Queer men in the U.K. flouted early COVID-19 lockdowns to meet sexual partners, according to a new study. Authors found that isolation and a desire for intimacy were the motivations most often cited by study participants for seeking out sex partners.
Researchers at 56 Dean Street, London’s largest sexual health and HIV clinic, oversaw the study, in which 76% of respondents reported having sex outside their homes during the U.K.’s first three months of lockdown. The survey, which was conducted over the course of a week in August, asked questions based on behaviors between March 23 and June 30, 2020.
Nearly three out of four people surveyed for the January 18 report said they discussed COVID-19 transmission risks with their partners, with 58% applying one or more safety measures to avoid spreading the virus. Among the mitigation strategies reported by the 814 research participants, 21% chose to have sex with only one person during lockdown, while 14% adopted sexual positions that reduced face-to-face contact (e.g., avoiding kissing).
Participants in the study said they chose not to comply with stay-at-home orders because they experienced feelings of loneliness (48%), boredom (29%), and stress or anxiety (27%).
Researchers also focused on sexual health habits and access to care during lockdown. An overwhelming majority of respondents were PrEP users, with 75% saying they had been taking the medication to prevent the transmission of HIV. Some respondents accessed sexual health services during the pandemic, but nearly one third said they had trouble attaining sexual health care. Around 28% of those who received services reported an STI diagnosis.
The study’s authors noted that because the findings are self-reported by the respondents — who had a median age of 40 — the results are subject to answers that are socially desirable but not accurate. Participants may have also inaccurately recalled past events, especially as the survey was distributed months after the time period being investigated.
Even though the individuals surveyed may not be representative of queer men as a whole, the researchers focused on this group because of concerns about changes in sexual behaviors and stigma related to disclosing activity to health providers during lockdowns. These factors, as noted, could increase the risk of HIV transmission.
Adopting approaches that aren’t rooted in shame are key to addressing queer men’s sexual health moving forward, according to the study’s authors, who advocated for a non-judmental approach so as to not deter patients from receiving care.
The debate over shaming queer men for breaching COVID protocols has hit a fever pitch in recent months, particularly after the emergence of the GaysOverCovid Instagram account and the resulting backlash. The page calls out party promoters, influencers, and others who party and hookup as though there’s not a global public health crisis.
Some of the activities documented by GaysOverCovid have even been reported to individuals’ employers and to law enforcement, to the chagrin of many who recall the longstanding legacy of police surveillance and oppression of LGBTQ+ people. Reporting behaviors to authorities has also drawn concern from those who support defunding or abolishing the police. The account’s creator has also thanked the officers who shut down gatherings.
Shaming people who have broken lockdown protocols could be counterintuitive, according to public health experts and activists in HIV-related advocacy.
In an interview with Vox, Jen Balkus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Washington, said that shaming may make people feel hesitant about disclosing situations in which there was the possibility for COVID exposure. She added that the fear of stigma may make people feel uncomfortable with getting tested and may deter them from considering precautions such as quarantining.
“We learned from the HIV epidemic how to talk with people and to work with them,” Balkus noted, saying it’s crucial to have “an open dialogue to understand what behaviors folks are engaging in and what choices they could make to reduce risk.”
Still, the study’s authors suggest there’s more that could be done to address the double whammy of the sexual and mental health risks tied to pandemic lockdowns and the ways people flounce stay-at-home orders. As part of their conclusions, the researchers highlighted that COVID-safe approaches to providing testing and treatments, such as home testing kits and phone and video consultations, would help mitigate any limitations on sexual well-being imposed by the pandemic.
“We feel that this report could help promote a discussion on unmet needs” for queer men accessing sexual health services, they wrote, saying that those needs should “be addressed in case of further restrictions arising in the future.”
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