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What will sex, dating, and marriage look like on the other side of the pandemic?

Experts say lasting impacts could include dramatic shifts in what American households look like and in how they function day to day.

The pandemic is changing relationships in ways that might not be obvious in the moment.
The pandemic is changing relationships in ways that might not be obvious in the moment.Read moreCynthia Greer

As Philadelphia braced for the first coronavirus-related shutdowns in March, the phone at the Velvet Lily, a sex shop in Center City, was ringing incessantly. Even before the COVID-related public-health warnings that “you are your safest sex partner,” some customers were rushing in to stock up on vibrators and other solo sex toys, while others invested in Bluetooth-enabled gear to keep long-distance relationships lively.

But more recently, owner Khara Cartagena said, sales have shifted to lingerie, performance pills, and gallons of massage oil.

“I don’t think people are practicing social distancing anymore,” Cartagena said. “Or they have already been holed up for a while and they’re home and they have a lot more time to be more intimate with each other.”

In either case, the pandemic is changing relationships in ways that might not be obvious in the moment. Experts say lasting impacts could include dramatic shifts in what American households look like and in how they function day to day.

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Division of labor

As more women have joined the workforce over the last half century, men have picked up a greater share of housework and child care than they had in the past — though they still put in a fraction of the unpaid work women perform. Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, A History and director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, is optimistic that the dramatic restructuring of home life brought on by the pandemic could accelerate those trends.

“The kind of invisible labor that women have had to do for so long behind the scenes has been totally brought into the open for many families during this pandemic,” Coontz said. “Studies already show that the men who were doing some work, trying to do housework and child care before, are actually doing more now.” And that impact could last, she said: In countries that extended paternity leave, researchers found that fathers remain more involved in their children’s lives. The bad news, she said, is that unpaid labor still defaults to women. “So whenever a new job gets invented at home it tends to be assigned to women — and that’s what we’ve seen with home schooling.” That could set women back, and lead some to drop out of the workforce.

But if society does draw the right lessons from this pandemic — including properly supporting systems for child care, education, and health care — families may be healthier for it, Coontz said. And they’d be happier, too: Shared housework and child care is a strong predictor of marital satisfaction.

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Intergenerational households

In recent decades, a growing share of young adults have been living with their parents: Only 20% of 18- to-34-year-olds lived at home in 1960, but 34% were living with parents by 2015.

That trend accelerated during the last recession and will likely rise again in the pandemic, said Frank Furstenburg, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist, who’s been struck by “how vibrant the family has been in this period of general despair. I think families have assumed a very protective role.” He said it’s too soon to say whether that will be a lasting shift — but if financial hardships continue, it seems probable.

“The family is very adaptive,” Furstenburg said. “It adapts to current conditions and particularly to crises, and we’re seeing exactly that.”

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Getting along

Previous eras of social tumult also have torn families apart, said Rebecca Davis, a historian of sex and marriage and an assistant professor at the University of Delaware. She noted a rise in desertions that took place in the 1930s after the privation of the Great Depression, and the dissatisfaction of housewives in the 1950s after they were pushed out of workforce roles assumed during World War II. The pandemic too may fuel discontent. “You add all the things together, the economic pressures, the heightened visibility of who does what in the household and how that work is distributed and it is just a recipe for a great deal of conflict,” she said.

Karen Smith, who heads Full Living, a Philadelphia psychotherapy practice, said some couples she works with have flourished under stay-at-home orders, removed from stressors of their ordinary routines. And, she said, this moment poses a unique opportunity, giving people time at home to work on their relationships. But for those who don’t take advantage of that, she said, “there’s a lot of tension that’s building.” And as the virus subsides, she said, “I am actually worried there is going to be a big pop in separations and divorces.”

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Virtual sex and slow dating

For those who were single going into the pandemic, it will likely shape how relationships form — especially by slowing them way down. “I would be very surprised if we don’t see a sharp drop in fertility,” said Furstenburg, “and similarly a considerable decrease in cohabitation, because the ability to experiment and form relationships has been severely curtailed.”

Looking back to the rise of the AIDS epidemic, Davis said: “There was a lot of education within queer communities around condom use and making safer sex sexy, that AIDS should not mean an end to sexual pleasure. But there is no way to stop COVID spread if you’re breathing.”

That reality has led to a different brand of public-health messaging for the current pandemic. As Philadelphia’s Public Health Department put it in a May bulletin: “Video dates, sexting or chat rooms may be safe and sexy options for you.”

Smith, the therapist, said she sees some clients embracing new technology. “People have taken their dating away from texting, away from emailing, into the Zoom world for sure. I think now more people are meeting over Zoom and having coffee dates, and certainly they will start having sex over Zoom, too. I don’t know what that will do for dating. Maybe it will mean once you meet someone you will have already vetted them better.”