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COVID-19 lockdowns change attitudes to sex and relationships

By Stephen Chen, South China Morning Post

Scientists have long accepted that sex is one of the least important aspects of a good relationship, but the impact of coronavirus-related lockdowns appears to have turned that conventional wisdom on its head.

A new study by Chinese scientists has found that lockdown sex played a much greater than normal role in improving couples’ relationships – at least for those who were not distracted by children or too stressed by the situation.

Studies conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic suggested that sex had little or no impact on the overall quality of male-female relationships when compared to other factors such as money, education levels or age, especially from the woman’s perspective.

One possible explanation for the change is that during the lockdown period, “sexual satisfaction was closely related to communication between partners … When sexual satisfaction between partners was achieved, positive emotions were generated, and positive partner behaviours were displayed”, said the team led by professor Wang Peixi, from the school of nursing and health at Henan University in Kaifeng, in a paper published in journal Sexual Medicine on Friday.

Numerous studies have found that the pandemic has had a detrimental effect on people’s sex lives overall, linking an increase in the number of infections with a decline in sexual activity.

In Turkey, for instance, couples had sex about once a week, compared with twice a week before the pandemic.

Wang’s study, which involved nearly 300 married or cohabiting people in different parts of China between 18 and 44 years of age, found a similar trend. Nearly half of the participants reported having less sex after China entered a nationwide lockdown early last year.

That sex had a small impact on male-female relationships has become the prevailing wisdom in the research community. One study involving five countries on different continents in 2011, for instance, found that most couples’ satisfaction with their relationship had nothing to do with the frequency of sexual intercourse.

It found that financial problems were the main cause of unhappiness in a relationship, and that couples tended to lose interest in each other over time.

To Wang’s surprise, sex had a more important influence than money and age during the lockdown periods. The quantity and quality of sexual relations contributed to 38 per cent per cent of the satisfaction couples felt about their relationship – about three times the contribution of social and demographic factors.

According to previous studies, women were known to attach more importance to social-demographic factors and less importance to sex in their view of a relationship compared to men, but this gender difference has disappeared during the pandemic, according to Wang.

But one thing has remained constant. Family matters are still the single most important factor in any relationship. If people do not play the role of husband, wife or parent properly then the relationship is bound to suffer.

Although the importance of this aspect declined slightly under lockdown, it still accounted for almost half the overall levels of satisfaction – far more than any other factor.

But the Chinese researchers said that their findings about the positive connection between sex and relationships might not apply everywhere, especially in countries with different cultures.

One study led by Dr Gianmartin Cito from the Careggi Hospital in the University of Florence, for instance, found that, unlike many other countries, Italians had more sex during the lockdown.

Cito discovered that the increase was not driven by desire, but by younger couples becoming more eager to have children in the wake of a global calamity.

The study also noted that lockdown had a detrimental effect on many people’s sex lives – either because they were cooped up at home with their children all day or had become more depressed and anxious due to their situation.

“Chinese citizens are relatively conservative in their thoughts and shy about expressing their sexual desire … a large number of people choose to keep silent and not to express their feelings to their partners when they encounter some sexual problems,” Wang said.

“Overtime, these problems will accumulate and lead to the deterioration of sexual quality and thus affect intimacy,” he added.

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