You’d be forgiven for thinking everyone was masturbating more during the pandemic.
Adult content subscription service OnlyFans went mainstream, and celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Dakota Johnson, Lily Allen and Cara Delevingne made stigma-breaking moves when they released their own sex toys (Goop) or partnered with existing companies (Maude, Womanizer and Lora DiCarlo, respectively) to endorse stylish, often expensive pleasure products. Companies around the world have reported dramatic spikes in sex toy sales since almost the beginning of the pandemic; according to The New York Times, Wow Tech Group, the parent company of We-Vibe and Womanizer, saw a 200-per-cent increase in online sales between April, 2019, and April, 2020. Similarly, the Los Angeles Times reported Lelo, the Stockholm-based luxury sex toy brand, saw a 60-per-cent rise in internet sales in March, 2020. And a 2021 study published in the Journal of Psychosexual Health notes that sales of sex dolls, lingerie and sex toys increased during COVID-19 lockdowns in Australia, Britain, Denmark, Colombia, New Zealand, Italy, Spain, France, India, North America and Ireland, possibly due to the same panic buying impulse that prompted toilet paper hoarding.
It’s not just that people are buying more sex toys – they’re after particular ones. Online sex toy seller Lovehoney says Canadians were particularly interested in quiet sex toys, which led to a 25-per-cent jump in sales of products such as the Whisper Quiet Classic Vibrator. It makes sense – with few viable ways to distract ourselves from the panic, then monotony of the pandemic, it’s no wonder self-love emerged as an option. But if you were one of the 1.5 million young adults who moved back home with their parents, according to a recent Finder.com survey, or if you lived with a partner, kids or roommates who were always, well, there, avoiding that telltale buzz quickly became very important.
“If last year proved anything about home life, it’s that living in close quarters with others means you will not just see, but hear a lot of how that person lives,” Lovehoney ambassador and sex-tech expert Bryony Cole says.
But that’s only part of the story. The way Canadians are engaging in self-love has changed, too – in fact, some experts say the pandemic has impacted our overall relationship to masturbation, a shift that might last for years to come.
In a study conducted between April and August, 2020, and published this year in the International Journal of Sexual Health, researchers from the University of British Columbia’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology asked participants about their levels of solitary sexual desire and solitary sexual behaviour, and while they found that interest in masturbation remained unchanged as restrictions loosened, people were less inclined to actually masturbate, “suggesting that there may be factors unrelated to desire that are accounting for the decrease in masturbation,” according to the article.
“You would think that as restrictions loosened, people would be engaging in more sexual behaviour because we’re ‘going back to normal’ and stress has gone down. But we didn’t find that,” says Lori Brotto, director of UBC’s Sexual Health Laboratory, professor in the school’s department of obstetrics and gynecology and lead researcher on the study.
It’s important to note that most of the study participants identified as straight, white cisgender women, so these results may not be reflective of everyone’s pandemic experience. As Toronto sexual-health educator Samantha Bitty points out, culture, religion, gender and sexuality play huge roles in shaping our relationships to masturbation, so it’s hard to make a blanket statement about how everyone approached self-pleasure. However, she thinks many people’s masturbation habits did change during COVID-19, for a variety of reasons.
“There are so many factors that would contribute to why people’s relationship to masturbation has changed – the dynamics of their living conditions, if they were moving back in with family or were a young university student in a dorm. Whether you’re partnered or not is a factor. But the most important factor, which spans across gender, sexual orientation and age, is that we all have a different relationship to stress. When you’re stressed, does that make you feel more sexual? Or does it make you feel less sexual?” she says, noting that feeling sexual also isn’t the only reason people masturbate. “The idea that the only reason we would masturbate is because we have pent-up sexual energy is a fallacy.”
Brotto agrees. Her study deliberately looked at sexual desire and sexual behaviour separately for that reason. “Sometimes people will masturbate to deal with anxiety or to get to sleep or to change their mood, not necessarily because they’re feeling sexual or have sexual desire or want to have sex with a partner,” she says.
In short: Masturbation can be a form of self-care. Bitty says it can be a way to practise mindfulness and meditation because you’re deep-breathing and spending quality time with yourself. It’s an opportunity for creative thinking. And, it’s physically good for you: Masturbation in general is a stress-buster that may provide relief for depression and anxiety, and orgasms have wide-reaching health benefits.
“They help with everything,” says Dr. Draion Burch, a U.S. gynecologist and founder of Momentum, a company that sells sexual-health products including condoms and lube. He’s only exaggerating a little bit; according to a 2016 Michigan State University study, orgasms trigger the release of oxytocin, which has been linked to lower levels of stress and anxiety – and even to better cardiovascular health. Meanwhile, a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Public Health found 50 per cent of people who had an orgasm before bed reported better sleep quality and latency (the time it took to fall asleep). There’s even been research into the pain-relieving benefits of orgasm. A 1985 study found orgasm could increase a woman’s pain tolerance by almost 75 per cent.
Not that masturbation is all, or even mostly, about climax.
“When we think about masturbating, we think ‘Okay, it’s about our genitals and orgasms.’ And that leaves so many people out of the conversation,” Bitty says. “People who don’t have a sexy relationship with their genitals or their body, people who don’t have use of their genitals. I think a lot of people learned during the pandemic that their relationship to masturbation is not just a survival thing. It’s an actually meaningful way to develop a sense of their sexuality and their relationship with themselves. And I do believe that will carry over into our postpandemic lives.”
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