Queer Teens Say ‘Physical Sex Is Over for Now’
Amid COVID dangers and lockdowns, sexual minority teen boys are hooking up far less and watching more porn, sexting and using men-seeking-men apps about the same as before the pandemic, and experiencing more mental health challenges.
“I definitely think that the age of physical sex is over for now,” wrote a Black 16-year-old who is not out to his family, one of 151 gay, bisexual, questioning, and other sexual-minority, cisgender boys between the ages of 14 and 17 who responded to a survey on how the COVID pandemic has affected them.
The School of Public Health study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that, in the first three months of America’s coronavirus crisis, the participants were having far less (in-person) sex and watching more porn, sexting and using men-seeking-men apps about the same as before the pandemic, and experiencing more mental health challenges.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the lives of adolescents across the US in a very short amount of time,” says study lead author Kimberly Nelson, assistant professor of community health sciences.
“This study illustrates that the pandemic and related public health policies are negatively impacting the mental wellbeing and altering the sexual behaviors of sexual minority, cisgender male adolescents, which could have lasting effects on their mental and sexual health post-pandemic and through adulthood,” she says.
The survey is part of an online sex education pilot intervention, the culmination of Nelson’s National Institutes of Mental Health early-career development grant. The intervention covers topics such as safer sex, porn literacy, self-esteem, and what makes a healthy relationship. At the same time, Nelson and colleagues are gathering data from the participants about behavior, past experiences, knowledge, attitudes, and how they are holding up during this unusual and stressful time.
This first round of the survey took place in the spring. Nelson and colleagues collected data on each teen’s age, race/ethnicity, living situation, zip code, employment and school enrollment, and whether he was out to at least one parent/guardian and whether that parent/guardian was accepting. Then, they asked about COVID worries, socializing, in-person and online sexual activity, and mental health.
A little over half of the participants said they were worried about COVID, and almost all of them reported physically distancing—and the difficulty of not seeing friends and partners in person. Many, both out and not out, reported that the COVID crisis and being isolated has been difficult, with a third of the participants mentioning increased stress, anxiety, and/or depression. One white, not-out 17-year-old simply wrote, “I’ve been a lot less social and more anxious.”
The participants reported seeing sexual partners in person less often, and masturbating and watching pornography more often. The researchers noted that, while this meant less risk of sexually-transmitted infections in the short run, previous research has shown that pornography can affect behavior, raising concerns that watching, for example, condomless porn during physical distancing may contribute to riskier sex later on.
Amounts of sexting and messaging on men-seeking-men websites and apps (though the participants were underage for their use) was about the same overall, although several participants reported increases. Some participants in relationships also reported using sexting and video chatting to continue pre-COVID sexual relationships.
Over a third of the participants who were out and almost half of the participants who were not out said that their sexual activity hadn’t changed much or at all, mainly because they weren’t sexually active before COVID.
The researchers are continuing to survey this group of teens as the COVID crisis continues and as COVID policies loosen and tighten, Nelson says, tracking the impact on their mental and sexual health.
“Adolescents, and particularly LGBTQ+ adolescents, are incredibly resilient and creative in the face of challenges,” she says. “Although this pandemic has disrupted a key developmental period, I remain hopeful that these youth will find new and innovative ways to protect their mental wellbeing and sexual health.
“That said, we cannot rely solely on their resilience and creativity. If the pandemic continues to negatively impact their mental wellbeing and sexual development (which it likely will), it will be especially important for us as a society to support these youth and provide access to resources sensitive to their social, developmental, and sexual health needs,” Nelson says.
The study was co-authored by Allegra Gordon, assistant professor of community health sciences, and Claire Stout, a research assistant in the Department of Community Health Sciences. The other co-authors are Steven A. John of the Medical College of Wisconsin and Katharyn Macapagal of Northwestern University.