NATSAL-COVID: Sex, love and lockdown

Beginning in March 2020, contact with individuals outside of immediate households was banned with very few exceptions. The immediate impact on mental health, physical wellness, finances, and other crucial aspects of daily life were well documented and were considered in policy formulation. However, the impact on sexual relationships and intimacy remained elusive and few tools were available to quantify the repercussions.

The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) is a face-to-face survey that since 1990 takes place every 10 years across Britain, sampling over 45,000 people and including information on sexual behavior and STI testing. The upcoming Natsal-4 aims to interview an additional 9,000 people and is due to start in the summer of 2022.

When the COVID-10 pandemic took foot in Britain, the Natsal study framework provided a key resource to quickly launch a sub-study. Natsal-COVID began in July 2020 and distributed over 6,000 web-based surveys to people aged 18-59 across Britain. The survey focused on sexual relationships, behaviours, and use of sexual health services.

Join us in the first episode of the STI 2022 podcast series, join Professors Cath Mercer and Nigel Field alongside Dr Fabiola Martin as they discuss the methodology, results and future direction of Natsal-COVID, and the upcoming Natsal-4.

Facts and Highlights

  • In total, 6,658 surveys were completed. Weighted quota-based sampling ensured surveyed participants were quasi-representative of the British population in terms of age, gender, and socioeconomic status.
  • Sex lives were mostly unaffected in the adult population as a large proportion cohabitate with their partners. However, there was a shift in frequency and sexual practices away from partnered sex, particularly in young people, towards masturbation, virtual activities, porn, and sex toy use. Additionally, 1/10 respondents reported sexual contact outside of their household, mostly associated with those of younger age and in non-heterosexual relationships.
  • There were still reports of risky sexual practices coupled with the need to access sexual health services (SHS). Overall, reporting risky sexual practices was strongly associated with SHS use, suggesting SHS were still able to reach some populations in need. However, of those respondents reporting condomless sex with a new partner, 60% stated they could not access SHS.
  • A detrimental impact of the pandemic on sexual satisfaction was only reported in a minority of respondents. When considering only those in a steady relationship, although there was a decrease in sexual intimacy, there was a notable increase in relationship quality with the largest effect seen in those of.

Publications and Resources

Natsal Study

Impacts of COVID-19 on sexual behaviour in Britain: findings from a large, quasi-representative survey (Natsal-COVID)

Intimate physical contact between people from different households during the COVID-19 pandemic: a mixed-methods study from a large, quasi-representative survey (Natsal-COVID)

Methodology of Natsal-COVID Wave 1: a large, quasi-representative survey with qualitative follow-up measuring the impact of COVID-19 on sexual and reproductive health in Britain

Natsal-COVID Methodology Technical Note







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