Sexual Health in a Pandemic: What Have We Learned?18 August 2022
Whilst lockdown has led to a significant decrease in sexual activity for many in the UK, the need for sexual health information, testing, and prevention continues. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has brought chaos in the UK to the National Health Service (NHS), resulting in limited access to sexual health services.
Here, we discuss the ways in which the pandemic has changed sexual behaviours in Great Britain, and its impact on access to sexual health services and the incidence of STIs.
Changing Concerns About Sexual Health and Behaviours During COVID-19
During the pandemic, more and more people became concerned about sex. Many people wondered whether it was safe to have sex, and if they could contract the virus by having sexual contact with another person. People were also concerned that the virus could be passed on in saliva during kissing, and through faeces during anal sex or rimming. While there is still a lot we do not know about how the virus is passed on, the virus has been found in saliva, semen, and faeces. Therefore, it is safe to say that sexual contact may increase the spread of COVID-19.
Despite the risks, many people in the UK continued engaging in sexual activity. According to researchers from UCL, the University of Glasgow, and the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), 63% of adults had physical sex with someone after the lockdown started. And 76% of the sexually active adults were in cohabiting relationships. Another interesting finding from the survey was that over half (57%) of sexually experienced adults experienced no change in the number of times they had sex with a partner.
However, younger adults aged 18 to 24 were more likely to experience changes in their sexual behaviour during the pandemic. 66% of young people reported a decline in their sexual activity. This is perhaps partly due to young people being less likely to live with their partners, and being unable to meet sexual partners during the lockdown.
According to another study, people who were single or dating casually were more likely to report decreases in sexual activity than people in long-term relationships. The study also found that women experienced decreased levels of sexual desire compared with pre-lockdown reports.
Overall, sexual behaviour among people in the UK saw some change during the pandemic. Part of this is due to the concerns about contracting the virus as well as difficulties meeting with sexual partners during lockdown. But for people living with their partners, sexual activity has not really changed.
Rates of STIs During the Pandemic
Before the pandemic, the rates of many sexually transmitted infections (STIs) had soared. Rates of gonorrhoea were at the highest since the end of World War I, and the rates of syphilis tripled in less than 10 years. Because COVID-19 impacted access to testing, the UK saw decreases in STI rates in 2020.
For example, in 2020, there was a 10% decrease in STI rates, compared to 2019. This decrease in STI rates is partly due to the decrease in sexual health screens delivered by Sexual Health Services (SHS). It could also be due to people changing their sexual behaviour during the pandemic.
How Sexual Health Services Have Been Impacted by the Pandemic
A survey by The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) revealed that sexual health services operated at reduced capacity during the coronavirus pandemic, with 50% of sites closing and many others experiencing a drop in available staffing.
The survey has also shed light on the unequal access to sexual health services in the UK. Vulnerable populations such as men who have sex with men, sex workers and young people were disproportionally affected, with nearly 1 of 5 SHSs saying they were only able to offer limited, or no care at all, to these groups.
Another recent survey further illustrates the limited access to SHS during the pandemic in British Columbia (BC), Canada. Researchers found that of the respondents who reported needing any sexual health service since March 2020, over half (52%) did not manage to access the service. Others avoided or delayed accessing such services altogether.
The most common reasons for avoiding or delaying seeking access to SHS were concerns about contracting COVID-19 when at or travelling to a clinic and the closure of the usual place providing such services. Other barriers for people accessing SH include:
- Changes to clinic opening times
- Termination of walk-in services
- Limited access to public transport
- Fear of judgement by health professionals for not adhering to social distancing guidance
As a result, people were more likely to use alternative sexual health service models, such as home self-collection kits, receiving test kits or antibiotics at home, and express testing. Patients also used alternative remote channels of communication, such as telephone or video consultations.
However, many patients could not leverage virtual communications due to limited access to online devices, lack of credit/data on mobile phones, and a poor household internet connection. People with mental health concerns, learning disabilities, and language barriers might also struggle with navigating new ways of accessing sexual healthcare.
Looking Toward the Future
Thanks to the pandemic, people have become increasingly concerned about their sexual health and activity. Yet, many of them aren’t getting the services they need to maintain their sexual health as COVID-19 has disrupted sexual health services, causing limited access. This means more action is needed to support SHS to meet the high levels of demand they still face.
Today, many organisations are launching initiatives to counter the detrimental impact of COVID-19 on access to sexual health services and the control of STIs. But these initiatives can only do so much. It’s up to the individual to take charge of their sexual health. For more information about how to take care of your sexual health, visit our Support & Advice page or order a home STI kit today.
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Great blog – very informative!