“My sex life was unfettered from the complications of the lockdown.”
~ July, 2021 ~ Not everyone’s comfortable talking about their sex life, but knowing what goes on in other people’s bedrooms can help us all feel more inspired, curious, and validated in our own experiences. In HG’s monthly column Sex IRL, we’ll talk to real people about their sexual adventures and get as frank as possible.
When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic slowed the world down to a standstill, life was chaotic and frightening in its uncertainty. Yet over time, certain instructions became consistent and clear mainstays to remain safe: Mask up, keep a six-feet distance away from others, wash your hands, and most importantly, stay home. It’s straightforward advice to prevent getting and spreading the virus to others but it was tough news for people to stomach who wanted connection, especially singles looking for variety and romance. The World Health Organization (WHO), the CDC, and other studies offered dry but medically sound alternatives to safe sex by preaching abstinence—but sex toys and solo masturbation can only get you so far.
Now, as the weather heats up and the face masks come off, we are entering a world full of horny, sexually pent-up singles who may be making up for lost time. This summer is going to be a banger—literally. But dating isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. It’s not only about looking for a spark with the right person anymore or potentially just worrying about catching STIs—now we have to potentially contend with a myriad of factors like their vaccination status, the groups they hang out with, and if their risk management behavior matches up with our own tolerance level.
I spoke to singles for their firsthand accounts about how they’re navigating sex and relationships as they hook up—or inversely—if they’re still treading lightly as they cautiously dip their toe back into the dating pool again. They share if and how they’re resuming their sex lives in a way that’s consensually safe for both partners, the ways they’re considering COVID-19 as they break their bubbles and meet new people, and how their relationship to casual sex or serious commitments has changed after the health crisis. Here’s a peek into how they’re currently navigating their #hotvaxsummer.
“Vaccination status isn’t a big deal to me. If the conversation comes up that’s fine, if not then it’s okay.”
“I was married for 13 years and I have never had casual sex before. I went on my first date [right] before the world shut down in March 2020. I work with the public so I really had no choice but to come to work. I guess the only safety measures I took was not to be around my grandparents as much as I normally was prior to COVID. I met a guy on a dating app. He was in my local area for work and we tried meeting up prior to him leaving, but it just didn’t work. Then I was introduced to this vibrator that can be used via BlueTooth. Someone else can control it, either in the same room or across the world.
“[The guy and I] were talking about sex and relationships. I’m not one to go outside of my comfort zone but I took a leap of faith. Something in my gut trusted him. He had never heard of [the vibrator] before but he was intrigued. So he downloaded the app and we ‘played’ as we would call it. He would make what they are called ‘patterns.’ Send pictures back and forth, talk dirty… then I’d go masturbate and record myself (voice only) and send it to him. I’ve used it a dozen times with him so far. This is all-new [for me], but it’s hot. We’ve kept in touch and he might be coming back into town for work again. I may try and meet up unless I meet someone between now and then.
“Vaccination status isn’t a big deal to me. If the conversation comes up that’s fine, if not then it’s okay. I am not one to judge if someone gets vaccinated or not. We talk about being clean as I’m balancing casual sex and being safe.
I’ve gone this long without catching anything and I’d like to keep it that way. The lack of communication in this dating era is terrible. Since COVID, I’ve gone on several dates and met five guys during the pandemic but they won’t pull the trigger to move forward physically. I mean, who doesn’t want no-strings-attached sex? I didn’t think it would be this difficult. To keep it simple, I want someone to do life with. But for the time being, hooking up is fine or keeping it a friends-with-benefit situation.”
— Emma, woman, 37, Oregon, USA
“I actually feel safe enough right now to date. My only concern is other people.”
“Unfortunately, I haven’t really met anybody new since COVID started. ‘Dry’ would be a bit of an understatement. I’ve had some opportunities in the past for something casual, but I’m not interested in getting sexually involved with someone with whom I don’t feel a connection with. Nothing has changed there. I try to put myself out there a bit, but I don’t get matches on dating apps and it’s been tricky in real life. I like to sit around at a Starbucks or somewhere similar to read or do some work on the off chance that I see someone who strikes my fancy and work up the nerve to try chatting them up. These sorts of places don’t seem to be too hot right now though, and people seem much more guarded with strangers than before. Imagine trying to talk to a girl and she leans away from you—oof. This has definitely not been the best social environment to meet new people.
“I actually feel safe enough right now to date. My only concern is other people. I personally don’t have much exposure to at-risk friends or relatives, but others might. I don’t want to make assumptions about their boundaries, and that still makes interactions awkward, even though I’m not worried about COVID. I’m interested in a relationship, but definitely not hooking up. This hasn’t changed at all, but COVID has made me feel a little hopeless since I’m getting older and any opportunities I may have had don’t exist anymore. I’ve been touch starved and craving connection for a long time, but the fact that COVID has made my wants seem even more out of reach has been getting to me. I wish people were more willing to meet strangers. I’m a transplant in my city and don’t have much of a social network to fall back on, so talking to strangers was my only option to meet dating prospects. This doesn’t work anymore, and it really sucks.”
— Anonymous, man, 26, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania
“There’s no ‘hot girl summer’ for me. At least until the health crisis gets under control. Meaning the healthcare system has a handle on it, the mask mandate is completely lifted and there are no longer any question marks about coronavirus. I think I’m one of the very few people in my circle still viewing the pandemic as intensely as I am. I got my vaccine as soon as I could schedule an appointment in New York but I didn’t jump back into regular life. I haven’t stopped sanitizing my groceries or being extra careful about meeting up with friends in outdoor dining settings, never indoors if I can help it. I only feel safe hanging out with people who are also taking a relaxed, slow approach to integrating back into society. I mean, New York barely opened up a few weeks ago. I think it’s because all of these new variants keep popping up and there’s a lot of conflicting information in the news. I get fairly debilitating, world-stopping anxiety so I have to stay in tip-top shape mentally and physically. Because of that, I’m pretty guarded which affects the way that I am dating.
“I’ve tried online dating but Zoom dates aren’t for me since it’s hard to tell chemistry. And to be honest, I’m not even thinking about a relationship right now. I’ve enjoyed staying home and not being busy. The pandemic exposed that I was dissatisfied with my corporate job and my ex-boyfriend. We broke up after sharing an apartment together during lockdown (turns out we aren’t a great couple when we aren’t distracting ourselves with friends and vacation) and my best friend and I are talking about starting a business together. I’m thinking about the things that bring me joy, which is going inwards by focusing on me. It’s exciting to think about what I want in a partner but I can be that for myself. Right now, the experience of slowing down is more meaningful to me than sexual exploration and hooking up this summer. I’m okay taking my time.” — L, woman, 33, New York, NY
“Sure, I made some mistakes when meeting new people but I went ahead and did it anyway.”
“I’m considered an outgoing extrovert meaning I need other people to keep my energy up. The fact that I couldn’t see people was really hard. Before COVID, my sex life was non-existent. I had been on a few dates but I wasn’t into the casual scene. I didn’t have any luck meeting people in real life so I was using apps. But then my grandparents died and I started using sex as a distraction. It felt like a second wave of puberty. It was complicated because for one, I was crazy horny because I realized how much I loved sex but two, it was wrapped up in all of this grief. I tried to be upfront with all of the casual encounters I was having. I would give them a little spiel that I had: I work in the service industry, I get tested pretty frequently for COVID, I also get regular STI testing. I wasn’t trying to be sneaky with people, I wanted to be upfront, respectful, and responsible. Anytime I felt a little sick or had any sinus issues, I would quarantine myself away but I never tested positive.
“Once I was seeing a guy in Florida. We had a lot of fun and really good sex, but he had the biggest wake-up call when his uncle was hospitalized with a severe case of COVID and his roommate became skittish. We didn’t wear masks hanging out outside but he wanted us to have sex with masks. He’s someone that I still have virtual stuff with but that was pretty funny.
I was considered reckless by others but in my head, there was no one in my immediate vicinity that I needed to take care of. I used this to justify my behavior. Sure, I made some mistakes when meeting new people but I went ahead and did it anyway. I’ll do anything once. I figured if I got COVID, I would take care of myself. I wanted to be more responsible but I was spiraling a lot at this time. 2020 was the worst. I wouldn’t tell close friends about what I was doing during the week because they would say that I wasn’t taking the health crisis seriously and there was a little bit of shame navigating all of that.
“Once I got a nanny job this February, I cut out the casual hooking up. I’m still very horny but I’m not looking for new hook-ups. I’m seeing three people now and that’s sustainable. It’s important to see how they’re like handling social distancing and if they’re vaccinated. During this time, I’ve learned that I am polyamorous, bisexual, and that I can settle down with someone in an open relationship. I also realized that I’m not as grown up as I thought because I was making silly mistakes when no one was looking. I feel completely different from who I was in December 2019 but I am so much more confident and humbled by the things that have happened.”
— Anonymous, woman, 25, Durham, North Carolina
“I would send him booty pictures or boob photos every once in a while since he’s a visual person.”
“I’ve been dating my boyfriend for a few years. Right now, we live in the same state but in different cities. Even though we are in a long-distance relationship, our sex life was always really active whenever we met up. We’ve never had a problem with intimacy but the pandemic definitely changed things. When COVID was crazy last March, we didn’t see each other for months. We stayed away for a while because we both still see our parents a lot and they’re older and at-risk. We wanted to be extra thoughtful since members of our family were likely to be immunocompromised.
“Despite that, I wanted to reconnect with him in person because he makes me feel safe. It was scary navigating the pandemic alone. Since we couldn’t meet up IRL, to keep ourselves sane, we kept in contact via texting, FaceTime, and Snapchat. I would send him booty pictures or boob photos every once in a while since he’s a visual person. We don’t really send nudes so it was about just staying connected or talking about having sex, which was thrilling. We would have virtual dates and do things like getting on Zoom to watch movies together.
After some time apart, we made the decision to get back together in person since we were being incredibly safe. We weren’t seeing anyone besides the people in our house and we just went out to get groceries. We had completely isolated ourselves from everyone.
Also, things were changing. There wasn’t a vaccine for so long but after getting vaccinated, we decided that it would be okay to get back to normal and do most things again. Now, things are better than ever! Our sex life has been great and it’s so good to be back together in person. I’ve noticed we appreciate our time together a lot more. We’re more intentional about our plans and time. We don’t take things for granted as we may have in the past.”
— Becca, woman, 25, Breckenridge, Colorado
“The pandemic has definitely made me more aware and cautious of who I am meeting and if it’s really necessary.”
“As a single gay male, my sex life was persistent and exhilarating before COVID. Sex was very fruitful and there was a constant change of men. I love to travel, hook up, experiment, and learn from different men and their cultures, which have made my sex life a pleasurable and entertaining experience. Since the pandemic, it’s definitely taken a toll.
I began to see fewer people. I tend to use dating apps like Grindr and I’ve definitely seen a decline inactiveness on these sorts of apps and people looking for partners for long-term and ongoing sex as opposed to casual hookups.
“The pandemic has definitely made me more aware and cautious of who I am meeting and if it’s really necessary. Apps like Grindr have made it necessary for people to show their STI/HIV statuses publicly on their profile which is a great way to be upfront and honest. It’s strange when discussing hooking up, I find people tend to avoid questions around COVID. It’s a serious issue that everyone knows about but nobody wants to face it.
“It’s been a lot easier to find men [though] because you only see half their faces while they’re wearing a mask, so I’m generally not as picky. Since the pandemic, I’ve definitely veered more towards the idea of a long-term relationship as opposed to casual dating. I can’t wait for restrictions to be fully lifted to get back out there. I got lonely experiencing the lockdown and not being able to see friends, attend events, or socialize. I wasn’t able to fulfill any short-term needs by hooking up. It put me in a position where I felt vulnerable and longed to find something more sustainable and meaningful.”
— Chad, man, mid-20s, London, England
“I knew people who were hosting orgies, underground warehouse parties, or hosting secret events.”
“People might hate me for saying this, which is why I’m staying anon, but things were pretty normal for me during COVID. I was holed away in my apartment for a few weeks when the restrictions first happened in New York but I went stir-crazy and knew I had to get out at all costs. I have some family with serious illnesses so I wasn’t ignorant. I knew it was a big deal but I couldn’t stand being by myself.
“Staying at home for an extended period of time was not an option for me. Before the lockdown took place, a few of my friends and I took off upstate and rented a cabin. Then we went to Tulum for some festivals for some time and traveled around a bit after that. I went back to New York when things began to improve. But even then, I knew people who were hosting orgies, underground warehouse parties, or hosting secret events. I had this YOLO attitude. I don’t know why I had this strange surreal relationship with my mortality during the pandemic. Because I wasn’t really abiding by the rules and was engaging in 100% escapism, my sex life was unfettered from the complications of the lockdown. I wore a mask around people and at places but when I would have sex, it was anything goes. It was a mutual decision on both of our parts so I didn’t feel that unsafe. I got tested when I traveled to new places and whenever I felt unwell but that was the extent of it.
“I was hooking up with a few guys who were hanging out with people in my bubble so that was the way I took precautions. It was probably two to three men in each city. I was kinda scared about things in the world but I channeled that terror into new experiences and trying to make the best of things. Plus, having sex makes me feel alive and connected to myself. Because my life wasn’t that impacted, I didn’t have any realizations like some of my friends did. I’m still a bit of a commitment-phobe into casual sex and having fun. It’s crappy to admit I was one of those people who others were judging because I wasn’t staying safe by government guidelines but my mental health mattered more than my physical health. The risk of being depressed from being alone outweighed the need to stay safe in a standard manner.”
— Anonymous, Woman, 28, New York, NY
“Sex wasn’t on my mind as much because I sort of got all that out of my system early on.”
“When COVID hit, I had broken up with my boyfriend and gone through my casual sex/hook-up phase. However, with the exception of one person, I was only intimate with friends and people I knew and trusted. As far as contact tracing, I was lucky that they were people who were easy to account for. One was single, lived alone, worked remotely, and only went into the office twice a week. The other had kids. He didn’t venture into a bunch of random places or expose himself to random people. The other guy was single, lived alone, and also worked from home. The one guy who was ‘new’ to me was from before the pandemic—he was someone I did a work project with. He worked out of his art studio but that was the extent of him being outside of his home aside from running errands like grocery shopping.
“So, I felt comfortable staying connected to those individuals sexually because I knew their work and personal lifestyles didn’t change drastically. Out of all of the guys, I was most comfortable with the one I had known for years. We were in a position where our friendship ended up becoming sexual and we were okay being free to be intimate with other people. Plus, he lived in the next city over so he was very accessible. The others required driving and planning and I wasn’t trying to go far from home for the most part. After the pandemic, my number of partners dwindled down mainly because I was finally able to go back to work and threw myself into playing catch up.
“[When] the pandemic started to die down, I was not wanting to really be as social and became focused on my career. Sex wasn’t on my mind as much because I sort of got all that out of my system early on. But now I’m in a good comfort zone with my friend who lives close by. We try to see each other at least a few times a week to hook up and we also work together on projects so it’s definitely convenient for our situation. However, whenever someone new gets on my radar, I automatically take into account their lifestyle, who they live with/if they live alone, what they do for work, if they’re vaccinated and if they’re aware of where they go and who they’re around.
Because I’m vaccinated, that also helps me feel more comfortable as well. I know it’s not 100% foolproof but it does make me feel better knowing that if I’m at least vaxxed, that my bases are covered.”
— Vanessa, Woman, 38, California, USA
Interviews have been condensed and edited for length and/or clarity.