Why did people’s sexual identities shift during the pandemic?

Some people have begun to explore new sexual identities and other desires “beyond the binary” as they have had time to reflect and reassess.

Lauren, 25, has been bisexual since 2014. This was her sexual identity designation until the pandemic struck. Lauren found herself with a lot more alone time to consider her identity after her Master’s degree programme went virtual and her social events and daily commutes were removed from her calendar.

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“Having all that time and consuming so much media caused me to reflect more on my previous relationships, particularly with men,” she says. “How did I miss the fact that all of my relationships with men were completely unsatisfying?”

Many people have used lockdown-induced isolation to more deeply examine aspects of their lives and identities, such as where they live, what jobs they have, and their romantic and family relationships. Among these intimate shifts, some research suggests that people’s attitudes toward their sexuality have evolved as a result of the pandemic.

In August 2020, dating app Bumble polled over 4,000 users in the US, UK, Ireland, Australia, and Canada (data reviewed by BBC Worklife), and 21% said they planned to “express their sexuality differently… compared to a year ago.” Another Bumble survey found that 14% of people changed their sexual preferences during the pandemic, opting for same-sex relationships when they’d previously only been with people of the opposite gender.

Additionally, research conducted between March and July 2020 among LGBTQ+ respondents by the Social Relations, Attitudes and Diversity Lab at Ontario’s Trent University, reviewed by BBC Worklife, showed that 11% “felt their ability to be out about their… identity had changed as a result of Covid-19”. Several of them stated that this occurred because they had “time to myself to figure out my sexual identity” during the pandemic.

Lauren says she didn’t have much free time before the pandemic because she was working, going to school, and having a social life. “I couldn’t handle any major life changes, and changing identities felt like a major life change.” But the forced pause gave her the time she needed to reconsider her sexuality. Speaking with her therapist and seeing other women who used to identify as bisexual come out as lesbians on TikTok led her to re-identify as a lesbian.

Once too overwhelming to contemplate – or not even on the radar – these “big life changes” are now on the table for an increasing number of people, particularly women, as some find themselves questioning the cultural norms to which they’ve always subscribed.

Re-evaluating the ‘default settings’

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“Everyone is always so busy in life that it’s really easy to try to escape yourself,” says clinical psychologist Jennifer Guttman of New York City. In other words, it’s natural for people to put self-discovery on the back burner, she claims.

According to Karen Blair, director of Trent University’s Social Relations, Attitudes, and Diversity Lab, this makes it easier for many people to default to a “heteronormativity” mindset and not question the go-to heterosexuality that they grew up with.

“Much of our media and culture still sends the message that the vast majority of us will be straight,” Blair says. She adds that because sexuality exists on a spectrum, “many, if not most, fall somewhere in between.” If the “default settings” fit well enough, there isn’t much incentive for people to question their sexuality.

However, when people were able to “press the pause button during lockdown,” according to Guttman, she noticed “more clients than ever” exploring their sexual orientations. She estimates that 10 to 12 of her 65 clients rethought their sexuality during that time, compared to just one prior to the pandemic.

“They all began to notice that they were feeling unmoored, lost, anxious, and depressed. It bothered them that they were uncomfortable with themselves.” Many people started by assessing whether they were on the right career path, but they ended up digging “far deeper than work,” according to Guttman.

‘I entered the pandemic straight’

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Although the pandemic limited many people’s dating options, others saw an opportunity.

London-based Alexa, 24, had long identified as straight, but was already doubting her sexuality during her fourth year of university in New York State before Covid-19 hit. As the pandemic pushed Alexa into online dating, she discovered it was easier to change her mind about the types of partners she was looking for because she could do so from the comfort of her own home.

Alexa changed her Tinder settings from “only men” to “everyone” in early 2021. The ease with which she could make that change reduced the stakes of the exploration. At the time, she “wasn’t sure” about her sexual identity. “At least the option was open,” she says, by changing her dating app settings.

Of 65 clients, Guttman estimates that 10 to 12 re-thought their sexuality in that time, compared to just one client who’d done so before the pandemic

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According to Blair’s research, this is a fairly common occurrence. Due to pandemic-related restrictions that caused people to spend more time “courting” online before meeting up in person, “it may have been more likely that people would toy with the idea of ‘checking the other box’ when asked who they were looking to meet,” she says. Dating someone of a different gender than people were used to became “a bit more approachable”.

Experts and daters alike told BBC Worklife that media such as social networks, podcasts, and television shows – which people were consuming at higher rates while isolating themselves indoors – also contributed to people rethinking their sexual orientations. Guttman even advised some of her clients to “normalise” themselves by listening to podcasts and watching shows “with more LGBTQIA+ interactions.” It’s for those who are just starting out with their identities.

At the same time, many TikTok users, including Violet Turning, a sex educator in New York City, saw a surge of young women discussing their transition from straight to lesbian, queer, or bisexual during the pandemic.

“My entire feed was young women saying, ‘I entered the pandemic straight, and now I’m in a lesbian relationship,'” Turning says. Some said they’d “suppressed” their desires until the pandemic gave them the opportunity to explore them, while Turning heard others say they’d taken the time to learn about the history of heterosexual relationships and began questioning their sexuality again after learning more about female oppression in those contexts. She sees the spread of this information on TikTok as “validating for folks… exploring sexuality beyond the binary”.

Lauren experienced this when she downloaded TikTok during the pandemic and was immediately confronted with videos of people who, like her, had identified as bisexual before coming out as lesbian. She attributes this to more people participating in online discussions during a time when pandemic-related restrictions severely limited in-person social lives. (There are several reasons why more women appear to embrace sexual fluidity than men, a ratio reflected in Guttman’s clients – only two men explored changes in their sexual orientation during lockdowns.)