People turned to virtual sex because of a lack of opportunity for physical intimacy during the first lockdown, according to a new survey.
The study, conducted by UCL, the University of Glasgow and the National Centre of Social Research, surveyed over 6,654 people aged 18-59 and found that 53% of people engaged in virtual sexual activity, such as sexting or watching pornography, during the first COVID-19 lockdown.
One of the lead authors of the study said that the increase in virtual sex may have been a good thing from a sexual health perspective.
"Whilst a lack of physical interaction with a partner may have a detrimental impact on sexual satisfaction and people's well-being, it may also bring public health benefits such as a decline in the transmission of sexually transmitted infections," Professor Kirstin Mercer from the University of Glasgow said.
"Physical touch is a fundamental human need and crucial in developing intimacy. Virtual ways of being sexual can feel less satisfying because they don't allow that. We found the reduction in opportunity to give and receive intimate touch was not experienced equally across the population."
The proportion of people who said they participated in some form of virtual sexual activity was driven largely by watching porn, with 64% of men and 21% of women saying they watched sexually explicit material.
Participants were asked a series of questions about their sexual behaviour during the first four months of lockdown and the researchers found that people aged 18-24 were more likely to report a change in their sexual frequency.
Young people had less sex
Around 66% of sexually experienced young people said their sexual activity declined during lockdown.
Soazig Clifton, the joint co-first author, said: "Young people were more likely to report having sex less often and being less satisfied with their sex lives than they had been before lockdown started.
"This is likely to be at least, in part, because young people are less likely to be living with partners and were unable to meet sexual partners when restrictions were in place.
"Time will tell whether these changes in sexual behaviour during the first lockdown translate into long-term shifts in behaviour, or whether there is a 'rebound' effect with people making up for lost time."
Overall, 63% of adults reported having physical sex with someone after lockdown started, and of those people, 76% said they were in cohabiting relationships.
When participants were asked how often they engaged in sexual activities, just over half (57%) of those sexually experienced - defined as those who reported ever having partnered sex - said there was no change in the number of times they had sex with a partner compared to the three months before lockdown.
Professor Cath Mercer, from UCL, said that while people who lived with their partner continued to have sex, for "those who didn't live with a partner, COVID-19 restrictions were particularly detrimental".
While the authors of the study noted that the study was designed to be representative of the British population, the lack of pre-pandemic data on sexual activity limited their ability to quantify change and the data was based on people's ability to remember activities.