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Vibrators for sale at The Art of Loving.

New sextech research reveals impact of pandemic stress on sexuality

Studies shed insight into mental health crisis, uneven impacts on communities of colour

By Emma Arkell , in Health , on February 16, 2021 Tags:

There was a flood of stories at the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns about runaway sales of sex toys, leading to speculation about everything from a sexual revolution to a pandemic baby boom.

But new studies from a sex-toy manufacturer and the University of British Columbia expose a messier reality.

Though the initial stress that people felt at the beginning of quarantine may have led them to seek out stress-relieving activities, those numbers soon dropped off. And some groups, particularly racialized and low-income people, are bearing the brunt of pandemic stress.

Natasha Aduloju-Ajijola is a public-health researcher whose work looks at health disparities, condom usage, and the impact of stress on sexuality.

“At the beginning, we did see people using it more, but then as it continues, you start to see declines from the same people, compared to what they were doing a year before,” said Natasha Aduloju-Ajijola, a sexual-health researcher who analyzed biometric data from the Lioness, a “smart vibrator” capable of sending biometric data to researchers.

She attributes these differences to nuances in the different kinds of stress we’ve experienced since the pandemic began.

The Lioness vibrator was used in a study undertaken by the U.S.-based Centre for Genital Health and Education. The study tracked significant decreases in vibrator usage. In an accompanying survey, respondents cited stress, decreases in self-esteem and less privacy as reasons why they were masturbating less.

The study provides a unique insight into the intersections of the pandemic, stress and sexuality, revealing how a spike in sales can be a misleading window into what’s really happening in bedrooms, brains and wallets across the continent.

Using biometric data and a supplementary survey, researchers tracked the experiences of 1,879 users from Jan. 1, 2019 to Dec. 12, 2020. They found a significant decline in masturbation frequency — month to month frequency dropped by an average of 9.3 per cent, with the biggest monthly drop in November at 25.8 per cent.

Aduloju-Ajijola and Dee Hartmann, co-founder of the Centre for Genital Health and Education, explained that stress affects hormone levels, which in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system, keeping people in a fight, flight or freeze state.

Dee Hartmann is a Chicago-based physical therapist and researcher.  Photo: Rachell Monteleone

“When we’re depressed, our serotonin levels don’t get high enough to allow ourselves to even have that pleasure,” said Hartmann.

The Lioness vibrator can’t measure hormone levels, but it can collect biometric data — everything from temperature and date, to force sensor and vibration levels- which is pulled from a free app that allows users to track their orgasms.

Researchers have been able to analyze data from those who opt in to share their app metrics, scrubbed of any identifying data.

“It’s very exacting data. It’s physiologic data that we see from how the body responds and reacts — it’s not what we think,” said Hartmann.

The Lioness study didn’t collect demographic data, like gender identity, ethnicity or age, in order to maintain participant privacy.

But Lori Brotto and other researchers at UBC have been looking more closely at how the pandemic has impacted desire, sexual satisfaction, and changes in frequency of sexual activity across specific populations.

The sexual-health lab collected survey data from 1,019 English-speaking adults in Canada every four weeks from April to August, which roughly correlated to changes in lockdown measures. The surveys captured data on ethnicity, sex and gender identity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and live-in partner status.

Survey data revealed COVID-related stress is disproportionately impacting people who identified as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour, as well as those with lower levels of education.

Finding pleasure during stressful times 

Diana Sadat, a Vancouver-based sex therapist, has seen an increase in BIPOC clients since the pandemic began.

Diana Sadat is a Vancouver-based sex therapist whose work focuses on issues with desire. Photo: Ariana Pasin

“There is an effect more so on those folks than there is on people who aren’t in marginalized positions,” she explained.

The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of colour has been well documented. Racialized Canadians have endured higher rates of COVID-19, an increase in racist attacks, and have been hit harder by job loss than white Canadians.

She said that while the information she provides clients stays the same regardless of who they are, it’s important to establish how their intersecting identities impact every aspect of their lives — including their sex lives.

“I think the most important thing is that we have to identify their position in the world and how that’s impacting it. We can’t leave that out of the equation,” she said.

Her work during the pandemic has focused on normalizing people’s lack of desire and helping them find small moments of pleasure to remind themselves that pleasure is still possible.

The Art of Loving on Broadway has stayed open throughout the pandemic.

Hartmann also stressed the importance of maintaining a positive relationship the body as a way to fight off the anxiety and depression of the pandemic.

“That pleasure we have within us is the most powerful thing that we have,” she said.

Vera Zyla, co-owner of The Art of Loving, a sex-toy shop in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant nieghbourhood, hopes that as the pandemic continues, people continue to connect with their bodies and explore their sexuality.

After a drop in sales during the first few months of the pandemic, she has seen a recent resurgence in business and, with it, new pleasure-seeking customers.

“Lots of newbies. People coming in and saying, ‘I’ve never had a vibrator. I’d like to try one out.'”

Zyla has been committed to keeping The Art of Loving open, saying that the shop is an essential business that provides people with the tools they need to have safe sex.

She is grateful for the resurgence in business and hopes that the products offered at her store help people find relief as they get used to “the new normal.”

“I think there was an acclimatization period where people are going, ‘Okay, we’re on the program of washing hands, wearing masks and staying in. What are we going to do? Let’s get creative!’”