sex, so how were we protecting ourselves? WE ASKED: What safer sex methods have you been using? Condoms - 32% Having sex with one partner - 29% I haven’t had sex - 27% PrEP - 24% Regular HIV testing - 24% Regular STI testing - 20% Only having non-penetrative sex - 8% Having sex with HIV-undetectable people - 5% If you are HIV-negative, have you had an HIV test since the pandemic began? No - 56% Yes - 43% I’m not sure - 1% If yes, how did you access the HIV test? I used a free home test - 30% I went to a clinic - 24% I went to a hospital - 3% I paid for a home test - 2% I went to my GP - 2% 55% of respondents also told us that they tested for STIs during the pandemic. WE ASKED: How did you access the STI test? I went to a clinic - 27% I used a free home test - 27% I went to a hospital - 3% I went to my GP - 2% I paid for a home test - 1% What did you test positive for? Nothing - 87% Syphilis - 5% Chlamydia - 4% Gonorrhoea - 4% Hepatitis C - 2% HPV - 2% HIV - 1% Shigella - 1% Hepatitis A - 1% Hepatitis B - 1% Herpes - 1% “I just had routine tests when I picked up my PrEP. I’ll also go if I find out someone I’ve fucked has got something and abstain until results, but I never caught anything. It was easy enough to make a clinic appointment, says John, 28. “I used the Sexual Health London website twice in between threesomes, where my boyfriend and I had condomless sex with friends,” says Shaun, 30. “I did a full screen at home with my partner’s help, which was easy and straightforward. The website was easy to use and I got results quickly. If anything, it was a better experience for me personally. Although places like 56 Dean Street are invaluable for people presenting symptoms or need in-person support.” Jay, 44 tells us, I was due a screening during first lockdown, so I ordered a free postal test. It came back negative. When the restrictions were eased after the first lockdown, I needed a PrEP prescription, so I was tested negative at the 56 Dean Street clinic and got my medication.” Ian Howley commented on the usage of home testing services during this time: “From the early data we can see that new HIV diagnosis have decreased in 2020 but STIs are still quite high. This is probably due to more people engaging in outdoor sex where you are less likely to engage in anal sex. It’s important that if you are sexually active that you get tested for HIV and STIs on a regular basis. If you can’t get to a clinic you can order a home testing kit. Home testing is available in most places but it’s basically a postcode lottery so it’s best to check. We have a good guide to what’s available to you at www.gmfa.org.uk/hometest. The turnaround for most tests is about two to three days. If you are diagnosed with anything you will be invited to attend a clinic for treatment.” WE ASKED: Did you find treatment easy to access during the pandemic? Yes - 44% I’m not sure - 40% No - 16% “It was hard to be taken seriously or get an appointment. I kept getting refused. It wasn’t until I tried 56 Dean Street that I finally got an appointment and tested properly and got the treatment I needed,” explains G, 44. Raymond, 33, explains, “My initial treatment was fine, but I then had to move and the sexual health practice is closed where I am, so couldn’t get a follow up test to see if antibiotics got rid of infection.” However, the majority of people found no problems with getting tested and treated as needed. “Aside from needing a mask to pick up home test kit, it was the same easy access as usual,” says Ian, 53. CHANGING BEHAVIOUR Even though we are still in the midst of the pandemic, with vaccines currently being distributed, it seems there may be an end in sight (how far away that end is, we don’t yet know). Will the pandemic changed our behaviours in the long-term? WE ASKED: Would you say that the pandemic has changed your relationship with sex? Yes - 49% No - 41% I don’t know - 10% How has it changed? I plan to have more sex after its over - 47% I realise how important sex/intimacy is to me - 39% I hook up less - 32% It didn’t change my relationship with sex - 27% It made me want to find a relationship - 24% I use dating and sex apps less - 18% Sex is less important to me - 11% I use dating and sex apps more - 11% I have sex with my partner less - 6% I will use cruising grounds in the future - 6% I have sex with my partner more - 5% I use cruising grounds more - 5% I hook up more - 3% “I hadn’t been having sex regularly before the pandemic. The impossibility of having sex (as I saw it) during this period makes me realise I had been putting this part of life on hold unconsciously and realise I should have been doing it more,” divulges Shaun, 40. “I’ve realised that sex only works for me if I have an emotional life,” G, 44, tells us. “Being completely alone for so long and not hearing from or seeing my friends has made me cynical and resentful and I want to hurt people more than I want to have sex. I don’t get aroused much at all anymore. I don’t even know when I last masturbated.” Dean, 45, says: “I need intimacy. I live in a village out of London. I’m not coming to the city as much as before and I’m reluctant to meet for casual fun and reluctant to meet anyone for intimate dates. I’m yearning for passion and touch. I need a massage and cuddles more than sex. I’m feeling a bit depressed about it, as I was always a sensual person. Now feel like I’m suffocating from lack of contact.” “I have been starved of a basic human need to be sexually intimate with my partner, and the government rules didn’t take account of that at all for months, and even after, the provision was poorly thought out and insulting. When this is over, I will have sex at every opportunity because you never know when it will be taken away from you,” says James, 34. Ian Howley of LGBT HERO said, “There’s been loads of studies in the past that shows a common reason why people hook-up isn’t just for sex, it’s for intimacy. For some men, the only time they meet other gay men is during sexual activity. Even hooking up outdoors right now will not give you that intimacy people require. So, we are living in a strange world where you can’t socialise with strangers, which means dating is out of the question, and can’t hook-up and if you are, its most likely not in a setting that allows intimacy. How are people supposed to form relationships? Build and maintain connection? I’d imagine this is playing havoc with people’s emotional wellbeing. I guess one of the things to take away from now, is that you are not alone. It’s important that if this is all getting a bit too much you should reach out for support. There are groups, online support groups, peer-support and some one-to-one support available. Remember this will not last forever. You will get through this. We all will get through this.” CHANGING THE WAY WE TEST WE ASKED: Did the pandemic change the way you test for HIV and/or STIs? No - 76% No - 17% I don’t know - 7% In what way? I test at home more - 15% I’ll test in clinics more after the pandemic - 9% I test in a clinic less - 6% I’ll test from home more after the pandemic – 5% I test in a clinic more - 2% I test at home less - 1% “I can do the same science at home that a medical professional would do in a testing centre - at least in so far as sample collecting - without exposing myself or others to risk of exposure to COVID. The testing of samples is done the same by experts in a lab so it sort of makes sense under the circumstances,” explains Shaun, 30. “It’s more convenient to test at home if I’m busy taking time out to go to the clinic for a few hours now seems unnecessary,” Jay, 44, tells us. Ian Howley shares his final thoughts, “I think right now it’s about us all working together and taking the opportunity to get HIV and STIs down to the lowest form we can. This is why home testing is important. If it’s available to you order a test right now. Even if you don’t have symptoms, even if you haven’t had sex in ages. Some people can have HIV and STIs for ages and not have any symptoms. It will help us find those people, get rates down so when this is all over, we can have something less to worry about.