New world. New rules. Same old problems.
It took Alison Stevenson eight months to find a pandemic friend with benefits.
First, there was an intense, short-lived texting relationship that ended when the man on the other end told her he was getting back together with his ex. Then, two disappointing outdoor dates, including one with a guy who made fun of her for asking him to keep his mask on.
"I needed a 'situationship,'" said Stevenson, a 31-year-old comedian and writer in Los Angeles. "A person I can rely on and trust to hang out with once a week."
The guy she connected with in November fit her criteria. They already knew each other, he made good conversation and he agreed to her safety conditions: a recent, negative coronavirus test, masks on their first couple of dates, and exclusivity.
Everything was going well until Stevenson asked him to define their relationship. ("He said I was a 'convenience.'") Now she's back to Square 1, although she doesn't plan on jumping back into the dating pool anytime soon. "I had my month, I had my fun, I got touched a little," she said. "I can be alone for however long it takes for the vaccine to come through."
If you're in a relationship (or haven't been out much since March), it may be news to you that people are meeting up, cuddling, making out and having sex with new partners, often weighing their emotional and physical needs against safety concerns. Some have gone about their private lives quietly, out of fear that those in their social circles — especially couples — would judge their choices. Others have been more conspicuous. In November, New York sheriffs broke up an 80-person party at a sex club in Queens. That same month, a swingers convention in New Orleans led to 41 people testing positive for the coronavirus.
Going on dates has involved a mental calculus not unlike the kind applied to other social interactions in the Covid-19 era: Will I feel safe? What is the likelihood of infection? How many people could this hurt? But hookups have been viewed with particular scrutiny.
"Even pre-pandemic there was a lot of stigma around sexuality and sex in general; with the pandemic, there's another layer of expectations and judgment," said Dr. Oni Blackstock, the former assistant commissioner at the New York City health department's Bureau of HIV, who oversaw the development of the now-famous "Safer Sex and Covid-19" guidelines (the ones that told you that "you're your safest sex partner").
"It's been so polarising," Blackstock said. "Some folks are at one extreme, people who are proponents of staying inside and minimising contact with other people, and other people are travelling everywhere like there's nothing going on." But while these two camps make it seem as if choices around sexual health are binary, "there are things you can do on the spectrum to minimise the risks."
That could mean setting boundaries and conditions from the outset, like regular testing (keep in mind that tests can show false negatives, especially if the amount of the virus in the body is too small to be detected, and that whoever is taking the test could be infected while waiting for results), quarantining before meeting and sticking to a single partner.
As they negotiate, people are finding that the key to dating now is what it's always been: trust.
Meeting anyone in person increases your risk of contracting the coronavirus, but if you want to go on dates, the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are clear: Stay home if you're sick, wear a mask in public, keep at least 6 feet between you and others, and wash your hands afterward. Because of air circulation, spending time together outdoors is better than indoors.
For many single people, meeting up has been worth the risk. "Everything I enjoy doing has been taken away from me," said Emmy Nicholson, a 26-year-old publicist in Brooklyn. "But there's one thing they can't take away, and that's having sex."
After spending the spring with her family in Colorado, Nicholson returned to New York and reignited an old relationship. It quickly fizzled. "I noticed he would say he was at a party," she said. "I thought, there are people I can see who are taking this more seriously."
In August, she met a guy for outdoor drinks, then went back to his apartment. "Where else could we go?" she said.
They started seeing each other once a week. A couple of months later, Nicholson asked if he was sleeping with other people. "I just want to be safe," she said. "I want one less thing to be worried about." Now the two are physically exclusive.
Anna, who is 29 and asked to be identified by her middle name to protect her high-profile job in Washington, DC, said that the pandemic made her feel pressured. "At my age, if people aren't already married, they're starting to get serious — about marriage, about having kids," she said. "For people who are together, their timetables are speeding up because the pandemic is forcing them to make decisions. Whereas single people, you can't get back that year of your life."
In August, she flew to Chicago to meet a man she had been texting and talking to on FaceTime for a month. "You need the physical meeting," she said. "I'm not even saying sex. You could decide you hate someone because of the way they chew."
The two of them spent a weekend in a hotel. "He was the only person I have been intimate with in 10 months," Anna said. She said she would not want to meet in person with a stranger on a dating app. In this case, she knew where her date worked, and that his job would require him to undergo background checks and follow stringent Covid-19 safety guidelines.
Laura Khalil, 40, a podcast producer and host in Detroit with parents in a high-risk group, described a cautious meeting at an outdoor cafe. It was as normal a date as one can have in a pandemic, mask-free, and afterward Khalil went for a coronavirus test and self-quarantined.
"I knew he was working from home, he had a pod and he was not going out," she said. "Do I trust you? Do I believe you? Those are things we can't know. I can only assume and hope that you're not lying to me."
Risk calculations and denial
Richard Schmitz, 31, works in software sales and moved from Manhattan to Scottsdale, Arizona, last year. In New York, he often asked his matches (or was asked) about comfort around meeting in person. But in Arizona, such questions don't come up. "I don't care about Covid," one woman replied when he asked her if she would be comfortable going on a date during a spike in cases. "We are never guaranteed to see next year, so we should enjoy our time with people while we can," another wrote.
In Los Angeles, Stevenson was taken aback by how little her conversations with matches had changed. "The first or second message was still, 'Want to come over?'" she said. "It was such a shock to me that so many people who I would match with were acting like nothing was going on. 'Well I'm still horny, so I'll risk it.'"
Blackstock, the former assistant health commissioner, who is also a primary care doctor and HIV specialist, noticed that people adjusted their behaviours based on the positivity rate in their community. "I had a patient who, at the peak of it, was using a 'sexual pod,'" she said. "As things got more under control, people were meeting people anonymously again. But then as the numbers went up again, people retreated to being more conservative or limiting their partners."
Schmitz found that his own perspective evolved with time as well. "Once you do it once and meet with one person, you're slightly more comfortable with the next and the next," he said. His first date during the pandemic was with a friend.
It was "kind of weird at first," he said, but after months of no physical touch, he decided that the reward would be greater than the risk of getting sick. The two of them kissed. Once New York reopened, he noticed that a lot of his dates were comfortable hugging and kissing the first time they met.
But with cases in Arizona on the rise, Schmitz is ready for exclusivity, especially now that he has met someone he likes. "It's nice knowing that I have one person," he said.
There's always sexting
Cooper, 38, who works in education in New York and asked to be identified by his middle name to protect his job, said that more than half of the women he has messaged on dating apps have asked him to text them a photo showing that he has tested negative for the coronavirus. "You have to jump through more hoops now," he said.
When a test is not possible, people are finding ways to be creative with their sexuality.
One of the women Cooper matched with on Tinder suggested meeting in a park and using a remote-controlled vibrator while they were seated several feet apart on a bench. Later, she drove him around while he masturbated.
"She kept her mask on," Cooper said. The face covering stayed in place when she came over to his apartment, too, and they pleasured themselves on opposite ends of the couch. (Eventually, after Cooper took a coronavirus test, they had sex.)
Lauren Bille, chief executive of AllBodies, a health education platform, said she has noticed people showing inventiveness with dates, safety precautions and intimacy.
Bille, who lives in Brooklyn, recently polled the company's followers on Instagram to ask how they've been navigating casual dating. One said that a first date must be lunch, not dinner, in order to avoid alcohol and sex. Another answered: "Covid test before meetup and STD test before sex." Others responded that they are being physical only with exes or people they know. Many said they have increased the number of virtual dates they go on before the first in-person meeting.
"Video sex, sexting, sending each other sensual selfies — all these are things people might not have tried as much, that have been put on the back burner before. But now people are venturing out and finding that they actually like them," said Dalychia Saah, a founder of Afrosexology, an educational platform that offers workshops and events on topics like masturbation, self-love and Black sexuality.
Boundaries can be sexy
"The pandemic is opening the space for people to have hard conversations about their comfort level, about their exposure," Saah said. That leads to each person asking themselves: "What do you want? What's on the table and what's not on the table? There's a script that a lot of us have fallen into, that you have to have sex a certain way. Now the barrier of entry to that conversation has been lowered."
In many ways, conversations around boundaries and consent during the pandemic are similar to those that sexually active people have around physical touch, condoms and sexually transmitted infections and diseases.
"The more information you have about what your partner has been engaging in and understanding the consequences of your own behaviours, the more everybody can make a more informed decision about what they want to move forward with," said Dr. Anisha Gandhi, the acting assistant commissioner at the New York City health department's Bureau of HIV.
Ann Nguyen, a 26-year-old communications and social media consultant, found herself wrestling with these questions during a November encounter in New York, where she had recently moved from Washington, DC.
The day before she was supposed to meet a date, one of her roommates got a positive coronavirus test result. When she and her four other roommates went to get tested, their results were negative. She told her date what had happened, and he said he wanted her to come over anyway. But when she arrived, he raised some doubts about having sex. Nguyen told him that whatever he wanted to do was fine, and she would leave if he wanted her to.
"I think a part of him was like, 'I'm going to trust this.' Maybe it's because he really wanted to have sex," she said. "But did he feel pressured because I was there?"
Nguyen said that the calculations that daters are engaging in go beyond physical exposure. "You're choosing to be physically vulnerable, physically risking Covid, but you're also being emotionally and mentally vulnerable, by trusting this person and believing what they're saying," she said.
Saah said that having to ask questions about another person's comfort level has forced many of us to consider what consent means. If you have to ask whether a hug is OK, or whether you can take off your mask, you learn to honor your own boundaries and other people's, she said. "We're getting so much practice that we weren't getting."
Nguyen realised that during the pandemic, she has found hesitation and caution to be appealing traits in a date.
"I've been asked: 'Have you been to a bunch of parties? Do you feel like you have a fever? When was the last time you made out with someone? How many people have you been hanging out with?'" she said. "You want to date someone who has asked these questions and has gone ahead and gotten a test for you. It's so related to what you want in a person."
Written by: Valeriya Safronova
Photographs by: Leonard Suryajaya
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES