BY JESS JOHO
The spike in sex toy sales, rise of OnlyFans, and normalization of masturbation as part of everyday health and wellness were some of the only good things to come from the pandemic (pun intended). But, if you’ve felt a weird sense of FOMO for missing out on these alleged COVID-inspired boons in sexual exploration and acceptance, you’re not alone.
At CES 2021 this week, sextech company Lioness released a new exploratory study analyzing an in-depth dataset capturing how people’s sex lives and drives were impacted by the pandemic. The data, which compares participants’ habits from 2019 versus 2020, includes everything from how often participants masturbated to how long it took to orgasm. The main takeaway? 2020 might not have been the free-for-all cum fest all those trends implied.
2020 might not have been the free-for-all cum fest these trends implied.
Since stay-at-home orders began in late March, retailers and toy companies — particularly those selling internet-connected sextech like We-Vibe, Ohmibod, and Satisfyer — reported skyrocketing numbers, with toys flying off virtual shelves. Faced with indefinite alone time and the risks of pandemic dating, folks rushed to do the responsible thing by turning to self-pleasure, with a particular focus on toys boasting high-tech features like virtual sex with long-distance partners. The explosion of sextech during the pandemic is undeniable, with tech market forecaster Juniper Research predicting that the already multi-billion-dollar industry would see an accelerated 87 percent spike in global adoption of these digital-savvy pleasure devices in 2020.
But assuming that this spike, coupled with more time at home, automatically translated into a wave of reinvigorated, pandemic-fueled masturbation remains to be substantiated. Actually, the new study, which is based on user data gathered by Lioness’ biofeedback-tracking smart vibrator, found potential evidence of the exact opposite conclusion too.
Lioness CEO Liz Klinger, who created the high-tech vibrator designed to help people explore their sexuality through data, said she, “got the sense that things were clearly changing a lot for people [sexually during the pandemic]. And we wanted to dig in and understand what was going on.” The Lioness team’s hypothesis was that folks’ sex lives in 2020 were probably a lot more complicated than that increase in toy sales suggested.
Conducted through Lionness’ Sex Research Platform (which launched last year), the study was done in partnership with the Center for Genital Health & Education, and credits Dr. Natasha Aduloju-Ajijola (a research fellow with a Ph.D. in health education and promotion) with the data analysis. Pooling from the aggregated, anonymized data of 1,879 Lioness users who opted into participation, it analyzed their arousal responses during approximately 40,000 sessions with the smart vibrator between 2019 and 2020.
The study found, “convincing evidence of a significant drop-off in masturbation frequency as the year wore on when compared to [those same users’] masturbation frequency back in 2019,” according to the toy company’s blog post on the study. Overall, there was a roughly 9 percent month-to-month drop in sessions from last year. While the holiday season in 2019 saw an increase in masturbation frequency, the most significant decline in 2020 happened in those same final months of the year, with November’s use dropping more than 37 percent.
November, if you’ll remember, not only brought a devastating (ongoing) spike in COVID cases, but also kicked off the gloomiest social-distanced holiday season ever — on top of also coinciding with one of the most stressful elections in recent American history. To be clear, the data in this study can’t prove causality, since it’s entirely possible participants simply used the Lioness less frequently while masturbating the same amount by other means.
That being said, on an anecdotal level, it’s not hard to imagine why lots of folks weren’t feeling especially horned up in the final months of 2020.
In a separate survey of Lioness users (who were not necessarily the same ones who offered their physiological data), 235 participants answered questions on their sex lives in 2020. Almost 80 percent reported changes in masturbation frequency from 2019, and 76 percent said the same for partnered sex.
A few commonalities emerged in participants’ self-reported reasons for why they’d experienced decreases or increases in libido during the pandemic.
Those who reported less sexual interest and activity (whether partnered or solo) pointed to struggles with self-care, with one quoted participant saying:
“I did purchase several new toys this year however I think overall I masturbated less. I don’t know what maybe it was cause my sleep schedule was off some months then my depression kicked up a little and I just wasn’t interested.”
Others spoke to the impacts of anxiety and stress, less time for privacy due to family members or roommates being home all the time, decreases in self-esteem and feeling less attractive (one surveyor said pandemic-related weight gain inhibited their sex drive), or loss of a loved one.
What both the survey and physiological data really reveal, though, is just how normal it was for folks to have polar opposite sexual responses to the collective traumas of the pandemic.
On the other side of the coin, the survey respondents who reported increased interest in masturbation frequency cited reasons such as: more time at home, being unable to visit long-distance partners, having partners who experienced lower sex drives, being single and the difficulties of pandemic dating, and needing the mood-boost and stress-relief of sexual gratification.
The more granular physiological user data paints an even more complex picture of the unexpected ways COVID-19 changed their sex lives and pleasure experiences, though.
For example, the average duration of sessions with the Lioness decreased by 20 seconds between February 2020 and April 2020 (so, in other words, the period when many of us were adjusting from the before-times and into pandemic life). Meanwhile, sessions increased by 30 seconds between July 2020 and November 2020 (which correspond to U. S. COVID spikes).
It’s impossible to make any sound assumptions about what those time discrepancies actually mean about a users’ sexual experience during said session, though. Longer time spent using the vibrator could mean anything from increased difficulty in reaching orgasm or a deliberately slower build (aka edging) in order to achieve a more powerful orgasm.
The best judge for whether users enjoyed themselves less or more during these sessions comes down to the person’s own subjective experience. Since Lioness allows users to rate each of their sessions on a scale of 1 to 5, the study reports that the common session score went up from 4/5 in 2019, to a perfect 5/5 in 2020.
So, it’s safe to say that, while users may have masturbated less overall, when they did get off the results appear to have delivered above-average satisfaction.
The Lioness COVID study is first-of-its-kind sex research, with Lioness describing it as the “type of data and techniques mid-20th century researchers like Masters and Johnson dreamed of having.” Unlike all other sex research gathered in a lab setting, the kind of data the Lioness platform can gather meets subjects in the natural habitat of their own bedrooms, Klinger said. But the study also makes clear that, “This is an exploratory study with retrospective data — which can’t prove causality.”
There’s a lot of variables and unknowns that call the scientific rigor of this type of study into question. For example, because the data is anonymized to protect user privacy, researchers cannot know key information about participants like gender, age, race, or socioeconomic background. Without that, one cannot claim the study is at all representative of the larger population. It’s reflective only of this subset of people who own a Lioness.
This exploratory study should be seen as a flawed but intriguing real-time snapshot of an extraordinary moment in human sexuality.
At the same time, Klinger also questioned whether the same can’t be said for a lot of sex research done in labs, which often disproportionately rely on college students as subjects — specifically, college students who are comfortable performing sex acts in a clinical setting while researchers observe.
The potential benefits of sex research that isn’t confined to a laboratory environment are obvious. But they come at the cost of a whole host of variables you can’t control, account for, or recreate — all things which are essential to legitimate scientific research. There’s an infinite number of explanations for why Lioness users had fewer sessions with their smart vibrator in 2020 — perhaps they contributed to the aforementioned spike in sales for other sex toys and used those instead.
What this exploratory study should be seen as is a flawed but intriguing real-time snapshot of an extraordinary moment in human sexuality — nothing more and nothing less.
As with everything related to COVID, it will be years before we can claim anything definitive about the pandemic’s effects on us. At the same time, what this Lioness data does validate is that, no matter how the pandemic impacted your libido — whether it turned you into a sex hermit or a sex monster or anything in between — all of it is totally normal.
That’s what Klinger believes is one of the benefits for users who opt into the research platform. “It’s beneficial to the researchers for data, but it’s also a way for users to learn more about themselves by participating and seeing some of the results from the findings.”
For those who own Lionesses, you can sign up to participate in current and future research studies through the platform. Klinger said her team is also working on ways to make the $200 devices more accessible, through potential grants — though getting a sex toy qualified as a medical device presents its own set of problems. If you’re interested, you may want to wait to get the second generation of the Lioness, which is supposed to come out soon.
We’ve been in isolation for so long that it’s a comfort to just to be reminded that none of us are alone in our reactions to these unprecedented circumstances. You’re not a sex freak or sexually broken after all, and Lioness has got the data to prove it.
What’s inarguable is that COVID-19 changed a lot of people’s sex lives. And it’s OK to take your time in understanding how or why.