Reminders of disease threat lead to less favorable inclinations toward short-term sexual relationships, according to new experimental research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. The new findings shed light on how the COVID-19 pandemic impacts sociosexuality, meaning one’s openness to uncommitted sexual relationships.
“This topic was interesting to me because before I entered my PhD program, my research mainly focused on how men and women differ in casual sex and breakup sex,” said study author James B. Moran of Tulane University. “This new avenue of my research focuses on how our perceived health and feelings toward infectious diseases influence our social and sexual behaviors. So, this was one of my first steps in combining my past research with my current research. It was also sparked by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the social disruptions it caused, and thinking about how this might impact people’s sex lives.”
In the study, 510 participants recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform were randomly assigned to either read about the coronavirus outbreak, read about how people accidentally poison themselves, or not engage in a reading exercise (the control condition). They then completed assessments of assessment of sexual attitudes, risk-taking, and perceived vulnerability to disease.
The study was conducted the first week of March 2020, during the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak before travel bans were enacted by the United
The researchers found that participants who read about the coronavirus outbreak tended to have a more restrictive sociosexuality compared to the control group and participants who read about how people accidentally poison themselves. In other words, those who read about the coronavirus outbreak were less likely to agree that “Sex without love is OK” and were less willing to have one-night stands in the future. Participants who perceived themselves as more vulnerable to disease tended to have a more restrictive sociosexuality as well.
“What we should take away is that when people perceive themselves to be at a high risk of contracting an infectious disease, they are less interested in having casual sex,” Moran told PsyPost. “Additionally, more stable individual differences in how we feel toward germs also impact our everyday desires and motivations for casual sex. That is, people who are more worried about germs in their daily life are less likely to be interested in hooking up casually.”
The findings are in line with previous cross-cultural research that has found higher levels of disease threat are correlated with more a restrictive sociosexuality. But the researchers said there was still much to learn about how disease threat impacts sexual attitudes and behaviors.
“The main caveat is that this research is only scratching the surface,” Moran explained. “There are a bunch of other related yet distinct behaviors that the risk of contracting a disease might impact. For instance, the presence of disease might influence the type of partner we pick for a hookup and how safe we are with partners when the risk of catching an illness is high. Additionally, the acute disease threat that we used as the experimental manipulation in our study was the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. These results may very well look different now that this disease has been in our collective minds for so long.”
“It should be noted these findings are conceptually consistent with results from previous work conducted by Murray and colleagues (2013),” Moran added. “These findings also can help future research in public health too. Our results suggest that the perceived risk of contracting a disease encourages people to be less promiscuous, which could help with future interventions on health behaviors such as condom use and safe sex practices.”
The study, “Parasites and promiscuity: Acute disease salience leads to more restricted sexual attitudes“, was authored by James B. Moran, Nicholas Kerry, Jin X. Goh, and Damian R. Murray.