Toronto daters (and cruisers) tell us how they're navigating pandemic rules, confusion and shame to keep the flames of desire burning
You’re on the apps. You’ve amassed a handful of potential matches. One seems like they’d be a fun hookup, another seems genuinely into you and another just has an air of mystery that’s oh so titillating.
In so-called normal times you could entertain them all and schedule a weekend full of dates to test the waters.
Not anymore. Ever since COVID-19 gave rise to physical distancing in March, that admonishing voice in the back of your head tells you to think twice.
Maintaining a dating life can feel like a trivial desire compared with the deadly impacts of the pandemic, but intimacy, affection, sex and pleasure are basic emotional needs. Messiness arises when guilt, anxiety and moral panic come into play.
People have different risk thresholds and ethical standpoints, which has made dating uniquely complicated.
“I believe for most people sexual identity is a really important part of their identity,” says psychotherapist Bronwyn Singleton. “If we can’t find avenues to fulfill it, it can be very frustrating. It can also just make you feel disconnected from yourself.”
Some single people have sworn off dating during the pandemic, some are limiting their number of partners, some are trying to be socially responsible while maintaining a sex life. And of course, some are being a bit reckless.
Pointing fingers, policing the behaviour of others and determining who deserves leniency are ways that we grasp at feeling in control of our uncertain future.
“I talk with [my clients] about roommates and friendships a lot. This has been really difficult for people,” says Singleton, who works mostly with millennials and has noticed heightened dating-related anxiety and guilt. “If their values aren’t totally aligned, there’s a lot of judgment around COVID and what people are doing and a sort of one-upmanship: ‘You went to a bar.’ ‘Yeah, well, you went to visit your friends in BC!’ It’s not terribly helpful.”
When living in a city, dating is tangential to a social existence. Of course it can be about romance, but a lot of dating is related to creating a sense of self. Meeting and interacting with strangers is alluring and exploratory.
“There’s a critical self-reflection when you meet new people and you have this intimate moment,” says Jonathan Valelly from Fagdemic, an Instagram account aimed at harm reduction for queer men hooking up during the pandemic. “It’s also important to my mental health to be around other gay men and just other queer people, period.”
As Toronto enters a second lockdown and public health officials tell us to stay home and socialize only with people we live with, the question remains: Has COVID-19 cancelled casual dating?
The answer is not so simple.
Sex and dating during COVID-19 are public health issues. In the early months of isolation, government messaging focused on people doing their part to flatten the curve by sheltering in place. As the lockdown extended, it became murky what the social and dating expectations were for uncoupled people or people who live alone.
Mikiki, who is also part of Fagdemic, believes experiences in the queer community have not been part of public health conversations. “At the beginning, a lot of queer people were just drinking the Kool-Aid of ‘This is good behavior for fags, this is bad behaviour for fags.’ As time passed the subtleties and nuance and realization that harm reduction is a part of the conversation were brought in.”
Taking into consideration the sexual and drug habits of community members, Fagdemic created guidelines and suggestions for COVID-safe sex. They believe the propensity to shame or critique the actions of others throughout the pandemic doesn’t create constructive health solutions.
“It puts the moral onus on individuals, as opposed to public health organizations,” said Valelly.
Singleton stresses that people feel empty, confused and lonely, and that safe sex guidelines would go a long way in mitigating part of that lack. “I do think it can be done responsibly. We don’t have to be by ourselves all winter.”
She points to the guidelines the Dutch government released at the onset of their lockdown to help their citizens practice COVID-safe sex as a prime example of what other governments could have done.
In an Instagram post where she broke down the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment’s guidelines, she mentioned they “demonstrate a no-nonsense regard for sex as an adult need, respecting our nature as social and sexual beings.” The government also acknowledged that adhering to strict social distancing may not be possible and offered non-shaming and clear information for creating safe sexual environments.
Damien* thinks if the messaging he heard early on the pandemic was more like Amsterdam, he would have dealt with less personal guilt and shame.
“We live in North America, and I know that we’re a lot more puritanical than Europe but if I heard, ‘Find one fuck buddy and stick with them until things are under control,’ I might have made things a lot easier on myself.”
Getting messages for sex on Grindr made him feel like his mouth was gagged and his hands were tied behind his back – and not in the fun way. Damien lives alone and spent most of the first lockdown completely isolated, except for essential errand runs. He was craving sexual intimacy but didn’t know how to go about it without feeling guilt-ridden.
“I couldn’t even entertain the possibility. When I did have my first pandemic hookup, towards the end of June, I was really too freaked out to even do much. The guy that I was with was incredibly patient and understanding even though he didn’t really share the same fears I did. But, it wasn’t like this big release for me, because my own personal guilt was almost crushing it.”
The stakes feel higher for many single people on dating apps. Rather than entertaining dozens of people at once, users are streamlining matches into a chosen few. If meeting up is a risk, a person better be worth it.
Ghosting is predictably rampant. When you’ve never interacted in real life, there’s less pressure to extend the simple kindness of letting someone down easy. Singleton finds that her patients are noticeably more anxious about romantic rejection. It has a more acute sting now because of all the other stresses people are juggling. We have a lower tolerance for distress when the base elements of life, like health, shelter and work are potentially at risk.
Valelly brings up the cruising culture of gay men and how it’s been frowned upon by health agencies and society at large. He finds it ironic that its inherent anonymity now makes cruising COVID-safe.
“Going to a park or a washroom to meet someone you probably don’t know for an anonymous hookup has continued during this pandemic. But having sex outdoors, facing away from each other with no kissing, is probably your best bet these days.”
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For some people, the fear of going into another lockdown without a partner spurred them to find someone to shack up with long term. The first lockdown started in early spring when the grey bleakness of winter didn’t have to be reckoned with. Cuffing season happens every winter, but this year it was exacerbated by the possibility of a prolonged season of loneliness.
For dating app users like Anya*, extra time spent talking to people on Hinge, Tinder and Bumble before meeting up was an in-depth vetting process. NOW spoke to her before the second lockdown in Toronto and she was actively on the hunt for something long term.
“In online dating now, if you take it slow, there’s a real opportunity to develop an emotional and intellectual connection before physical connection,” said Singleton. “Some people have likened it to courtship way back in the day.”
Anya felt the impending doom of another lockdown in September and knew she didn’t want to be single for another period of isolation. Using all the apps and going on FaceTime dates as a form of preliminary research, she narrowed her list down to a couple of potentials. Emotional investment was necessary before the first IRL park date.
“I found myself ruling people out sooner than normal. Thinking: ‘You’re not worth meeting up in person because meeting up in person is a bigger deal than it was before.’”
COVID-19 has eviscerated any idea of casual dating for people in Toronto like Anya. She says even if she found herself in a friends with benefits situation, that would be the only sexual situation she would feel comfortable in, making it inherently monogamous.
People who prefer no strings and no commitments are finding themselves falling into pseudo-monogamous relationships during the pandemic.
Until August, Dallas* was seeing someone who clearly stated from the get-go they were not monogamous. “But neither of us were seeing anyone else and he said we should mention if that changed. But it was clear neither of us were going to go looking for something else.”
Currently, there is a constant checking in that needs to happen about the whereabouts, social activities and daily lives of anyone people are sleeping with that makes detachment difficult.
“There was a time where I said, ‘I don’t like that you went and hung out in this person’s house.’ And then he made a list of all the people I had been hanging out with. Why is it that in my mind, I can have leniency but then any leniency on my partner’s side makes me feel uncomfortable?”
Singleton has non-monogamous and poly clients that are mourning their atrophying social skills. For some, having to change and rethink practices around sex has been a hit to their identities.
“If people are not seeing people in their poly families or if they feel like they have to prioritize partners in a way that they’re uncomfortable with, or if they’re not getting access to forms of play that they find fulfilling, for some people that really hurts.”
Social disorientation is one of the enduring side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the longer it lasts the more disconnected many people feel.
Zoom fatigue is kicking everyone’s ass. We’re spending even more time staring at screens.
Texting back a friend or replying to a meme in the group chat has never felt like more of a chore. There’s something uncanny about only interacting through interfaces and social media platforms – the disconnect of talking to someone over FaceTime and seeing them but not being able to bounce off their energy, missing that indescribable momentum that exists between two people in sync.
For Damien, sexting has become boring – a “necessary evil” in April and May is now largely unfulfilling.
“If I’m sexting with somebody whether or not I know them, I get a third eye and I start looking at myself from a remove. I’m like, ‘Oh, this is boring, this doesn’t scratch the itch I need.’”
The dynamics around sexting can be a little different for straight people, since there isn’t exactly a Grindr equivalent. Julian’s* ideal lockdown situation would involve sexting with no commitment but he’s not sure how to approach that. He’s never exchanged nudes with someone he hasn’t already hooked up with.
“You already have that trust when you’ve seen someone naked. It’s weird when you’ve never even met someone to then start sending nudes. There’s no natural escalation from first date to sex to sexting.”
He’s in the camp of people who don’t want to be shacked up with someone just because it’s a lockdown, but he wants to be as responsible as possible.
People will keep having sex with people they don’t live with. That’s an inevitability. How we talk about casual sex during this perplexing period matters.
Valelly says that preaching for abstinence is not helpful. He points to research that abstinence-based campaigns don’t work to prevent the spread of HIV and only testing will reduce transmission. “I think the same is true here [with COVID-19]. There’s this emphasis on discipline and on the moral failing of a person who gives in to their basic need, which is human contact. And then, it’s like you failed the collective, you failed grandma, you failed yourself.”
Everyone has different socializing boundaries and different comfort zones with regard to the virus. Open dialogue rather than shame is the best way to keep people safe.
“If we come from a place of understanding around the fact that people are hooking up, and we’d rather people get COVID tested so we can stop the chain of transmission, that’s going to be a lot more effective than telling people to be ashamed of themselves.”
*Some names in this story have been changed for privacy reasons
NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.