There’s Nothing Sexy About Navigating the Dating Landscape During a Pandemic

COVID-19-era restrictions are complicating first meetings and stress is wreaking havoc on libidos, but a craving for human contact often trumps all else

For cautious singles, dating during a pandemic can feel like a throwback to Victorian England: chaste greetings, endless picnics, and not a whole lot of sexual energy.

Consider goodbyes. Brian Dionisi, a motion graphics designer, was on a date at the La Brea Tar Pits when both parties realized the get-together had run its course. The resulting hug was formal, detached: “We each leaned in with our heads as far apart as possible and patted each other on the back.”

It was, he says, depressing. “Because of all the constraints, you get to know the other person in this very tame way,” he says. “It doesn’t always make you feel super excited about the next date.”

For intimacy-starved singles, Tinder meet-ups can feel like polite interrogations, where one or both parties attempt to suss out whether the other is taking social distancing seriously, and whether such discretion merits inclusion in an official quarantine pod. “There’s a higher bar the other person has to meet if you’re really going to give it a chance,” Dionisi adds.

Naturally, these extra formalities are complicating our sex lives. According to a longitudinal study of more than 2,000 adults across the country published by the Kinsey Institute in April, a mere 1.1 percent of singles said they’d hooked up with someone they met on a dating app since lockdown began. Trojan condom sales have plummeted, though sex toy manufacturers are now reportedly working “around the clock” to meet demand.

“I went into this study thinking that we’d see really high levels of sexual interest and engagement, but the trend is less sexual behavior, and that even includes less masturbation,” says Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the institute and the author of the book Tell Me What You Want.

The constant hand-washing, itchy masks, and steady stream of bad news has doomed most libidos, with 44 percent of respondents reporting a decline in their sex lives. That said, the impact has been greatest on singles: 56 percent reported a decline in their sex lives.

But stress has different effects on libidos, says Lehmiller. “For some, it puts a huge damper on libido, making them desire less sexual activity. This is the most common response. But for others, sex is a way they cope with stress.”

“Obviously it takes a lot of self-rationalization to hook up with someone right now.”

In May, I spoke to Chris, a gay man in his thirties in the Bay Area who was still getting it on with strangers. (Fearing judgement, he asked to stay anonymous; thus “Chris” is a pseudonym.)

Chris recognizes how reckless “sex with strangers during a pandemic” is likely to sound to the general public. “Obviously it takes a lot of self-rationalization to hook up with someone right now,” he says. When he first started using Grindr for its intended purposes, he’d been under lockdown for 50 days. “Time was this congruent mass of nothingness, and I think my attitude was probably the same as it is now: I need some taste of normalcy.”

In many ways, Chris continued to take the pandemic seriously; he still wore a mask in public and used curbside delivery whenever possible. Most days, he barely left his house. But on the apps, he indulged in his fantasies. “I was putting a lot of blind faith in people — I realize that,” he says.

In June, he tested positive for COVID-19, a bit more than a week after he’d had a “36-hour romp” with a few men. Thankfully, it was a mild case. “The doctor even cleared me to leave isolation a day early,” he says. “But I will admit that I feel like a dipshit.”

Dating apps have attempted to curb hookup culture in a number of ways: Tinder is testing a new video chat feature, called Face to Face, while Bumble allows users to screen potential dates based on their level of comfort with social distancing.

Health agencies around the world, meanwhile, have tried a range of tactics to encourage safer sex. Dutch officials have instructed quarantined singles to find a longterm “seksbuddy” while the New York Health Department told residents to “get kinky” by creating “physical barriers, like walls, that allow sexual contact while preventing close face to face contact.” The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control went a step further and explicitly recommended glory holes to the delight of many (but not all). There’s currently no evidence that the COVID-19 virus is transmitted through semen or vaginal fluids, but it is possible to get the virus from fecal matter, so health agencies have been careful to take certain acts off the menu.

But while corralling the general public into taking precautions in the bedroom can be challenging under normal circumstances, it seems especially hard amidst an economy in free-fall and a historic mental-health crisis.

“I had to measure the risk of exposing myself against the need to hug someone and feel human.”

Lauren (also a pseudonym) is a graphic designer in L.A. who began seeing a guy shortly after quarantine began. “I had to measure the risk of exposing myself against the need to hug someone and feel human,” she said. “Hooking up was about actively forgetting for a second what was going on in the world.”

Reaction among her friends has been decidedly mixed. “I get some who say, ‘You go girl!’ and others who refuse to see me,” she says.

Even our libidos differ across party lines these days. According to the same Kinsey Institute study, two-thirds of self-identified conservatives reported their sex life either improved or stayed the same, while less than half of liberals claimed the same. “Specifically, conservatives were less worried about their health and less likely to stick to social distancing,” says Lehmiller. “And if they feel less anxious about the virus, that could explain why the impact on their sex lives has been less pronounced.”

One thirtysomething writer in L.A. admitted to me he’d been a “total fuccboi” throughout the pandemic. “I live alone and this disease doesn’t kill young healthy people, despite all the fear-mongering you hear in the lying lib media,” he wrote via text.

But for those who actually pay attention to the news, meeting up someone who doesn’t can be a jarring experience. Sam Kelly Jr., a producer based in Seattle, says that he once went on a park date with a woman who wasn’t taking social distancing seriously at all. “I had my guard up and she showed up in a bikini situation. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not ready for anything right now.’’

Kelly Jr., who’d just gotten out of a serious relationship before the pandemic hit, wasn’t in the mood to take any chances. “It turned out that her roommate worked at a specialty care facility for elderly people,” he adds. “I was like ‘Yeah, I’m not going inside your apartment.’”

RELATED: Dating During the Pandemic? How Singles Are Continuing to Mingle

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