What lockdown did to SA's libidos: the juicy results of our 2020 sex survey

Did being holed up at home together put couples more in the mood for sex, or less — and what became of the singletons during the pandemic?

13 December 2020 - 00:04 By Paula Andropoulos
Mating in captivity.
Mating in captivity.
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

It's impossible to broach the topic of sex in 2020 without foregrounding our strange new normal.

Coming up on the close of this weird, unwieldy year, we deployed our annual online sex survey conducted in conjunction with Ratepop, a company specialising in chatbot surveys, research and fan engagement, in order to better understand the effects of the global health crisis on South African libidos.

The particular focus of this survey was on sex during the lockdown, cheating during the lockdown, and the roles of sex aids and pornography in getting us through the mandatory quarantine.

INTIMACY IN TIMES OF TROUBLE

Our recourse to sexual intimacy in times of trouble — be they global or personal — is complicated. It appears that some people embrace sex as a vital, regenerative and uplifting prerogative, while others find chaos the ultimate anaphrodisiac.

Post-war baby booms testify to the fact that people sometimes respond to disaster with libidinous urges, although a worldwide pandemic is not necessarily comparable to a war.

After all, as sexologist Catriona Boffard points out, war is likely to separate couples and generate massive bereavements: sex, in these instances, can be a celebration of reconciliation, or procreative in nature — that is, a primal bid to compensate for the large-scale loss of loved ones.

Post-war baby booms testify to the fact that people sometimes respond to disaster with libidinous urges

Contemporary lockdowns, on the other hand, operate by penning married couples and their offspring together for the duration of the catastrophe. So, while it holds true that people may have been responding to loss, change, and bereavement in a sexual manner over the past few months, they are rather unlikely to have been “missing” their partner/s unless they quarantined separately from them.

Did uninterrupted cohabitation put a damper on South African sex lives? Or did easy, all-day access to a warm and willing body compensate for the loss of bars, movies, parties and parks? And what about single people, or part-time partners, or mistresses — how did they fare in a world suddenly barren of Tinder dates, one-night stands and hotel rendezvous?

SEX FOR BETTER OR WORSE

Of our 1,210 respondents this year, 83% were either married or in a relationship at the time they took the survey. In all, 88% identified as heterosexual, and 54% as male.

Forty-three percent of respondents suggested that their sex lives actually improved during lockdown; 35% indicated that there was no discernible change in the quality of their sex lives, and only 22% reported that their sex lives went downhill.

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Image: Staff reporter

For some people, boredom and sexual stimuli alone sufficed to give their sex lives a bit of a boost: one respondent reported that his sex drive increased because he saw his partner in the nude every day.

Another said that, aside from sitting around, watching DVDs and waiting for their food to be delivered, there was “nothing else, really, to do”.

Some people said that they were more willing to experiment with their partners over this period, which might have something to do with the fact that many people also reported feeling closer to their partners as a consequence of the extra time they were spending together.

Conversely, as one respondent on the opposite end of the spectrum astutely pointed out, “It's hard to think about sex when you're living hand to mouth.” Boredom is very often a function of privilege.

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Image: Staff reporter

The minority who indicated that their sex lives took a blow during the hardest months of lockdown mostly attributed this state of affairs to periods of “depression and lethargy”, to heavier-than-usual drinking, or to “stress and anxiety”.

“It really depends on the couple in question,” says Boffard. “I think this year, in my practice, I've seen people go in both directions. People are struggling more. Anxiety is at an all-time high. So couples who were already struggling have got worse — the lockdown has acted as a catalyst for their issues.”

On the other hand, according to Boffard, some couples have demonstrated a newfound willingness to experiment with role-play and fantasy.

“Still, it's difficult to prioritise pleasure right now,” says Boffard. “And, for some people, closeness doesn't breed desire. Domestic life is not sexy.”

SEX DROUGHT FOR SINGLES

Given that most participants in our survey were or are married or in a relationship, our data does not really reflect the full spectrum of single folks' lived experiences under lockdown.

And, predictably, most of the single/unattached respondents who participated in our survey indicated that their sex lives deteriorated.

It's hardly puzzling as to why this would be the case: in lieu of Tinder or Bumble dates, and with no possibility of chance meetings at bars or parties, there were very few opportunities for single people to safely have sex during lockdown.

Indeed, 23% of the single respondents purportedly did not have sex at all for the entire duration of the (ongoing) lockdown. Three percent hooked up with a housemate; another 3% found a friend-with-benefits on dating apps, and a meagre 1% owned up to engaging the services of a prostitute. Seven percent took advantage of online and video chat technologies to stage sexual encounters from a safe distance.

Given how dire these dry months must have been for singles (and for unhappy partners, too) it's little surprise that most habitual porn users watched pornography more than they did before lockdown; only 26% claim to have decreased their consumption, while 39% of our predominantly male respondents lied and claimed to not watch pornography at all.

Only 17% of participants claim to have bought additional sex toys during the lockdown (though 40% wish they had done so)

It may be surprising, then, that — given how openly people reported increased masturbation, fantasy role-play and niche-porn predilections — so few respondents integrated sex toys into their homebound sex lives. Only 17% of participants claim to have bought additional sex toys during the lockdown (though 40% wish they had done so.)

Is this testament to South Africans' cultural conservatism, where sexual pleasure, and especially women's sexual pleasure, is concerned? Or is our data simply reflective of the fact that most of our participants were already coupled up before lockdown? Either way, it's astonishing that some people chose to risk having an affair with a stranger in the thick of a pandemic, rather than buying a cheap silicone vibrator or an inflatable sex doll.

CHEATING DURING COVID

And what about the Other Woman? Though 78% of participants claim not to have been cheating before lockdown began, 9% owned up to extramural hanky-panky, which 27% of the same managed to maintain online, in real life, or (46%) both of the above.

The 44% who elected not to continue their affairs during quarantine say that lockdown was the main reason they called it quits, evidently foreseeing a logistical nightmare and acting pre-emptively to avoid it.

Boffard sums it up in saying that, for the most part, happy couples stayed happy and unhappy couples were even more unhappy than they had been before." The couples who really thrived are those who were starving for time together,” she says.

Her advice to couples in lockdown environments going forward? “Just because we're confined by the four walls of our home doesn't mean we have to give up on being playful. We owe it to ourselves to keep being curious and, wherever possible, having fun.”