Two new studies have looked at the impact of stay-at-home orders on gay and bisexual men.
The results suggest loneliness, boredom and isolation are driving some men to seek sex with others outside of their household. Others are turning to technology to fulfill a need for connection.
The first study, published in the BMJ was undertaken by Europe’s biggest sexual-health clinic: 56 Dean Street in London. The clinic sees a huge number of gay guys.
The clinic surveyed just over 800 gay and bi men and asked them about their sexual behavior during the UK’s first lockdown (March-June 2020).
The men were all HIV negative and three-quarters were PrEP users.
Key findings included:
- 76% reported they have been sexually active, of which 76% reported sex outside their household.
- 75% reported fewer partners than before lockdown.
- Isolation/loneliness (48%) and anxiety/stress (27%) triggered sexual activity.
- While 46% reported no change to emotions ordinarily experienced following sex, 20% reported guilt for breaching COVID-19 restrictions.
- 30% reported difficulties in accessing testing/treatment.
- 76% introduced one or more changes to their sexual behavior, while 58% applied one or more steps to reduce COVID-19 transmission during sex.
- Those on PrEP reported having a higher number of partners, more engagement in ‘chemsex’ (or party’n’play), and use of sexual health services than non-PrEP users.
The authors concluded, “COVID-19 restrictions had a considerable impact on sexual behavior and mental well-being.”
They suggest sexual health service providers must stay aware of the impact of loneliness and isolation, and ensure people can continue to access testing services (for example, telehealth screening or access home-testing kits).
A second study appeared in the Journal of Homosexuality and was led by researchers at UCLA in California.
It surveyed men between April and May last year and found 63% of gay men only left their home for essentials during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Subsequently, staying at home led to these men experiencing greater feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and dissatisfaction with their sex lives.
The survey took place via the app Hornet. Approximately 10,000 men in 20 countries took part, with most being aged 18-34.
The survey differentiated between those who chose to stay in with those who went out (such as essential workers). The study found that those who have stayed in during the pandemic were:
- 37% more likely to feel anxious than those who haven’t stayed in.
- 36% more likely to feel lonely.
- 28% more likely to use text messaging to stay connected with others.
- 54% more likely to use video calls to connect with others.
The study said gay men are already more likely to experience anxiety and depressions, and the “COVID-19 pandemic may exacerbate underlying mental health issues”.
Most of those in the survey said they used dating apps such as Hornet to stay connected with others (although this is perhaps unsurprising given the survey was conducted via Hornet). The authors noted that such apps have a role to play in addressing “some of the explicit concerns related to mental health and sexual health during this public health crisis.”
The researchers also add, “It is important not to stigmatize the sexual behavior of gay men during the COVID-19 pandemic, as increased stigma levied at already marginalized communities may exacerbate mental health issues.”
Ian Holloway, a UCLA associate professor of social welfare, and the study’s lead author said, “We know that all people are affected by the isolation that can result from physical distancing. Our concern is that the harm may be more severe among gay and bisexual men, who face disproportionate rates of poor mental health and sexual health outcomes. COVID-19 has exacerbated stress, anxiety and social isolation within our communities.”
Both studies suggest that greater use is made of technology to make sure gay men feel connected, and are encouraged to think about their sexual health and mental wellbeing.