The majority of queer men accessing a HIV prevention service continued to have sex with partners outside their household during England’s first lockdown, a survey has found.
The clinic surveyed HIV-negative queer men who were at increased risk of acquiring HIV and had previously signed up for an online HIV prevention service.
Across March to June 2020, three-quarters of the 841 respondents had sex during the first wave of restrictions mainly, they said, because of loneliness and boredom.
Around two in 10 queer men who were asked took part in chemsex, a subculture that typically consists of male sex parties facilitated by drugs.
With a median age of 40, the majority of respondents (83 per cent) were white. Around three-quarters reported using PrEP during the restrictions.
Fearing that a lack of access to sexual health services could cause a spike in sexually-transmitted diseases and HIV acquisition, researchers say the findings highlight the importance of promoting non-judgemental sexual healthcare where sexual activity goes against COVID restrictions.
Bored and isolated, queer men turned to sex during lockdown. They regretted it
Of those who engaged in sex, 76 per cent reported sex partners outside their household. Twenty-eight per cent only had sex with people geographically close to them and 21 per cent limited it to just a single person.
Many of the respondents said what drove them to have sex during lockdown was a pervasive sense of loneliness, isolation, stress and boredom, the findings published in the medical journal The BMJ found.
Around one in two felt lonely while lockdown orders were enforced, and 29 per cent said boredom was their main motivation for engaging in sex during the lockdown. Stress and anxiety were cited by 27 per cent.
Feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety about sex and/or COVID-19 soon followed, the survey found. Seventy-three per cent said they discussed COVID-19 transmission risk with their sex partner.
Moreover, around 28 per cent reported acquiring an STI during the first lockdown – a startling figure, the researchers stressed, considering the 80 per cent plummet in people using sexual health services.
Three in 10 men surveyed struggled to access STI testing or treatment, and nine per cent were unable to access sexual health services at all.
Respondents had, for the most part, had fewer sex partners and opted for sexting in an effort to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus from 23 March to 30 June.
Around three-quarters reported having fewer sexual partners during lockdown compared to before.
Handwashing, opting for sex positions that limit face-to-face contact, not kissing and cruising outdoors were all used to limit the risk.
‘Your safest sexual partner during the COVID-19 pandemic is yourself.’
Having sex with a partner from another household has effectively been outlawed during lockdown periods.
“Our core advice remains that your safest sexual partner during the COVID-19 pandemic is yourself or someone within your household,” Dr Michael Brady, medical director at Terrence Higgins Trust, told PinkNews last year.
Brady stressed that those having sex, especially those without an exclusive partner, must be wary of coronavirus guidelines.
Safety, he said, is crucial and “steps to reduce the risk of COVID-19 should be factored into decision making when it comes to sex.”
“We are continuing to learn how to live with this virus and expecting people to abstain from sex indefinitely isn’t realistic,” he said.