Gay and bi men change sexual behavior in response to COVID-19 pandemic

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Rainbow men graphic

Study says nine out of 10 men report having one or no sexual partner in the last 30 days

Vanderbilt University researchers studying the effects of COVID-19 on LGBTQ Americans have found that gay and bisexual men have had fewer sexual partners during the pandemic.

nine of 10 men reported having either one sexual partner or no sexual partner in the last 30 days

A team of experts collected data from April 10 to May 10, while most states had issued stay-at-home orders. Two thousand members of the LGBTQ community were asked about what changes they made to their sexual behavior during the pandemic. Of those, 760 were gay and bisexual men.

“Nine of 10 men in our sample reported having either one sexual partner or no sexual partner in the last 30 days, which, for many, was a substantial decrease compared to just before the pandemic,” the study found. “Men also made changes to the kinds of partners they had and their sexual activities with partners, engaged in new strategies to reduce their risks of infection from partners, and expressed high levels of concern about how HIV may affect COVID-19 risk, treatment and recovery.”

According to the study, gay and bisexual men on average report having a greater number of partners over their lifetime and are more likely to have concurrent sexual partners compared to heterosexual individuals. In addition, some gay and bisexual men meet sexual partners in less formal social venues, such as bars, gyms, parks, and bathhouses, out of historical necessity to avoid violence, discrimination, and stigma as a marginalized population. The study found that gay and bisexual men are increasingly having less in-person sex and using the internet, or virtual sex, more.

The study recruited participants using advertisements for LGBTQ adults aged 18 or older on two social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, and on the hookup app Grindr.

Participants universally (over 96 percent) reported making changes to their everyday life because of COVID-19, including staying home or sheltering in place, more handwashing, and avoiding social gatherings. In the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, more than half of those studied reported not having sex at all. Among men who did have sex on a regular basis, most reported reducing their number of partners to just one in the last 30 days.

Whereas just over one-third of men reported masturbating more now compared to time before the pandemic hit, 12 percent reported masturbating less now with several elaborating that stress and anxiety decreased the amount of sex they could or wanted to have. Eighty-seven percent of men surveyed who used hookup sites or apps reported reducing the number of people they met in person, and almost 33 percent reported using video or chat functions to have virtual sex with a partner in the last week.

Even though a small percentage of respondents were HIV-positive, a majority expressed concern about the impact of COVID-19 among those close to them who are living with HIV. Information is still scarce on how COVID-19 interacts with HIV.

Vanderbilt University Assistant Professor of Medicine, Health and Society Tara McKay spearheaded the study, and has recently focused her efforts on how COVID-19 is affecting economically and socially vulnerable populations. She recently partnered with the metropolitan Nashville government and Nashville Mayor John Cooper to share her research in a national webinar.

“I’m really trying to extend the conversation about how COVID-19 is creating disproportionate risks and impacts across our community,” McKay told Vanderbilt University.

McKay says in the study, adverse affects like job and wage loss were increased up to 7 percent higher among the population than data collected on their heterosexual counterparts in other studies. McKay says this could be an indication that more LGBTQ people work in disproportionately affected industries such as service, restaurant and creative.

“trans folks in particular are having a lot more difficulty accessing healthcare and routine medications”

McKay said that while most members of the LGBTQ community in their study are having less sex, some are masturbating a lot more, but a significant portion of the population is not having sex or masturbating as frequently as they were before the pandemic.

McKay’s research is also looking into food insecurity and barriers to healthcare access, among other issues. She says information about the LGBTQ community is vital.

“If we don’t know what the specific need is, then government agencies can’t do much to fix it,” McKay said. “We already know the LGBTQ community is disproportionately affected, but without that data, we don’t know to what extent. Collecting that data would be the best place to start.”

More than 100 members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter on May 20 calling on the Trump administration to collect information on the sexual orientations and gender identities of COVID-19 patients.

McKay also says trans folks in particular are having a lot more difficulty accessing healthcare and routine medications, according to their study reports. Other data she is working on is a current study on the older LGBTQ population, and finding out how people over 50 years old are being affected.

Read the entire study by clicking here. This article has been supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project for COVID-19 coverage.