As if starting to talk to someone new wasn’t already akin to navigating a minefield (no? Just me?), we now have an additional factor to complicate things. The COVID-19 pandemic is drastically impacting how we live our lives, and that includes sex and dating. And let’s face it — thanks (really, we are thankful but are also frustrated) to safety and health precautions, hooking up is off the table for anyone who isn’t living with a partner.

For some, this may be one of the more difficult emotional and physical adjustments to make. “Humans are social creatures by nature. We thrive on connecting with others, and our nervous system regulates with affectionate physical touch,” says sociologist and clinical sexologist Sarah Melancon, Ph.D. And although there are ways to digitally connect with others no matter the distance between you, there is no true replacement for physical displays of affection.

A New Set Of (S)expectations

Before coronavirus was on anyone’s radar, fewer college students and 20-somethings were sexually active. In fact, recent research found that the percentage of Americans 18-29 who reported having no sex in the past year doubled between 2008 and 2018. Melancon attributes this to a few factors, including financial reasons and the increasing digitization of our culture. But overall, while there may be less sex among our generation, she doesn’t consider the discrepancy tremendously alarming.

Now, across age groups, this pandemic may be spiking a general disinterest in sex, especially among those who aren’t in relationships. “Hooking up is something 20-somethings look to for fun, relaxation, and a release,” says dating coach and communications expert Jason Lee. “When it becomes potentially dangerous to your health, not socially acceptable, and, frankly, turns into work, it loses the allure.” 

To keep distance yet maintain contact, Lee sees a trend of people reverting back to those they’re already comfortable with. In other words, we are more likely to slide into our ex’s or ex-FWB’s DMs during this crisis.

“Right now, I’m not even considering meeting people in real life, and I’ll probably feel like that until the number of cases in my city starts decreasing drastically,” says John, 24. “If I was living alone, I’d be less concerned with seeing new people, but my actions would directly impact my family. I’d be a lot more open to meeting up with someone who I’ve hooked up with in the past since it’s less awkward to confirm whether they’ve been social distancing and who they’ve been in contact with.”

“I think quarantine can actually be a great opportunity to get to know someone on a deeper level before bringing anything physical into it.”

Others are relying on technology to satisfy their sexual needs, especially while quarantined with family. “I’ve been having FaceTime sex with an old fling,” says Lara, 25. “I definitely won’t be having [real] sex right now. It’s not worth it. Plus, I’m at my parents’ with my brother and two-year-old niece, so where would I even sneak someone in?” 

“As a single person, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I probably won’t be having sex for several months, unless I get so desperate that I make the (very bad) decision to hook up with an ex,” says Kali, 23. “Having experience in a long-distance relationship, I’m comfortable with the idea of sexting or phone sex, so that’s something I’ll explore the longer quarantine goes on.”

Changing The Tinder Experience

Whereas you’d usually meet a match IRL within a certain number of days or weeks, more people are now messaging for longer. “Singles are being forced to take a more traditional approach to dating, at least for the time being,” says Lee. For example, instead of in-person first dates, he notes that many people are opting for virtual happy hours and video calls to get to know each other. 

Those who are willing to make the misguided decision to disobey social distancing guidelines aren’t having much luck. “I’d love to be able to hook up with people right now, but no one’s down to meet up,” says Angel, 22. “I recently started messaging two guys who asked what my weekend’s like, but there’s never been any, ‘hey, let’s hang out’ when [matches] were pretty quick to be like ‘what are you doing tonight?’ before.”

Chris, 28, has found that more of his matches have short-term expectations compared to a few months ago. “People are being super upfront about their intentions, but does anyone know what they want at this time?” he wonders.

Jessica, 23, has heard a lot of people joking about keeping up conversations with multiple matches but unsure if they’ll ever meet these people once they are allowed to do so. She, however, feels differently. “Unless you’re just looking for entertainment, I think quarantine can actually be a great opportunity to get to know someone on a deeper level before bringing anything physical into it. We can pretend like we’re in the pods on ‘Love Is Blind,’” she says.

“Before, worst case, you weren’t careful with condoms. In the future, will we not hug when we meet out of fear the other person is asymptomatic with COVID?”

According to recent data on global Tinder usage, more people around the world are taking advantage of that opportunity. In addition to members using the unlocked Passport feature, conversations in the U.S. are up by about 19%, and they’re lasting 8% longer compared to those prior to the pandemic.

Some of those users, like Jessica, worry nonetheless about text chemistry translating to hitting it off in person. “There’s just too much uncertainty,” she says. “It’s the anxiety of thinking, Well, if I talk to this person for the next two months, what if we’re not into each other in person? In that case, you both may have wasted your time investing in something with no ‘real world’ potential.”

Life After Quarantine

When stay-at-home orders are finally lifted, things won’t immediately go back to the way they were — we’ll need to adjust to a new normal. But which dating patterns will hang around once this is over? “Those who are observing social distancing recommendations will likely be slow to jump back to normal, though it’s hard to even say how the new normal will look,” says Melancon. “Even if we’re told it’s safe, at least some will hang back and continue isolating out of fear.” 

Samantha, 27, is one of those people. “I’m used to meeting up with [those who] I’ve talked to for under a week and have even slept with people on the first meetup, but I don’t know if I’d do that anymore,” she says. “I feel like before, worst case, you weren’t careful with condoms. Now, do we not hug when we meet out of fear the other person is asymptomatic with COVID? Do we even meet in a crowded bar where others may also be carriers?”

Although Lee isn’t sure where we’ll find ourselves on the other side of the pandemic, he’s curious to see how two groups will react. “You have a ton of people reaching out to old connections that obviously ended for a reason, and you’ve got people who generally are only looking for hookups now following a more ‘traditional’ dating course and getting to know people first,” he says. 

Whatever becomes our new normal, I hope we get to see it sooner rather than later.