Covid & Intimacy
There have been so, so many studies on how a prolonged lack of affection will strain living things; babies, elders, animals and all other sentient beings are all subject to feelings of deprivation. And for the great majority of time (save some spectacular exceptions) those studies remained purely in academia, removed from real-world applications. Sure, many people were lonely, but it wasn’t dangerous to simply go out and be around people -- you could get your fix in one way or another. Then, the pandemic hit and boom: touch starved-ness swept through on a global scale. As the world ground to a halt, and governments dictated which interactions were essential and which were forbidden, what used to be an academic hypothetical -- how long could you go without touch, connection, or intimacy -- became a reality for single people with an intensity far greater than anything we had experienced before. It was a dark and difficult year clouded with mass grief and collective trauma, but now that vaccines are becoming more readily available (in North America at least, where Nox and yours truly are located), people are shakily returning to some standard of normalcy. And now that touching isn’t potentially lethal, we’re witnessing the mass resurgence of sex lives. Intimacy is back on the table, and is scaling back to the standard, every-day dangers. As a single college student and sexuality writer who avoided any real-life, romantic/sexually intimate encounters for over a year, I’ve been wondering how normal dating can really be, so: I interviewed about a dozen millennial and Gen-Z people actively trying to date about their habits, reservations, and wishes throughout the pandemic thus far. Here, their main sentiments are categorized for your reading pleasure.
The pandemic habits
“There was a lot of communication because we had time for it”
To be totally honest with you, when I try to remember the first months of Covid, my brain goes a little fuzzy. That vacuum of time was trying, alienating, and hopeless, at the very least. Without any information or timeline to serve as some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, it felt like we were all in survival mode. And in those surreal and difficult moments, people’s sex drives seemed to go to extremes, either skyrocketing, or dropping altogether. It reminds me of the viral tweet asking if you’d still do your skincare in a crisis: if you felt like it was the end of the world, would you still be trying to get laid? Would you get an extra push to pursue new love, fall back on your toxic but comfortable ex, or let go of the need for connection altogether? The first question I asked in the interview was if people had dated during the pandemic, and many who said yes revealed they opted for new connections, using dating apps with surprising levels of success.
Pre-pandemic, online romance could feel like a chore or a mindless scroll that, best-case, would end with a quick one night stand. But the stay at home orders ironically reverted dating apps to their original purpose: they served once again as a beacon for new connections. “Singles in your area” was suddenly a significantly more exciting concept when you couldn’t really go outside to look for them yourself. And though there were still a hefty amount of complaints about the endless how are you’s and what’s up’s that Tinder and it’s like are known for, in a surprisingly romantic twist, about half the people I spoke to mentioned off the record, movie-like whirlwind relationships formed after a swipe right. Most of these connections were fostered almost entirely online for weeks or months on end, which ended up uniquely prioritizing conversation and chemistry. People weren’t just flirting, they were courting each other. And though there was frustration in navigating connections in such a fraught and intangible landscape, the e-relationships were clearly loving and incredibly real. To maintain them, love languages had to be renegotiated (no cuddling in cyberspace) and communication skills had to be strengthened. There was a new element of creativity introduced without the ability to touch, kiss, and fuck: people were trading love letters, sending articles back and forth, sneakily sexting in their parents basements, and spending all hours of the night just in each others company.
Many people I talked to seemed to be a bit surprised and a lot lovestruck while describing these romances, and noticed that they seemed to be stronger and more fast paced than prior ones. Sometimes, it was because they served as a much needed safety net for each other. Other times, what could’ve been casual grew more serious thanks to the isolation: consider a technically open relationship that was never acted on in the name of Covid safety, or a 'situationship' that bloomed when the people formed a bubble. As someone who personally loves to hook up and have sex early on in the dating process (in the name of chemistry, you know?), and avoided apps for fear of endless talking stages, I loved hearing about the way being forced to prolong sex led to different types of communication. Though many people’s early Covid relationships ended due to differences in location, mental health, or needs, I was struck by the tenderness they spoke about it with, and the fierce and intense connection that was built when almost nothing else felt stable.
Self discovery and navigating identity
"It's a huge change in my mindset and a huge improvement in my self worth"
Of course, sex drives are reactive. Not everyone had a whirlwind relationship pre-vaccine (or post): not everyone wanted to or was even capable of focusing on loving when there was simultaneously so much and literally nothing happening. Some people were living with their parents in an environment without privacy or with triggers, others were in hometowns without many prospects, others were trying to process the massive, never ending grief, others just lost their drive as they tried to survive. I went into this trying not to use block quotes, but one interview participant said something that really stuck with me:
“I just recognized that my body and my brain were like, [connections, sex, and intimacy] aren’t important right now, and it's okay. You can still have fun and you can still appreciate and bask in that pleasure, but don't force yourself to try and find things that arouse you. There's a global pandemic, and you're living with your family, and as much as it would be lovely, this isn't something that is necessary to your survival right now.”
One of my favorite poets, the great Ocean Vuong, has a line that goes “loneliness is still time spent with the world.” In that sense, people who didn’t pursue romance or sex in the pandemic still had incredibly meaningful and intimate relationships -- just with themselves, instead of with others. It’s almost impossible to prevent the process of thinking, reflecting and growing when you’re alone for that long. Self-care is inevitable, and I don’t mean just taking bubble baths and candles, but asking the deep questions about your needs, wants, and self-expression. Very rarely did people I talked to say they came out of the pandemic without a massive breakthrough: be it in the realm of gender, sexuality, relationship styles, priorities, or boundaries. What had always been nebulous could finally be explored, and many shared that, as the vaccine came closer, they had a whole new idea about how they wanted to interact with the world, and their future partnerships. Common themes were trauma-informed relationships, new ways to practice consent, and ethical non-monogamy. Haters could chalk it up to a sample size of emotionally mature participants, but I think it’s deeper than that: I think people are exiting lockdown with an entirely new sense of self.
A change in the world, self
“I went from feeling like a stranger’s breath could kill me to being like, I want to hook up with everyone.”
Almost everyone I spoke to was vaccinated, and almost everyone I spoke to described their dating life in two distinct sections -- pre, and post vaxx. If their tenderness showed through when they were talking about relationships, their animation showed through in this final stage of the interviews. They all seemed to agree that the newfound level of protection spring-boarded, in their words, a period of horniness, newfound enthusiasm, freedom, and excitement. All those lockdown hours spent daydreaming and planning about putting your best, sluttiest, or most loving self forward could suddenly be acted on and well, there were varying degrees of recklessness as a result. One interviewee described it well: “after a year of people being robbed of experiences, they’re trying to just squeeze every single drop out of every bit of life that they can.”
Many moved back to their cities of choice or college campus, finding new, like-minded, and left-leaning communities that stood out in sharp contrast to their markedly less tolerant hometowns or families. The resurgence of new inspiration led to, no big surprise here, the resurgence of cruising and dating IRL. While stay-at-home mandates generated a level of uniformity in approaches to dating, once people could roam more freely, their strategies started differing again, thus, when I started asking about post-vaxx habits, people were pretty split.
Some people were reanimated to explore, embarking on a flurry of hookups that they sometimes recounted with hints of shame -- not from the sex acts themselves but from the lack of Covid precautions they took beforehand. Others were content to move more slowly, for lack of pressure or for health concerns. I understand both positions. Dating right now feels like a bit of a minefield, or like a massive meal with a couple of dishes that could be horribly poisoned. How do you proceed when you’re finally experiencing some new level of independence and personal safety, while the world is still nowhere near OK? No one really has it figured out, but what soothed some of my anxieties was discussing approaches to collective care. If interviewees didn’t personally have health issues, they mentioned asking about vaccinations prior to meeting up for the sake of family members, friends and coworkers who were immunocompromised. As we all try to recover from the traumatizing effects of the pandemic, there’s a lack of ability to focus solely on your own life: more than maybe ever before, your private decisions have an uncontrollable effect on the general public. It’s staggering.
When I finished my interviews and started summarizing these answers, the Delta variant wasn’t an active concern: the weather was getting warmer and people were finally ready for some good news. Now, as I finish this write-up, it’s taking shape as a serious threat, to the point where headlines are predicting a regression in our already unstable public health conditions. People are tired of living their lives, dating, and connecting through this unavoidable element of danger, but as we’ve seen time and time again, we can’t will away a pandemic because we’re sick of it. As the interviews wrapped up, we discussed trying to imagine a better future: how we’d survive and move forward without a sense of permanence, with intense tech fatigue, constant oversaturation, and worsening social anxiety. While conditions are certainly bleak, the focus on community care and the excitement around forging new intimate connections shows that though many things in the world are unstable right now, some things remain promising and fulfilling all the same.
Em Odesser is a 21 year old writer, feminist, and sex educator. Her work focuses on the intersection of sex, history, and technology. You can say hi on @emilyodesser on Instagram or read more work on her website emilyodesser.com