The day she was supposed to meet her date face-to-face, Jessica had a sore throat. A respectful and normally cautious young woman, she had been careful to self-isolate throughout quarantine, and she planned to get tested for COVID-19 later in the week if the problem persisted. But after several weeks of impassioned texting and exchanging nude photos, she had finally decided to take the risk and connect with this man she’d met online in person, and it seemed the prudent thing to do to at least warn him that she wasn’t feeling well, so he could decide for himself whether it was worth it. “At this rate, even if you’d told me you’d been partying at Trinity-Bellwoods, I’d still be coming over,” he messaged her back immediately, not long after thousands had recklessly partied at the Toronto park. He biked to her place and they slept together that evening.
For many, this is what dating has looked like in the age of coronavirus. A prevailing attitude of extreme caution — followed, occasionally, by the reckless thrill of consummation. Jessica, like many single women, spent the first several months of quarantine on her own, reclusive, feeling lonesome and frustrated in self-isolation. She continued to meet men and women, as she had before lockdown, on dating apps such as Tinder and Hinge, swiping on matches she accepted she almost certainly wouldn’t see for a long time. She might flirt, or sext, or field video calls on Zoom or FaceTime. But after months of this remote teasing, she couldn’t take solitude anymore, and after settling on the match she liked best, she decided to finally break quarantine for sex.
A global pandemic was never going to stop people from wanting to have sex. And although the restrictions of social distancing have temporarily halted traditional dating, making it all but impossible for singles to meet and get to know one another at bars and restaurants and all the other familiar places where romance typically happens, people are still looking for love, and many have found alternative ways to find the one. Worldwide, dating apps have seen a “surge” in use: in May, Tinder reported a record number of swipes, saying user engagement is way up. Other dating apps have reported similar increases.
But what comes after a match on the app? John, a man in his late 20s in Toronto, almost instantly converted to socially distant dates, inviting women he’d met on Tinder to accompany him on walks or sit with him at the park, six feet apart. Or else he’d arrange long FaceTime calls where they could feel like they were getting acquainted. It was hardly ideal, and having to keep separated is not the best way to establish a physical rapport or cultivate intimacy. But on the other hand, with the pandemic happening, there’s always something to talk about.
Official government guidelines around safe sex practices have been much discussed. New York City was among the first to issue recommendations toward the end of March, and their advice swiftly went viral for its candour: the tipsheet warned that “rimming (mouth on anus) might spread COVID-19,” and stressed that “you are your safest sex partner,” encouraging masturbation in place of sex “especially if you wash your hands.” Last week, the BC Centre for Disease Control issued its own recommendations, and attracted notice for some of their more colourful suggestions, including that partners should avoid kissing or ought to “use barriers, like walls (e.g. glory holes) that allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact.” In general the guidelines urged people to “get creative” about sex with new partners, and to wear condoms and, ideally, face masks during the act.
The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, in the Netherlands, attracted attention in May when it released a public statement encouraging single people to choose one long-term “sex buddy” with whom they can have close physical contact, sort of like a bubble limited to two. This seems to be the model informally adopted by single people here, as well. Almost every single person I know has gone through the process at some point over the last four months: meet someone online, thoroughly vet them, and, if they are on the same page, eventually meet face-to-face. So long as neither party is seeing anybody else, the isolation is more or less maintained, and the sex is relatively safe.
Of course, once you settle on a partner, you’re stuck with them — unless you want to further risk the spread of COVID by expanding your bubble to another match. A nice person to text or chat with on FaceTime might not be an ideal sex partner, and chemistry can be difficult to predict through a phone, which means that making the final decision can feel like a gamble. And even promising relationships can take a sudden turn: after two successful dates, Jessica’s new sex buddy suddenly ghosted her. There was no way to know that would happen before biting the bullet and taking the plunge.
In J.G. Ballard’s short story “The Intensive Care Unit,” from 1982, the people of the future almost never leave their houses, never interact with one another in the flesh, and do just about everything virtually, using personal video terminals — including date. “We began to go out together — that is, we shared the same films on television, visited the same theatres and concert halls, watched the same meals prepared in restaurants, all within the comfort of our respective homes,” relates the narrator. “In fact, at this time I had no idea where Margaret lived, whether she was five miles away from me or five hundred.” Eventually, however, the budding couple cannot resist coming together, despite the taboo. “We decided instantly that the archaic interdiction against meeting another human being deserved simply to be ignored,” he reports. The two meet, and are shocked by the unfamiliarity.
Ballard was of course renowned for his creative foresight, but in the age of COVID-19, under continuing quarantine orders, his vision of a world of screen-mediated interpersonal relations seems even more prescient than usual. Since lockdown began in mid-March, we’ve all had to live our lives in more or less militant self-isolation, and the screens of our phones and laptops have served as our most reliable means of communication. For those of us in relationships, keeping to ourselves indoors has had its own challenges. But for single people, trying to find someone suitable to share something with has gotten more challenging and complicated than ever, and it’s not as though it was easy to begin with. Getting to know someone remotely is, for better or worse, dating’s new norm, as people do the hard work of learning about a new prospective partner mainly from the comfort of their own home.
As the rate of infection across Canada continues to decline, lockdown measures will ease and social life will gradually return to something like normal. But the best way to limit the spread of the disease is to restrict our contact with unfamiliar people, and dating itself is premised on contact with unfamiliar people. A “dramatic increase” in STIs reported in Montreal last week indicates that young people are beginning to be less vigilant about hook-ups as Quebec comes out of quarantine, and that is an alarming trend as the numbers relate to COVID. Clearly even while bars and restaurants reopen and our bubbles expand, we need single people to be aware of the risks inherent in the old practices of having sex and dating. And if we want coronavirus cases to remain low, we need to accept that a different approach to dating is the new normal.
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