According to numerous media reports, sex toy retailers around the world reported a surge in sales since the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic began, especially during the period when lockdowns were widespread.
Of course, sex toy usage was common before the pandemic, and most women and nearly half of men say they’ve used a sex toy before during either partnered or solo sexual activity. But just how many people say they’ve used a toy in the era of COVID-19? And how many tried one for the very first time?
Since mid-March, some of my colleagues and I at The Kinsey Institute have been conducting a longitudinal study on how this pandemic has been affecting our sex lives and relationships. Among the many things we asked people about was their usage of sex toys. Here’s what we found:
In our initial survey (which took place between mid-March and mid-April), 2,034 people completed it. Nearly half (46.3%) reported that they had played with a vibrator or sex toy alone since the pandemic began. A smaller number (27%) said they had done so with a partner, and just 1.4% said they used a remote-controlled sex toy that can be controlled via a computer or smartphone.
However, for most people, these were not new additions to their sex lives. Just 1.4% said that they used a sex toy alone for the first time, 1.7% said they used a toy with a partner for the first time, and 0.2% said they used a remote-controlled sex toy for the first time. This would suggest that most of the toys purchased during the pandemic were bought by those who already had experience using sex toys—it doesn’t seem to be the case that a huge number of people went out and tried them for the very first time.
It’s also worth noting that, in general, sex toy usage during the pandemic was more common among those who identified as woman or as non-binary compared to those who identified as men. For example, 65.7% of non-binary persons and 52.9% of women reported using a sex toy during masturbation, compared to 23.6% of men. This is consistent with previous research, which has found that men tend to use sex toys at much lower rates than women.
Also, sexual minorities were more likely to report using sex toys during this time compared to heterosexually-identified persons. For example, when looking at sex toy use during masturbation, this was reported by 65.7% of pansexual persons, 61% of bisexual persons, 50% of asexual persons, 38.4% of gay and lesbian persons, and 35.7% of heterosexual persons. This tracks with previous research finding that the rate of sex toy use tends to be higher among persons with sexual identities other than heterosexual, perhaps because sexual minorities tend to be a bit more comfortable exploring their sexual fantasies and desires in general.
So why was sex toy usage so common during the pandemic? There are several possible reasons.
First—and most obviously—it’s simply more difficult to meet one’s sexual needs during a lockdown. Dating and casual sex aren’t as feasible during such a time, and many simply didn’t (and still don’t) have a desire to start new sexual or romantic relationships due to health concerns. As a result, many people are turning to solo activities to fill the void.
Second, sex toys can add an extra element of novelty to masturbation and partnered sex—and that might just be what many people need in order to get in the mood right now. Novelty can help to create a more exciting and immersive sexual experience—one that offers distraction and escape. Put another way, novelty can help to take you out of your head and allow you to focus on pleasure instead of the pandemic.
Third, sex toys are just more widely available today than ever before. Plus, there are toys available for every budget. Wholesale sex toys are available for literally pennies on the dollar, making them affordable even during a recession. At the same time, high-end, high-tech toys are available for those with more to spend. The fact that you can also have these items shipped discretely to your door removes a lot the embarrassment and hesitation many feel about purchasing sex toys.
In short, people reported high rates of sex toy usage since the COVID-19 pandemic began, consistent with the high sales rate reported by retailers. However, the surge seems to be driven more by returning users rather than by people deciding to explore sex toys for the very first time.
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