Balancing risk, intimacy and (non)compliance: a qualitative study of sex across household during COVID-19 social restrictions

Karen J. Maxwell*, Raquel Bosó Pérez, David Reid, Lily Freeman, Dee Menezes, Pam Sonnenberg, Nigel Field, Kirstin R. Mitchell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
61 Downloads (Pure)


Government controls over intimate relationships, imposed to limit the spread of Sars-CoV-2, were unprecedented in modern times. This study draws on data from qualitative interviews with 18 participants in Natsal-COVID, a quasi-representative web-panel survey of the British population (n = 6,654 people), reporting that they had sex with someone from outside their household in the preceding four weeks; a period in which contact between households was restricted in the UK. Whilst only 10% of people reported sexual contact outside their household, among single people and those in non-cohabiting relationships, rates were much higher (Natsal-COVID). Our findings show that individuals did not take decisions to meet up with sexual partners lightly. Participants were motivated by needs—for connection, security, intimacy and a sense of normality. People balanced risks—of catching COVID-19, social judgement and punishment for rule-breaking—against other perceived risks, including to their mental health or relationships. We used situated rationality and social action theories of risk to demonstrate that people weighed up risk in socially situated ways and exhibited complex decision-making when deciding not to comply with restrictions. Understanding motivations for non-compliance is crucial to informing future public health messaging which accounts for the needs and circumstances of all population members.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)582-598
Number of pages17
JournalCulture, Health and Sexuality
Issue number5
Early online date8 Jun 2022
Publication statusPublished - May 2023


  • risk behaviour
  • sexual behaviour
  • COVID-19
  • pandemic restrictions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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