The past year has changed 35-year-old Georgie’s outlook on dating. Several disappointing socially distanced dates and limp text exchanges meant she stopped using dating apps at the beginning of 2021. And now her parents have been vaccinated, she feels confident about returning to physical dates, “but not to the apps”, she says. “As things open up, I’m going to lean into spontaneity; I’m going to say yes to every invitation and seize every opportunity. If I feel a connection with someone at a social gathering, a festival or even a bus stop, I’ll go and talk to them. I’m going to be way more carpe fucking diem about it.”
Liam, 25, lives in Manchester and has never had a serious relationship. He can’t wait to meet people in real life: “If I never have another conversation via Zoom or WhatsApp, I’d be very happy – especially within my love life.” He gave up on dating apps this year, and is looking forward to the return of proper flirtation. “Vibing with someone on an app or a screen is not the same as seeing someone across a room and feeling that excitement in your stomach. That’s what I need right now.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by 65-year-old Maggie. After receiving her first Covid vaccine at the end of February, she started spending more time on Hampstead Heath in London with her dog. “I don’t want to have to resort to internet dating, so I’ve just been walking a lot, trying to catch eyes with eligible-looking men,” she says. By the time of her second dose she hopes to have lined up at least three or four dates. “If this year has taught us anything, it’s that we absolutely must enjoy one another if we can. After everything, how could this not be a summer of love?”
The pandemic made me think seriously about my love life. I realised I’ll never meet someone if my sexuality is a secret
In April, as lockdown restrictions began to ease in the UK, the dating app Hinge – one of the fastest growing in the UK – released figures which showed that 85% of users were “open to going on a date as soon as lockdown lifts”. In the week leading up to 12 April, almost half of users had already arranged real-life dates for the moment we were legally allowed to meet outdoors. That month, the parent company of Durex announced a “double digit” increase in condom sales in countries including China, where lockdown restrictions had eased; at the end of May, Superdrug announced a 65% increase in the sale of condoms during the week that pubs and restaurants opened indoors, while Match Group, which owns dating apps including Tinder, predicted a year-on-year increase in revenue of more than 20% as a record number of would-be daters flooded the singles market.
But are we ready to date in-person again? To kiss strangers, to flirt, make eye contact, touch? After months of being told to keep our distance, are we ready to get up close and extremely personal – and do we even remember how?
Dan, 23, from Lincolnshire, came out as gay to friends last year. “But I still haven’t had the conversation with my parents.” The isolation of the past year is what convinced him to be honest about who he is. “The pandemic really drove home how much my friends and family mean to me, which made me think more seriously about my love life. I realised I’ll never meet someone if my sexuality is a secret. Being constantly confronted by death also really made me feel like I didn’t have time to waste.” Of the summer, he enthuses: “I’m so excited, I’m so nervous, I’m everything… I’m going to have a lot of sex.”
My own identity as a single person (I’ve been single for almost two years) has always been grounded – partly, at least – in the feelings of freedom and possibility that come from meeting new people. The casualness of those meetings didn’t diminish the joy or sense of purpose I derived from them. And shutting off this part of my life for the last 12 months has been uncomfortable; each lockdown seemed to remove a layer of optimism about the future.
I wonder, though, whether from this emotionally tenderised starting point it might not be easier to connect with others. We’ve all been through something, together. Might it make us more compassionate? Kindness has been missing from the dating landscape for a while – dating apps have long been accused of gamifying the search for love to the point where we treat others more like digital avatars than people with feelings.
Violet (left) and Calm, both 23, have been together two years; they met at a mutual friend’s party. Photograph: Rosaline Shahnavaz/The Guardian
“Ghosting has always been par for the course,” says Georgie. “But it felt particularly brutal during the pandemic because of the heightened feelings of loss, grief and isolation. A ghosting on top of everything else would give your self-esteem such a battering.” She is optimistic about the potential for reform this summer – for returning to a more honest way of connecting with others, away from any algorithm.
Dan has been thinking about rejection a lot since he came out. “If I’m honest, I’m nervous about the next phase. There’s a lot that I don’t understand about the gay world. There’s a whole language and ideology I haven’t been initiated into. I’m desperate to unleash this new self on to the world, but so worried that I’ll get it all wrong, or just freak out.”
In the post-lockdown world, the knowledge that touch has the potential to spread disease has prompted a spike in so-called re-entry anxiety, with many questioning how comfortable they’ll be when in close proximity to strangers. After a year of isolation, we will all have to become more fluent in the language of consent; more adept at signalling our boundaries and reading the signals from others.
Almaz Ohene, a writer and sexual health educator, has missed eye contact and the thrill of another’s physical presence. Despite that, as soon as she is able she will be leaving London for rural Ghana, for a few months at least. “I’m not sure that I’m 100% OK with having strangers in my physical space yet,” she says. “We’re just coming out of the worst bits of the pandemic and I don’t want someone grinding on me or casually placing their hand on the small of my back – all those old-school flirtatious moves – so I’m removing myself from the equation for a little while longer.”
Ohene says that during the period when many of us will be renegotiating our boundaries and personal space we should all get comfortable with “using our words”. Asking before touching should be a standard. “Saying something like, ‘I’d like to get a bit closer to you, do you mind?’” She suggests trying it with friends if it feels awkward: “‘I’d like to hug, let me know if you’re OK with that.’ The stakes are not very high; your friends are not going to reject you, even if they don’t want a hug. But in the club, it’s definitely about checking and being OK with receiving a ‘no’.”
Dating via apps and websites have, for years, cushioned many of us from rejection (after all, an unrequited swipe is much less confronting than a real-life “no thank you”) and allowed us to avoid the more negative emotions associated with approaching someone we’re attracted to in real life.
“I think as a society we’ve got bad at handling rejection,” says sex educator Ruby Rare. She understands how the impulse to get offline and approach people in a more traditional way will have built up for many people after such an atomised year. “It’ll be interesting to see how people handle these experiences, though. Discomfort and rejection are things you may face if you approach people in real life, but, framed correctly, even these can be good for your self-esteem.” She argues that we should approach people with no expectation that it’ll lead to anything further. “You need to be comfortable with the idea that you’re doing it for yourself; it takes courage to ask someone out, so whatever happens you can be proud that you did it.”
The enforced celibacy of the past year has prompted us to think carefully about what had been missing from our sex lives. Now, after a year or more alone, fantasies have crystallised into desires and, for many, this will be the first opportunity to explore the new facets of their sexual selves.
In London, sex parties have never been more popular. In July, Crossbreed, a queer, sex-positive rave, is hosting the launch event for its summer series (named the Summer of Love) at the nightclub Fabric. All 800 tickets sold out in under an hour. In September, Klub Verboten – a once members-only fetish party which now hosts events for non-members too – is hosting its fifth birthday party at a secret location. All 1,000 tickets are sold out.
Last year the alternative dating app Feeld (which specialises in connecting people who are interested in group sex and kink) released figures showing that during the pandemic their membership increased by 50%. In 2020, members were more interested than ever in a threesome experience, with almost 40% adding it to their “desires” list.
I’m desperate to meet new people, but even being physically close to someone will feel like a whole new experience
Laurence, 43, from Edinburgh, went through a breakup during the first lockdown (a common experience, with many couples finding the pressure of the pandemic overwhelming). Because of lockdown, the couple carried on living together for six months. “So there was no chance of getting back on the dating scene, even if it had been possible.” Since March, he’s been living alone. “I’m desperate to meet new people. I’ve wanted to explore BDSM for a while and now seems like the best opportunity. But I’m aware that even being physically close to a new person will feel like a whole new experience. In one respect I want to throw myself in and just do it, but in another I’m like: ‘How will this actually feel?’”
For those who are ready to explore a new aspect of their sexuality, Rare suggests making friends with people with similar interests as a first step. “With sex and dating, the emphasis is often on doing the actual thing,” she says. “But finding the community first, and making friends, can be a less nerve-racking way to start a journey of sexual exploration.”
This tactic worked particularly well for Alex Warren, the founder of Crossbreed. “A few years ago, I opened up my relationship with my ex-girlfriend. She went to an orgy and I was really jealous – not because I felt betrayed, but because I wanted to go to an orgy as well. So I just started Googling and found FetLife [a kink- and BDSM-focused social networking website]. I went to a social event and ended up making some amazing friends. I didn’t go to my first sex party until I’d been on the scene for a year or so. By that point I had this really supportive network.” Warren has been a DJ and music producer for more than 10 years and in 2019 decided to bring the two worlds together. “And that’s how Crossbreed came to be.”
As he explains: “It’s not really a sex party. It’s just a good rave with designated safe spaces for sex.” Demand has surpassed expectation. “People are desperate to connect, to express themselves physically, to have sex – it’s been a long year.”
For many single people, and in particular those who live alone, the past year has been both emotionally numbing and existentially destabilising. “Going months without touching another human being has definitely had an impact on me,” says Maggie, who has lived alone for more than 10 years but has felt more isolated during the pandemic than ever before. She finds herself reminiscing about the crackle of fresh sheets on her wedding night, the feel of a lover’s palm on her thigh. “I am surprised by how much I’ve missed intimacy and how vividly these intimate moments come back to me,” she says.
Jordan, 27, and Rosaline, 30, have been together four months; they met through a mutual friend. Self-portrait: Rosaline Shahnavaz/The Guardian. Jordan’s shirt: Nanushka. Rosaline’s shirt: Rejina Pyo. Masks: Hand & Lock
Undoubtedly, summer 2021 will be coloured by the pent-up frustrations of people who have been forced to keep their dating lives, and their sexual selves, on the proverbial shelf for a year or more. But can it really be compared to the original summer of love and the sexual revolution of the 60s, a moment that prompted a wholesale shift in attitudes towards sex and relationships?
There’s one key difference, says Dr Guy Stevenson, a specialist in the 1960s counterculture: the “nihilism of the internet”. He argues that our overexposure to sexual freedom online means there’s no chance of a period of innocent liberation. “Hasn’t the internet made everyone behave as if nothing’s new, particularly in relation to sex?” he says. Thanks to the pill, promiscuity was a new option in the 60s, “whereas now it’s old hat. And the potential to fulfil any sexual fantasy just by going online means we feel like we’ve seen and done it all already.” A year of isolation might have made us horny, but the 1960s hippy revolution, “was characterised by romanticism and a feeling of innocence”, he says. If we are in for a summer of love, he argues, it may well be one marked by cynicism.
Hera Cook, writer of The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex And Contraception: 1800-1975, agrees that there was an innocence to that period that society has since lost. “There was also free university and a more robust welfare state. And there wasn’t this feeling that the NHS was on the verge of collapse. Basically, attitudes to sex were coming out of a much more hopeful time. In the 60s, people believed things were going to get better and better. Nowadays, with the climate emergency, we all suspect things are going to get worse and worse.”
Instead, Cook likens our current situation to the interwar years. “Traditional gender roles were being broken down in that period,” she says. “There was suffrage for women, who’d been working during the first world war. There was a rejection of the heteronormative, masculine warrior ideal as men saw their older counterparts ravaged by the Great War. It was a much more scarred and cynical time, but compared with the 60s – when promiscuity was enabled, but couched in heteronormativity – it was arguably more exciting.
“One parallel I can see between now and the 60s is the discussion around consent,” continues Cook. “After the pill, a conversation emerged around men’s feelings of entitlement and women’s right to say no. And it seems to be as relevant today.”
Ohene and Rare agree, pointing out that the pandemic has given us all a lesson in consent as we negotiate things like our comfort levels with mask-wearing and distancing. “Before when we talked about consent,” says Rare, “we were always so fixated on sex. And, actually, sexual consent is just one area of our lives where we exercise it. As we’ve seen recently, consent happens all the time, it’s about communicating our feelings and boundaries – right down to how comfortable we are with physically meeting. It’s a dynamic, relational and ongoing conversation.”
This, for them, is where the most exciting and fruitful developments within sex and dating lie. “We have the opportunity to approach one another with a lot more compassion and from a more educated starting point,” says Rare. From here, she suggests, we can create a new and better love.
When I catch up with Maggie, she tells me she’s had her second jab and has got a date. “We’ve been set up by mutual friends though, we didn’t meet while dog walking.” Liam has had his first post-lockdown snog – “a walking date that went well”. Georgie’s social life is just getting going again, “and the last time I was in the pub people definitely had their eyes up, and off their phones, which feels promising”. She’s excited about real-world dating, “especially when gigs and festivals start again”.
As for me, over the pandemic I dated within the confines of what was legal and morally acceptable. There was a recently divorced dad of two who worked in the City of London. “I’m probably not ready for anything serious,” he said. “But let’s keep in touch, I can take you to Torture Garden [a sex and fetish party] when it’s back on.” There was a man who’d recently broken up with someone and moved back to London from Essex. It was the torpor of lockdown in a small town that had broken the relationship, he told me. He planned to replace sex with the gym, but then the gyms closed. “I’ve bought myself a Peloton,” he said, and we never spoke again.
I would like to believe that this summer we will take up the tenets of peace, love, unity and consent, and run with them. But I suspect if I fired up the apps again, it would be more of the same. Still, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are all better when we connect offline. Perhaps now is the right time to take romance out of the equation, put our devices down, hug the people we love, and bask in the glory of their physical presence. I’m excited about a summer of love, not a summer of lovers.
Photograph: Rosaline Shahnavaz/The Guardian. Styling: Peter Bevan. Hair and makeup: Neusa Neves at Terri Manduca using Kevyn Aucoin cosmetics, Glamour Lashes and Innersense Organic haircare. Photographer’s assistant: Jack Storer. Sophia’s shirt: Nanushka. Sean’s shirt: Ahluwalia from matchesfashion.com. Masks: Golden Hour
By Ruby Rare
If it’s been a while since you’ve felt sexy, think about how to create an environment that delights all of your senses. Remember, arousal involves the whole body, not just your genitals. I suggest starting with solo sex; masturbation is a great way to reconnect with your own pleasure before bringing another person’s into the mix.
We’re all out of practice when it comes to physical contact. Rather than trying to cover that up, embrace the clumsiness. Body fluids can end up in unexpected places; your teeth may mash together mid-kiss or you might drip sweat into your partner’s eye (true story). Celebrate this in its weird and wonderful glory.
Remember to smile. Sex is supposed to be fun, so expressing that through your face and body language makes sense. Try putting less emphasis on penetrative sex – especially if that’s not something you’ve done for a while. It’s exciting to see it as one option of many, rather than the default.
Embrace rejection. Don’t let the fear of it stop you approaching someone you fancy in a kind, respectful way. If you’re the person doing the rejecting, keep it short and sweet, and, remember, you don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why you’re saying no. And if you’re ever in a situation where you fear for your safety, get someone else’s attention as soon as possible and ask for support.
Keep your post-lockdown expectations realistic. This isn’t a race, and you don’t need to tick off everything on your sexy bucket list in the first few months. If you’re interested in trying something different, such as a threesome or a new kink, dating apps can be a great way to be upfront about what you want and find other people who are after the same thing.
There’s no ‘right’ way to do this; it’s about finding out what’s right for you and communicating that to those around you. Go at your own pace, and try to appreciate each step as you get back into dating and sex.
Ruby Rare is a sex educator and author of Sex Ed: A Guide For Adults