In a pandemic, is responsible, casual sex possible?

By Kaitlin Clark
Jul 06, 2020 @ 2:37 pm
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Any way you slice it, summer will always be the sexiest season, with horniness typically peaking in July and August. But all of the reasons we love a summer fling — they’re fleeting, they’re fun, and they don’t require much thought — are exactly the reason why they’re dangerous for summer 2020. With touch now being taboo, the quintessential summer pastime is getting a complete transformation. 

As cities across the country expand reopening guidelines, following nearly four months of social separation and compulsory celibacy for unattached folks, are singles ready to mingle... or are we kissing casual sex goodbye for the long haul?

To help us navigate this extraordinarily uncharted territory, we asked dating and relationship experts to weigh in on what we can expect from hookup and dating culture this summer.

Is safe, casual sex possible this summer?

Many singles looking for the Danny to their Sandy are feeling doomed to have their summer days drift away into oh so lonely corona nights. Lexi, a 28-year old recruiter living in Seattle, has spent past summers maxing “sex bucket lists” — “Skinny dipping, outdoor sex, a raunchy weekend trip to the beach or a staycation. Nothing’s really been off-limits, until this year, where everything is off-limits. How am I going to have sex outside when I’m not really even supposed to be outside?”

Others are craving the intimacy and connection. “I like sex just as much as the next person, but I don't necessarily miss it,” says Eva, a 30-something-year-old publicist from Philadelphia. “What I miss is being held. Holding hands. That’s what I’m craving right now and discreetly looking for, rather than NSA sex. But, I’m not sure its actually a safer alternative.”

To be sure, the overwhelming message right is not to have casual sex right now. Local and national governments around the world are developing and distributing PSAs about how to have sex with yourself (looking at you, NYC) or straight-up forbidding it altogether (Hi, England!) via the thinly-veiled laws banning “indoor gatherings” of two or more people “engaging in any form of social interaction or activity.” 

Our country’s medical hero, Dr. Anthony Fauci, however, understands the need for sexy times, diplomatically reinforcing the ‘relative risk’ theory, a personal judgment call on the amount of risk a person is willing to take on. Because, let’s get real — we’re human, and as the socially-distanced days tick on, the idea of continuing this imposed abstinence for another few months feels unreasonable.

If you do choose to carefully sleep with someone new, there are a few precautions you can take to make the experience safer for you and your partner.

“Casual sex tends to be a function of ‘I’m meeting this person and I know nothing about them and I’m not intending to know anything about them’ — which has always had inherent risk,” says Jarrod Bogue, M.D., who has spent the last few months on the front lines, manning the COVID ICU at Manhattan's New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Obviously, this risk is amplified this summer, but that’s not to say casual sex is out. I think casual sex without any communication is out.”

It’s not the sexiest conversation you’ll ever have, but, according to Dr. Bogue, proceeding with an abundance of caution is the only safe option here. After all, despite the re-openings nationwide, the reality is that we still have a pandemic on our hands, as evidenced by the recent spike in cases in states like Arizona and Florida.

Before getting busy, he recommends asking a prospective partner questions like: Have you had an antibody test? Has anyone in your day-to-day life had coronavirus? Are we going to wear masks? (Yes, people are doing it!) How many other partners are you active with right now?

“In order to have casual sex in a responsible way, which is a paradox anyway, you need that information to make an informed decision,” says Bogue.

2020's re-imagined summer fling will require more attention and care.

Searching for just one exclusive hook-up buddy might be summer 2020’s reimagined summer fling, even if monogamy and exclusivity are the anti-fling. "Situationships" with just one new person are certainly safer right now, and there’s evidence that people are moving towards monogamy in the wake of COVID anyway.

“I’m not going another three months without sex,” declares Julie, a 34-year-old chef. “I’m just not. So, if it’s between rushing into an exclusive FWB situation, which is the safest option, or nothing, my bags are packed.”

Plus, there's the fact that calling, texting, Zooming, stooping (if you live in a city), and all the other creative ways we’ve been keeping in touch, require planning and effort, leaving less time — and mental energy — to play the dating numbers game.

Digital dating also requires a whole new level of investment. “It's mentally and physically draining to be on a Zoom or FaceTime date, because you have to focus in a different way than you would if you were in person,” says April Beyer, dating expert and CEO + Founder of Level Connections. In the absence of an environment buzzing with activity (such as a bar), as well as the softball conversation starters it provides, online dating has “really stripped everybody of what they normally lean on to date,” she adds. 

This can be a good thing. By putting away your partner checklist and going deeper on the important things (versus bouncing around topics like a frog on a lily pad), you'll find out all you need to know about your date's character in a more organic way, Beyer says. 

Plus, there's the fact that meeting up in person this summer requires a whole new level of trust. “I think people are going to find a deeper, more meaningful, thoughtful way to date because they’re not going to have the time or energy to devote to several prospects to establish the level of trust needed to meet in person right now,” Beyer adds, who notes that super-speed swiping even during “normal” times usually leads to disenchantment and dating burnout.

Coronavirus has fundamentally changed our needs and priorities.

The only wild aspect of finding your sexy fling this summer is how wildly different it will be from the fast and furious hookups of summers past. Adopting a slow and deliberate approach to finding a fling is quite literally the opposite of a passion-filled, hit-it-and-quit-it, Memorial Day to Labor Day romance. But as far as safe options go, you may not have much choice — and surprisingly, most millennials aren’t mad about it.

“Singles are investing more energy in connecting in other ways beyond touch and sex, like intellectually, emotionally, and existentially,” says sex therapist Sari Cooper, founder of the Center for Love and Sex NYC. “Many clients have expressed the enjoyment of slowing down their lifestyle and having more time to be fully present.”

This is to be expected given the global pandemic we're all facing, dating experts say. “Anytime there's a crisis in our world, the dating and matchmaking space spikes, similar to what we’ve been seeing with dating app usage recently," Beyer says. "Clients are calling us saying, ‘I want to know if something like this happens again that I have a partner, someone I can be in the foxhole with.’ This globally shared experience has really changed people, and the hookup is no longer an appealing notion.”

Beyer believes the barrier to casual hookups skews more emotional and mental than physical, citing the instant 180 she saw in her matchmaking business in the wake of 9/11. “That was our busiest month and our busiest year," she says. “People changed their dating habits immediately; they started getting a little bit more serious, more focused,” she says. 

Right now, another shift is undoubtedly underway. “Never before have singles had an opportunity to connect in such a deep way because globally, everybody is going through the same thing at the same time,” adds Beyer.

This journey to connected bliss may look a little clumsy in the era of corona — but that's OK. When striking up a new flirtation, go through the door of emotional chemistry and care, recommends Beyer. Start off by acknowledging the elephant in the room with a simple, ‘How have you been in all this?’ before going into ‘why’ or ‘how’ follow-up questions.

“To feel sexual, we have to have that grounding of safety,” explains Beyer. “Most women are seeking comfort over sex every single second of the day right now.”

But before jumping in, ask yourself what you’re really looking for.

We can all agree that the past few months have rocked us all to our core. As we begin to consider what life after peak pandemic will look like for our romances, it may be helpful to take a beat, reflecting on your relationship patterns before jumping back into the face-to-face dating scene.

“I think one opportunity here is to use this forced pause from in-person dating and examine your dating history,” says NYC-based psychotherapist Matt Lundquist and founder of Tribeca Therapy. “That could start with asking questions like: Who do I tend to date? Who do I tend to attract? Who do I tend to unconsciously push away? What are the ways that I'm organizing my daily life that might be unconsciously or otherwise leading me down a bad path that then reinforces negative feelings?”

Casual sex is great, flings are great, and love is great — there’s no wrong answer here. As long as you’re not settling for a midnight dalliance when what you really want is commitment, or monogamy when you were meant to be freely poly. You get the gist.