Virtual intimacy and fatal attraction: dating during a pandemic

Stock image of mobile phone dating apps.

The Sentinel talks to a panel of imbedded experts about how Covid-19 has changed dating in Sydney. By Richie Black.

2020 has – by turns–- separated, isolated and distanced us. And this disruption has been felt acutely at the battle-front of interpersonal relationships: the dating scene.

But if you thought a bit of plague would have cooled some of the collective ardour, you’ve underestimated biological imperatives.

In fact, a certain portion of Sydneysiders are getting it on like never before. 

Nevertheless, the pandemic has changed the rituals of courtship.

Plenty of f*cks to give

It’s not news that Sydneysiders are promiscuous. But the ante has apparently been upped — at least post-lockdown. 

25-year-old Jason* from Kirribilli, observes that, “There’s more of a vibe now going on, especially with people in their early twenties, where you don’t want anything serious – particularly amongst boys.

“I think there’s safety fatigue at the moment – I’ve never had a conversation where someone has said ‘Oh, I don’t have Covid.’

“I even had a group sex thing and at only one point did someone say, ‘Oh right, we’re all Covid negative?’”

It’s not lost on Jason that inadvertently going to bed with someone with Covid is probably one of the best ways to get really, really sick. 

“PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] made people a little cavalier in Sydney before this,” he explains.

“I mean no one really uses protection — it’s not as prevalent as you were taught in school, apparently that’s a Sydney thing.”

Caitlin*, a 31-year-old from Balmain, reports that she is expecting to go on “four dates over the next two weeks – and a couple of those guys actually look kinda promising”. 

Four?! If nothing else, that sounds quite tiring. But she says she doesn’t intend necessarily to sleep with them – only if she happens to feel “horny” on the day. Que sera. 

Jason says he is highly promiscuous and, being bisexual, has encountered both genders screwing around quite a bit. 

Admitting that he’s “full of contradictions”, he is disturbed by a laissez-faire attitude more generally. 

“I’ve noticed in Sydney, people operate like there isn’t a pandemic – which is really shocking to me. It’s pretty much like a return to normal. Like nothing’s happened.”

Meanwhile, 28-year-old Stefan* from Enmore says: “The people who are most at risk or most worried about coming into contact with the virus are those who have abandoned the apps entirely.

“When I’ve matched with a girl and met up, we might clear the air by quickly asking each other ‘You’re not sick, are you?’, before getting on with things.”

Apps, of course, are key to easy hookups. In their defence, the likes of Tinder towed the party line during lockdown and encouraged isolation. 

Still, that didn’t mean there was nothing happening. Says Stefan: “A few months ago, when NSW lockdown measures were in place … I started every chat with low expectations, feeling somewhat guilty for using the apps in the first place, and not wanting to be the first to propose the idea of a date.”

Virtual relationships

One of the main ways things changed – at the height of lockdown – was that dating, and a lot of the relationships that resulted, went digital. 

As Jason explains: “People who were lonely were talking to more people [online] – not just on dating apps but on social media like Facebook and Instagram.”

Caitlin says she stayed online during lockdown knowing that nothing serious would happen – it was about maintaining some semblance of connection. 

Says Jason, “There’s often the joke that I’ve had ‘six quarantine boyfriends’ and at the end of it, deciding you don’t want any of them. So there was a thing about maintaining relationships through lockdown at a distance.” 

Platforms such as Hinge and Tinder tapped into this, introducing video chat capabilities. Tinder, meanwhile, made it possible for users to change their location settings (free of charge) thereby letting people meet others around the world – with the understanding there was nil chance of meeting in the flesh. 

But in a Covid dating world – one almost bonded in collective isolation, trauma and, well, sexual frustration – these encounters were not necessarily as ephemeral as they seemed. 

“I had three quarantine boyfriends,” Jason says, “And two of those people not even being in the same country. The fact they’re from different places is not such a big deal. I hope to meet them some day.”

Dating in flux

When they finally happened, the terms and conditions of physical meetings changed, with often subtle outcomes. 

Says Stefan, “I went on a date with a girl when restaurants, cafes, and pubs were closed for dine-in. We decided to grab takeaway coffees then walk and talk around Lavender Bay.” 

He noted a slightly uneasy element to proceedings. 

“The date went well enough but I walked away feeling like this other person was still a stranger to me. I think that’s because we were walking side-by-side for the entire date. There were rules at the time against sitting down in public, so we never once sat across from each other and made eye contact.”

Caitlin also had a date on the (Balmain) foreshore – but that wasn’t the only way things were reordered. 

“After we drank the bottle of wine together that he’d brought, I needed to pee.

“As everything was shut, the only toilet available was the one in my house up the road – so there was this strange thing where I had to bring a guy home unexpectedly … I had to send a sneaky message to my flatmates asking them to tidy my room before he got there.”

Brave new world

Strange days, right? And yet there’s always a familiar central imperative at work.

“Suddenly after lockdown, everyone wanted to go back to normal and start having sex again,” says Jason. 

At the same time, it’s informed by a degree of fatalism, he thinks: “There’s a sense people want to enjoy before things get worse.”

If dating now seems to be informed by counter-intuitive thinking, these are – after all – strange times. Where virtual encounters attain an intimacy that awkward physical encounters can’t; where a feeling of impending apocalypse propels people into greater recklessness. 

Even weirder, it’s a time where we can look to Tinder as an indicator of how life has fundamentally changed in 2020.  

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent/guilty. 

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