“This is the point I’d usually ask you for a drink, but we can’t do that so… Can I interest you in a PowerPoint presentation instead?” Jess, a 26-year old who works in communications, was chatting to a guy she’d met on dating app Hinge a few weeks into lockdown. He gave her five topics to choose from – including the character Super Hans from TV sitcom Peep Show, the London jazz scene, and English philosopher John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay “On Liberty”. She opted for Super Hans.
Trapped at home during the pandemic, and in different cities, they set up the call on video conferencing app Zoom. After his 20-minute presentation there was a short quiz (she did “alright actually… it was a very good PowerPoint”) and they carried on talking. In fact, a couple of months later and they’re still dating. It was “a good icebreaker”, Jess laughs.
The coronavirus pandemic changed the reality of dating almost as soon as it hit the headlines. Suddenly all the casual, unthinking norms of getting to know someone – a carefree arm around the shoulder; a first kiss – became infection points. Or, as the New York Board of Health bluntly advised back in March: “You are your safest sex partner.”
Not even couples were spared. As the UK grappled with the reality of lockdown, Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, gave a stark warning: move in together or “be prepared for a long period of time apart”.
Assuming lockdown would be more sprint than marathon, Maya, a 26 year old trainee psychologist, and her girlfriend of six weeks jumped in feet first. They decamped to her parents’ house outside London – along with her siblings and their (longterm) partners. “If you usually introduce a partner to your parents, it’s over a weekend or a dinner,” she jokes. Not in lockdown, during a pandemic, with absolutely nowhere to hide. After four weeks they amicably decided it was best to continue their budding relationship in a more normal setting; separate houses.
Those who started lockdown without partners have flocked to dating apps. It’s a change that looks likely to be permanent, says Viren Swami, social psychology professor at Anglia Ruskin University. Who would dare to judge online dating anymore? Tinder, Hinge and Bumble all reported an increase in usage in the early months of lockdown. And people aren’t just swiping: they’re also talking more. In the month to 22 April, conversations on the Queer dating app Lex increased by 30 per cent. Some of the bigger platforms have adapted to “dating from home” with new features like video calls.
But virtual dating has introduced a whole new set of logistical problems – especially with someone you’ve never met before. “The microphone on my laptop wasn’t very good,” Jess says, “so usually I would have to lean in and speak into it.” But leaning forward meant she wasn’t at an optimum angle for looking her best on camera. “I found myself having to shout at the laptop.”
Plus, she had moved home for the first part of lockdown, so was faced with having to go on ‘dates’ while holed up in her bedroom away from her parents. She ended up telling them she was “Skyping the girls” and they didn’t seem to notice that for some calls she was wearing a lot more make up. Once, her mum walked in mid-date to say goodnight.
While some people have kept digital meet-ups strictly PG, for others quarantine has been a time to experiment – with varied success. Will, a 28-year old British official based in Europe, ended up on a drunken video call with an Australian guy he’d planned to meet before the pandemic. “At first it was intriguing but after a while it was clear we were both basically in our family homes and trying to be quiet. He couldn’t sort the angles at all… and at one point it froze with him in a very unsexy pose.” They didn’t stay in touch.
Alison, who started in-person dating just before lockdown for the first time in 20 years after finalising her divorce, has similar misgivings. It’s been hard to negotiate this brave new world while cooped up in the same house as her children. “At my grand old age of 48 I’ve had to try and navigate the world of virtual sex… I can’t tell you. Awful, just awful. Zoom is a nightmare. You need to have an extra hand.”
Others have embraced the situation wholeheartedly. When Sophie Duker, a 30-year old comedian, realised she was probably going to take and send a fair few naked pictures during lockdown, she decided it was time to “skill-up”. “While other people were making banana bread” she arranged a series of nude masterclasses on Instagram Live with “expert” guest lecturers covering topics like “safety while snapping”, “dude nudes” and fat nudity. “I did think it would be a fun, joyful thing to do,” she explains. The hundreds of effusively grateful people who tuned in each time appear to have agreed.
But things are changing. The world is bubbling back to life. Galleries, pubs and cinemas can open in a matter of days; the two metre rule has been eased. As yet, there’s no update on the euphemistic warning made by Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, at the start of May that there could be “no hugging new friends” until a coronavirus vaccine is found. It’s a thin glaze of normality upon a wildly altered core.
Nicole, a 23 year old writer from Scarborough who hasn’t dated before because of PTSD, has welcomed this new enforced space as a kind of barrier – allowing her to get to know someone free from the expectation of sleeping with them.
For others it’s a point of negotiation. Jess, who moved back to London and so no longer needs to Zoom-date in secret, found the whole thing stressful. It’s a lot of pressure for a first kiss: “It adds another layer of like… are we morally irresponsible citizens if we do?”
For Tania, a 28-year-old who suddenly found herself stuck in the countryside with her whole family, social distancing is long gone. Not that it went unnoticed. When she wasn’t home from a date by 12.30am she started getting missed calls from her brothers and messages from her mother asking where she was. Their only form of entertainment, the next morning she faced another barrage of questions. “I was [sneaking home] 10 years ago… And now I’m nearly 30 and doing the same thing.” Best not to mention the extent to which she broke the rules with her date. She felt bad about breaking Hancock’s rule – but “not bad enough not to do it”.
There will always be people who break the social distancing rules, Professor Swami explains. It’s not specific to dating, more a general issue about risk analysis.
He compares it to using condoms: whatever people intend when they’re at home, once they meet someone and have a drink they are less likely to use them. Ditto social distancing. Except in this instance, the communal public health impact is much higher.
And those risks affect everyone differently. Jennifer, a 41 year old who works in the charity sector, lives alone in an isolated farmhouse in the French countryside after getting divorced last year. With work piling up, she hired a gardener. “We kind of got into this routine where he’d come over to the garden and then stay for some drinks.” One thing led to another, and they started sleeping together. It was very Desperate Housewives – except they both kept panicking about the virus. “One night, he got really freaked out and put cushions and pillows down the middle of the bed,” Jennifer remembers. “I was just like: it’s a bit late for that now?” Eventually they decided to call it quits. She can’t see herself dating much in the future, especially with the possibility of a second coronavirus wave.
With the virus still present, for lots of people the parameters of “safe” dating have shifted. “You need to build enough of a relationship and enough rapport with somebody,” Alex Zammit, a behavioural scientist, says. Potential suitors will want to “know more about [a date’s] background, more about where they’ve been, more about who they’ve been interacting with.”
For people with multiple partners, especially multiple partners dating other multiple partners, it’s complicated. Neil, a 41 year old entrepreneur from Cardiff, is solo polyamorous, which means he doesn’t have a primary partner and sees all his relationships as equal. How did that work out during lockdown? “I’m not gonna say easy because it really, really hasn’t been.” He ended up living with one woman, mutually breaking up with another, and dating the third from a distance.
The pandemic poses a problem for the wider polyamorous community because of the extended risk of infection. “They’re having hierarchies and importances placed on relationships that they didn’t really have to consider before” and were consciously trying to avoid. If one person is uncomfortable with an existing chain of contact, “that’s a very difficult conversation to have”, Neil says.
It’s a specific version of the type of open and honest conversation more and more people will be facing in the upcoming months. It’s hard to imagine the government explicitly condoning kissing or dating while the virus remains a risk – and it’s hard to imagine people abstaining completely, as the past few months have proven.
Though he’s keen to caution against it, and highlight the wider risks involved, Professor Swami understands the impetus. “Essentially, [dating] is like playing the lottery. People keep doing it, knowing that the likelihood of winning is tiny. But if you win – you are going to be really, really happy.”
Some names have been changed