By Lisa Speidel
An estimated 25 million people use dating apps in the United States every year, with Tinder being the most popular way to click, browse, swipe, and meet. Dating apps in the best of times are not easy, whether we are looking for true love, are ethically non-monogamous, searching for another partner, or simply want to hook up for one night. The challenges of texting, filtering who may be safe to meet, and contending with random unsolicited dick pics can be frustrating. Sometimes the first date reveals a person who does not match up to his posted photo or stats, or maybe there’s just no spark. In other cases, it can lead to finding an amazing partner; at the very least, it allows for the possibility of finding what we want—but all of this has drastically changed with the current state of enforced social distancing.
A 50-year-old friend of mine, Jemma, revealed her own experience after she rejoined OkCupid, Bumble, and Hinge at the beginning of the year. Her typical process consisted of messaging potential dates in the apps, then sharing phone numbers for more texting or talking. If that went well, they would set up a time to meet in person. When the pandemic hit, the culture of dating apps took an extreme turn. “Now each conversation starts with, ‘How are you doing?’ and the initial interactions consist of caring and concern right off the bat,” she says. In one case, there was an immediate connection through the trauma of navigating COVID-19, but instead of continuing the trajectory of meeting in person, FaceTime and Zoom dates had to suffice. This was not particularly satisfying, so when an intense connection grew, she agreed to a social distancing date. They took a walk together, six feet apart, and on the next date, met at his house where she sat opposite from him around an outdoor fire. She did not want to enter his house, so she continuously used the other side of his truck as a toilet. The attraction was so strong, she says, it was difficult not to touch, but they resisted.
Some prefer to wait to be sexual when dating, but for many of us acting on attraction enables the connection to grow. Pandemic dating means a loss of physical contact across the board, which can be incredibly painful. “I realized how much I miss being touched,” Jemma says. “I am not being sexual with anyone, which is hard, but also I just miss being hugged.” This is known as skin hunger, a deep longing and aching desire for physical contact with another person. Our skin is our largest sensory organ, and touch can fulfill the necessity for comfort, emotional support, and physical and sexual needs. It is also calming, and during so much uncertainty, the lack of touch can add to the struggle as many realize how important it really is.
She has since decided that being on dating apps “feels like an exercise in futility,” and has shut them down. Kelly, 40, has done the same, and says, “I really don’t want to have a pen pal, so what’s the point?” At 26, John can relate to this sentiment, but he has not disconnected from his apps, with the exception of Grindr.
On Grindr, it felt as if the “horniness of men outweighed the emergency of the pandemic,” he says. “Many men were saying ‘it’s just us, I am not going anywhere, we can be safe,’ and I was feeling pressure to meet up.” He has used this opportunity to practice setting boundaries, but says he has found that some men have become “emboldened to be more direct and show a lot more pictures of naked body parts, as if some people just aren’t taking it seriously.” Despite making some real connections with men on Hinge, John says, “If you want to have an exclusive relationship, how can you really do that online?” The virtual getting-to-know-you is a barrier to physical chemistry, and it takes longer with texting and chatting, to get to the root of things. Although he continues to be in contact with men, it “feels like friendship with the vague possibility of getting laid in months. And that’s just not very titillating or exciting. But what else am I going to do? …There are only so many Zoom family meetings that are going to take up my time,” he jokes.
We rely heavily on the internet and apps to keep us connected during this time of isolation, and while there are many limitations to fulfilling all of our needs as humans, taking advantage of these virtual connections allows space to process a new dating reality as we support each other, and hold on to the hope of hugging each other soon.
Lisa Speidel is an assistant professor in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Department at the University of Virginia. She is an AASECT Certified Sexuality Educator (CSE) and co-author of the book The Edge of Sex: Navigating a Sexually Confusing Culture From the Margins.