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Physician-researchers at Rambam Study the Effects of Lockdown on Sexual Function

Publication Date: 10/4/2020 10:30 AM

The news is full of anecdotal information on the impact of lockdowns on physical and mental health – but what about sexuality? A preliminary study at Rambam Health Care Campus is examining whether lockdowns have implications for sexual function.

Photography: RHCCPhotography: RHCC

During the first wave of COVID-19, Israeli citizens were under lockdown for several weeks between March and May, 2020. The lockdown has affected every area of life due the shutdown of the economy; social isolation; anxiety and fear; social distancing; and children remaining at home. This new normal has a number of implications relating to how people’s lives are impacted – including in the bedroom.

A preliminary study by Rambam's Division of Gynecology and Obstetrics examined the implications of the March-May lockdown on the sex lives of Israelis in 67 recent first-time parents; all births were normal vaginal ones without intervention or complications. It should be noted that more than half of the participants (56.4%) were in isolation for part of the time, together with their partners.

The study was conducted using a questionnaire often used in clinical trials to assess sexual functioning, termed “ASEX.” The questionnaire examined a number of areas, including sexual desire, arousal, and the ability to achieve sexual satisfaction. Participants rated each item on a scale of 1-6, with the overall score ranging from 5-30. The higher the score given in the survey, the greater the dissatisfaction with sexual function. Participants that self-rated themselves or their partners with a score of greater than 19 were considered to be suffering from a sexual dysfunction problem.

Returning to sexual function after a first birth is a significant stage in the sex life of many couples, particularly when the issue is accompanied by additional concerns and challenges. "With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the first lockdown on Israeli households, quite a few elements of unconventional stress came into play," explains Dr. Ola Gutzeit from the Division of Gynecology and Obstetrics, who led the study. "Stress, anxiety, depression, financial uncertainty, fear of the unknown virus and its consequences, and lack of privacy due to the fact that they were at home with children... In light of all this, we wanted to examine the implications of the quarantine for returning to a sexual routine among those couples, beyond the routine influential factors."

The researchers expected that the extreme scenario brought on by the coronavirus and the period of quarantine would be reflected in reports of sexual dysfunction and the sex life of the couples. However, to their surprise, the results showed a completely different reality. "We conducted the survey twice, asking subjects about their sex lives prior to the lockdown, and again approximately two months after the lockdown," says Dr. Gutzeit. “According to the participants' responses, the lockdown had no effect on their sexual function. In most cases, there was no significant difference between the responses before and after the lockdown. The scores for both sexes were also quite similar, which means that satisfaction was also similar."

This study is the first one to look at the question of sexual function under conditions of lockdown due to COVID-19.The study team included Professor Zeev Weiner, Director of the Division of Gynecology and Obstetrics; Professor Lior Lowenstein, Director of the Gyneco-Urology Unit; Dr. Dikla Ben Zvi, Dr. Gali Levy, and Dr. Roi Iluz, residents in the division; and Dr. Daniela Mazor, a social worker and sex therapist from the University of Haifa.

Although this is a preliminary study of a relatively small group, it points to an interesting phenomenon. "The surprising results are mainly related to the fact that these are couples with a relatively small and intimate family unit. Two parents and one child. One that probably has less interference and greater motivation for intimacy," Dr. Gutzeit concludes. "We continue to follow the data and further research currently taking place at Rambam around the issue of sexual function after a first birth under these types of conditions. The better we understand the situation, the more we can give our patients and their spouses an optimal response and help them return to the quality of life they experienced prior to the postpartum routine."