in pondering the topic of sex, dating, and the pandemic, i questioned whether this article had to be about covid and the vaccine passports, imagining the many ways that could go south for me. how to please everyone? on the surface, vaccination status and dating seems fairly open and shut: either your potential date is vaccinated or not, either you are vaccinated or not, and either it’s a deal-breaker or not.
to lighten the daunting task before me, i tried to come up with a joke. “so a vaccinated person and an unvaccinated person walk into a bar,” or something about having a passport and going nowhere. but in the words of jeff ross during the comedy central roast of charlie sheen, it all feels “too soon, too soon; too real, too real.” simply put, no one’s really laughing about covid or the passports right now, and counsellors support folks on all sides of the debate.
where we’ve come from
pandemic dating has already made for interesting research, with some academics investigating how dating apps have evolved to address the needs of those looking for love or sex. during the global lockdown, apps such as tinder, bumble, grindr, her, match, hinge, and okcupid expanded their offerings. some designed or unlocked features to facilitate online dating, while others hosted virtual meetups and activities. many posted articles designed to help users gain success in online endeavors – offering instructions, for example, on how to dress; set the environment; and use better lighting for virtual dates (dietzel, myles, & duguay, 2021).
in the past year and a half, research shows that many people had less sex, even as some expanded their sexual repertoires (lehmiller, garcia, gesselman, & mark, 2020). in an online survey of over 1,500 adults who were asked about the pandemic’s impact on their intimate lives, about 1 in 5 reported making a new addition to their sex life. the more common additions included “trying new sexual positions, sexting, sending nude photos, sharing sexual fantasies, watching pornography, searching for sex-related information online, having cybersex, filming oneself masturbating, and acting on sexual fantasies” (p. 6). while those who made additions were three times more likely to report that their sex lives had improved since the pandemic began, not all additions are created equal: partnered activities were linked to greater sexual satisfaction, whereas solo activities were not.
this leads to another issue that arose in the pandemic: who has access to partnered sexual activity, and who does not? lehmiller et al. (2020) state that sexual minorities, racial minorities, and younger adults have “significantly elevated rates of living alone” (p. 7). during the lockdown, these groups were more vulnerable to stress and loneliness – mental health issues with well-established links to sexual behaviour. for example, sex is often pursued as a means to relieve stress, whereas loneliness has been linked to sexual risk-taking (p. 7). during the height of the pandemic’s first wave, quebec’s national director of public health horacio arrucia urged people to pursue monogamy as a way to halt the virus (dietzel et al., 2021). while on paper that makes sense, in practice it neither meets everyone’s reality nor preference.
pandemic or not, a “tacit assumption of monogamy” (thorneycroft & nicholas, 2021, p. 105) permeates much of sex ed literature, thinly concealing a hetero/normative bias. there are many for whom open relationships and casual sexual practices have deep cultural roots, both fostering and maintaining a sense of connection and normalcy. for example, thorneycroft and nicholas (2021) outline how casual sex creates social solidarity that’s “key to queer sexual cultures” (p. 106). that said, survivors of the hiv/aids epidemic are no strangers to navigating sexual safety in the face of a life-threatening virus. sexual expression, which on one hand represents liberation for a community who has historically faced oppression, also “signalled deep loss from aids-related illnesses and deaths” (thawer, 2021). hard-won lessons borne of that tragedy hold particular resonance for this time.
where we are
even as i researched and wrote this article, i was mindful of the impossibility of pleasing everyone who might read it. across the globe – and particularly where i live – the issue of vaccinations and passports is divided. there’s fear and uncertainty, as the debate touches on people’s deeply held values. in many ways, we are limited these days: in movement, connection, and choice. and while limitation may be new for some, there are others for whom it’s familiar.
i find myself drawn to the writings of not only queer theorists, but also of disability advocates and theorists. thorneycroft and nicholas (2021) offer the concepts of queer and crip time as a way to (re)frame the pandemic. let me take a moment to define these. jack halberstam (2005) explains queer time as emerging from the hiv/aids epidemic. while a generation was cut down in its prime, some gay men abandoned the expectation of longevity and future, instead “making community in relation to risk, disease, infection, and death” (p. 5). bleak as that may sound, there were unexpected gifts in this approach. in the “constantly diminishing future” (p. 5) of the aids epidemic, an emphasis on living each moment to the fullest emerged. for counsellors, this already runs deep through the work that we do. in this shifting time of uncertainty, present moment awareness is a refuge.
crip time, on the other hand, arose from disability theory as a way to address how “disabled/chronically ill and neurodivergent people experience time (and space) differently than able-bodyminded folk” (terminology). ellen samuels (2017) outlines some of the gifts and challenges of a disruption to normative life. for example, crip time has a nonlinear path of “backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings.” there are times of “late nights and unconscious days,” out of sync with normative time. none of this will sound unfamiliar to the experiences of many during the pandemic. and yet, crip time also offers something “more beautiful and forgiving”: the opportunity to slow down, the directive to be still, the humility of limitation.
many are now experiencing “a time akin to crip/queer time, with normative life trajectories on hold” (thorneycroft & nicholas, 2021, p. 109). folks who could formerly socialize with ease have found their opportunities to gather curtailed – not just for weeks or months, but going on years now. whereas intentionality with dating was somewhat optional pre-pandemic, it’s now a necessity. planning meetups, conversing about vaccination status, and determining shared values have become part of the screening process with potential partners. in this context, “normative (individualist) ethics are upended” (p. 109) in favour of a more collective approach.
queer and crip theories offer the potential to reconceptualize responsibility and ethics as they pertain to sex during covid, as we evaluate individual decisions in relation to the whole. still, if we focus only on mitigating risk, we might forget about pleasure. rather than attending solely to individual wellbeing, what if instead we found “a (queer) sexual ethics focused on pleasure, and a (crip) responsibility…focused on considering the other” (thorneycroft & nicholas, p. 104)? it’s something to ponder: when a virus has the power to shut down the whole world, it illuminates the ways in which we really are all one.
there are plenty of articles on how to minimize risk in pandemic dating: virtual connections, getting vaccinated, social distancing. staying two metres apart helps contain the transmission of covid. what happens, however, when the span becomes ideological – when it moves, as it can, towards “cultural, relational, and psychological processes involved in distancing” (goodley, 2014, p. 118)? the vaccine conversation grows increasingly polarized, with ever-deepening factions and divides. for example, an angus reid institute poll (2021) revealed that over three-quarters of canadians who have gotten both shots have “‘no sympathy’ for unvaccinated individuals who contract covid-19.”
need it be noted that there are many reasons for choosing to be vaccinated or not, several of which complexify an overly simplistic debate? from folks whose adverse reaction to the first shot precludes a second dose, to those grappling with the tension “between public health ethics and individual liberty” (leamon, 2021), there’s a number of british columbians who are ineligible for the passport. in a joint letter to provincial health officer dr. bonnie henry and health minister adrian dix by a group of 25 organizations that advocate for civil liberties; just treatment for drug users; and undocumented and disabled british columbians, the authors note that sweeping vaccine passports policies “can have the effect of forcing people into isolation, cutting off their lines of resources, and making their lives even more dangerous” (labbé, 2021). meanwhile in another part of town, the healthcare system is stretched to its limit. whereas a year ago neighbours gathered to bang pots and pans for front line staff, this year folks are protesting vaccination passports outside of hospitals (khan & d’andrea, 2021).
a threshold of choice
and i know you got to fight your adrenaline
just to be a gentleman
and i know i got to fight my amygdala
just to keep hearing ya
~ ani difranco
in a time of limited options, there are some choices that we do have: how we frame the pandemic, and how we feel about each other in the process. priscilla wald (2008) examines the concept of the ‘outbreak narrative’ – a somewhat predictable storyline that “begins with the identification of an emerging infection, includes discussion of the global networks throughout which it travels, and chronicles the epidemiological work that ends with its containment” (p. 2). existing in every public health crisis from the bubonic plague to covid-19, the outbreak narrative disseminates information; influences how cultures understand infection; and affects transmission and survival rates. constructed by facts and ideologies alike, it does not exist in a vacuum. that is to say: it both shapes, and is shaped by the culture around it. as individuals and as a collective, we contribute to that narrative.
interestingly, “the word contagion means literally ‘to touch together,’” (wald, 2008, p. 12). one of its earliest uses in the fourteenth century referred not to medicine and disease, but to the circulation of beliefs and attitudes. presently, we’re in a moment of heightened awareness that we implicate others with our choices. tangibly and otherwise, we touch one another: with fluids, viruses, and ideas. what if pandemic dating became a way “to open up new sexual cultures” (thorneycroft & nicholas, 2021, p. 111), while also expanding our sense of responsibility towards each other? as we shape this outbreak narrative, what if we created a contagion of care?
when i speak of social responsibility, i don’t just mean the choice to get vaccinated or not. vaccine passports both allow and inhibit freedoms; include and exclude; implicate and exonerate. in the dating realm, the vaccination issue may well be a deal breaker, whatever your status. as a sexual health educator, i encourage folks to have deal breakers. befriend them: they speak to well-considered values and boundaries. nevertheless, self-care does not preclude respect and concern for others. one need not cancel out the other.
where we’re going
what does the research say about the future of dating? for starters, video meetups are here to stay. a survey conducted by the dating app hinge found that 65% of respondents who have had a virtual covid date plan to continue doing so post-pandemic (saner, 2021). as anna iovine (2021) writes, they allow “you to vibe check a match without having to leave your house.” folks are taking a more intentional approach to dating, too. ghosting (cutting off contact with someone without explanation) has decreased (iovine, 2021), and many are taking longer to move a match offline (dating guide – slow dating: what you need to know, 2021).
the increase in virtual dating necessitates a sex ed talk that many people never got: that of online safety. similar to in-person intimacy, it involves discussion about pleasures and preferences; navigating boundaries and consent; and dialogue about prophylactics and stis. further to this, online safety incorporates an explicit agreement to not record screens or share nudes with others – also known as nonconsensual pornography (ncp). still, even a verbal or written contract is no guarantee that ncp won’t happen. other ways to protect oneself online include posing in ways that obscure identifying physical or environmental features, and using apps like signal or confide to encrypt messages and prevent screenshots (smith, keep your private nude photos safe online).
for many, the covid conversation is about determining shared values. getting to know someone online is a great way to find out about their practices and precautions before meeting up in person. approaching this dialogue with open-ended questions and a sense of curiosity are ways to foster respect. therapist nicole m. richardson notes that asking the question why “almost always forces the other person to defend themselves” (moss, the covid conversation: how to talk testing and safety with your date). in other words, we rarely change people’s minds by being combative. if you find that you’re not on the same page with someone regarding covid safety, it’s okay to mark it as a deal breaker and move on.
though i could go on about ways to engage with technology; ideas for online play parties; or incorporating toys into erotic adventures, it would turn this into 3 or 4 articles. instead, i’ll point you towards some of my favourite places for further exploration. bc-based sexpositive shop (sexpositiveshop.ca) offers education and products to help “all of society benefit from a good and healthy erotic life.” ontario’s come as you are (comeasyouare.com) is a worker-owned co-operative with a “fundamentally anti-capitalist and feminist approach to sexual pleasure, health, and education.” spectrum boutique is a us-based sex toy shop; what i really love about them, though, is their journal. intelligent and thoughtful articles range in topics from bdsm and sex education, to non-monogamy and online safety (spectrumboutique.com/journal).
pandemic dating utilizes many of the same tools as normative times: negotiating boundaries, navigating pleasure, and – ideally – treating prospective partners with care. what’s changed is our perception of the impact of our choices: there’s an immediacy to their repercussions which was less apparent pre-covid. the stakes are higher. we can’t afford to have unexamined values; nor can we pretend that our actions are inconsequential. in a polarizing time, caring for one another becomes an act of intention – a decision for the collective regardless of one’s choice. aligned or divided, we’re constantly touching together. vaccinated or not, there is no us and them.
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