COVID-19, Shelter-in-Place, Sex, and Fertility

Will there be a COVID related Baby Boom?

Despite the many jokes I have heard about an impending baby boom nine months from quarantine or “shelter-in-place” mandates, the research doesn’t seem to hold up. In fact, it seems more likely there will be a drop based on information from two sources.

First would be the historical view of fertility booms in culture—especially during crisis. A recent article by the respected Institute for Family Studies explored the question. In “Will the Coronavirus Spike Births?” Lyman Stone shows disasters impact fertility by driving it down. “COVID is very likely to reduce births in the near term, and perhaps by a quite considerable amount.” Unknown variables include how many individuals are actually infected, the amount of deaths, and how well the economy does, or doesn’t, rebound. Without yet knowing these variables, estimating the depth of impact or when we will experience a rebound is difficult to know, but Stone makes a good argument against seeing a birth spike.

Second would be research underway by Beth Redbird and her team at Northwestern University. CoronaData U.S. is a daily survey of a nationally representative sample looking at “U.S. public opinions, behaviors, and attitudes related to the COVID-19 pandemic”. Beginning on March 13, 2020, hundreds of questions have been asked of thousands of participants. While it will take some time to obtain a full look at the data, some initial trends seem interesting.

Interpretation Caution

While the researchers state this is a nationally representative sample and the sample size is good (6022 respondents), my communication with the primary researcher confirmed it currently isn’t possible to filter responses by relationship status. Adding this ability is on the list for a software update, but until it is added this poses a major problem in interpretation.

What this means is the data includes singles who can no longer “hook-up” due to fears or social distancing guidelines as well as married couples who are having less sex due to kids being more present or overall conflict is increasing…and everyone in between. Thus, interpretation of this data for couples is inaccurate. Any attempts to suggest such (as one news report suggested) is wrong.

Sexual frequency has decreased across the board. When asked if they had sex in the last two weeks, respondents could answer “never” (0) to “daily” (4). The most common answer was “never” (44.34%) followed by “a few times per month” (18.89%) and “a few times per week” (18.85%). “Less than once a month” (12.54%) and “daily” (5.66%) completed the responses.

What is interesting is looking at the trend over time. While some variance exists, it appears the general frequency has slightly decreased.

Breaking these numbers down according to gender reveals a more pronounced decrease reported by females. Even here, however, while the change might be statistically significant, practicality says otherwise. The average for week 1 was 2.22 and for week five was 2.09. An answer of “2” is “a few times per month” and an answer of “3” is “a few times per week”. Thus, the average answer is moving slightly closer to “a few times per month”. While the lack of specificity in the question makes knowing frequency nearly impossible, it can be argued statistically this is a decrease of 1-2 times per month.

A more significant, and possibly interesting, difference shows up for those under quarantine or “shelter-in-place” mandates. While sexual frequency decreased for both, it decreased more dramatically for those in “stay-home or quarantine”. Without “pre” numbers, interpretation is limited, but the change is interesting to note. Because we can’t currently control for the presence of kids in the home or even the stability of the relationship (see below), we can only make guesses at this point. Hopefully further analysis of the data will provide additional answers.

Arguments (and sex)

The researchers also asked about arguments during the periods in question. “In the last seven days, how many times did you and your partner argue or fight?” You can see the results in the charts broken down by males/females and stay-home or quarantine/not stay-home. Average responses varied between 1 and 1.5 arguments per week. Interestingly, arguments steadily climbed for the first few weeks of the crisis and now are dropping. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues, but I have heard from several clients they have found a “rhythm” and are now fighting less. Because we know increased conflict in relationship decreases sexual frequency, it is possible these two numbers are at least partially related.

If the above is any indication, a baby boom in 9 months is unlikely. More likely, the stress and tension of the crisis is forcing new norms. Couples intentional in growing their relationship will likely do great. The norm may struggle.

I’ll keep an eye on it and let you know of any updates. 

If you’d like a look at the data yourself, jump on over to CoronaData.


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