By Alexandra Jones
auren*, 28, from east London, had been single for almost four years before 2020. Until the pandemic, she found the relentlessness of modern dating exhausting. “I’ve had the best sex of my life in lockdown,” she confides with a coy smile.
The past year has changed so much about our lives, from the way we work to how we communicate. And according to some, a year of being driven underground has had a similarly transformative effect on our approach to casual sex. In the first half of 2020, despite the risks associated with Covid-19, and the various government-imposed lockdowns, the alternative dating app Feeld (which specialises in connecting people who’re interested in casual sex, polyamory, kink, swinging, and other alternative sexual preferences) saw an almost 50 per cent increase in new registrations.
Far from putting people off, the added risk had an aphrodisiac effect, argues 33-year-old Jess*. “Hook-ups became like an extreme sport,” she laughs. “People were getting something out of their system.” She’d been single for a year before the pandemic, and had been using Hinge and Bumble for about six months. After the first lockdown ended, she turned to Feeld to meet different kinds of partners. “I think in the past year it’s all become more polarised – people are either extremely cautious or extremely reckless. I’ve probably been both at different times in the past year.”
Since the 1980s, more than 1,000 peer-reviewed papers have been published investigating the psychological impact of being confronted with our own mortality. The majority of the findings amount to this: being reminded that we will one day die has a profound effect on everything from our views on religion (we believe more) and the environment (we care less), to our choice of whether to smoke (we’re more likely to take a binge-purge approach to vices). In fact, according to a 1997 study published in the journal Psychological Science, a 42.8 millisecond flash of the word “death” across a computer screen is enough to trigger behavioural changes in the people who see it.
The ever-present ping-ping-ping of death figures reminding her of her own mortality certainly galvanised Lauren. “I met an older man on a hook-up app. It was my first day on the app and he was pretty open about wanting something casual and explorative, which I found really liberating, if I’m honest.” They met twice for a daytime walk in a London park, and for their third meeting, he came to Lauren’s house. “We used sex toys together, which I’d never done with a partner before, and tried breath-play and bondage. I thought: ‘I might as well, because who knows what the future holds.’”
Jess expresses similar sentiments. “The people I’ve encountered on apps have been way more up for exploring kinks and less into the idea of commitment,” she says. Jess started dating again after the first lockdown, often meeting people in parks first, then going back to their homes. “One time I’d met a guy, we were getting down to it and he was like: ‘Can you put my Covid mask on?’ He wanted me to wear his Covid mask specifically, I don’t know why. I was like: ‘Really?’ and he was like: ‘Please, just put it on.’ When I did he got super turned-on.
“Another time a police officer I’d been on a date with came to my house for sex in the morning before his shift. He’d just come out of a long-term relationship and was pretty up-front about the fact that he wanted to try consensual choking. I agreed because it’s something I’d thought about trying too.”
Trust and consent have always been the supporting pillars of the kink and BDSM communities. “In hindsight, I probably should have saved my first domination experience for someone who wasn’t as new to it as I was. Or someone I knew better,” muses Jess. “I had a really fun time, but the fact that it was on a Tuesday morning in my living room made it kind of unsexy. At one point I had to stop everything to close the curtains in case anyone walked past the window.”
Inspired by the porn she’d been watching through lockdown, it was her first tentative step into the world of kink. “Porn and real life are obviously different, and I’ve always known that, but I went for three months in the first lockdown without touching a single other person. I started watching more porn, and then when restrictions eased it felt like: ‘Well, I’m just going to do it.’” Perhaps unsurprisingly, according to statistics released by PornHub, porn use increased by 12 per cent in the first month of lockdown – with pornography searches using the terms "coronavirus", "corona", and "covid" reaching more than 9.1 million. As the German researcher Nicola Döring pointed out in a paper published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour, the motifs of coronavirus porn borrow from existing fetishes and kinks (latex masks and gloves or clinic sex for example), and may well have served as a “first way in” for many people during lockdown.
Eleanor, 29, was drawn to BDSM after watching clips on Pornhub. “My first taste was definitely via porn, but my ex was never into it, so I guess I never got the chance to explore properly,” she says. She identifies as dominant, and during the pandemic has entered a number of power-play relationships. “It’s been weird, because usually you can go to things like Torture Garden to start your journey into this stuff, but I just sort of went on Feeld and said I’d like to meet submissive girls.” Though not all of the experiences lived up to her fantasies – “I found that there were a lot of women just ‘trying out’ lesbianism, which was annoying to me” – she does feel more in tune with her sexuality. “I would never have just thrown myself in if life had been normal,” she says. “After my break-up, I’d have probably started looking for a new girlfriend pretty quickly. But, you know, dating was out of the question, really.”
Holly*, 33, from south London, went so far as to rule out searching for a serious relationship altogether. “For most of the past year it wasn’t legal to meet up with strangers, and while I’ve been willing to break the rules for sex, it doesn’t feel right to start a relationship on that negative footing,” she says. She had been single for about 18 months when the pandemic hit. She paused her Hinge account (one of the more relationship-focused apps, whose slogan is “Designed to be deleted’) and instead used apps like Feeld and Pure. “You don’t even exchange names on Pure,” she says. She usually matched with people late at night and they’d come over. “Sometimes it would be a 15-minute conversation and then the person would get a taxi.” She argues that the rise in wilder hook-ups is thanks to a more practical truth about the pandemic. “So many people have broken up in the past year that dating apps are saturated with newly single people who’re keen to live out all their fantasies. For instance, I’ve definitely noticed more requests for group sex.”
Towards the end of last year she ended up in a “fuck-buddy situation” with a man who lived nearby. “He was newly single and still living with his ex-girlfriend. He’d come over to my house at 10 or 11 pm and we’d have sex until 4 am, then he’d get a taxi back.” Talking about their kinks and interests, he brought up the idea of BDSM. “He ended up sending me a PVC catsuit in the post. I was meant to wear it for him when he next came over. In the end it didn’t fit, so he got me some crotchless trousers instead.”
"So many people have broken up in the past year that dating apps are saturated with newly single people who’re keen to live out all their fantasies."
Holly now thinks that 2020 and the pandemic made it easier for her to be open about her sexual needs. “For much of the last year, it wasn’t possible to date – you couldn’t go to a bar, you couldn’t have dinner – so it was a bit like: ‘Let’s just call a spade a spade, we’re both here for one thing, we don’t need to be coy about it.’” For her, this has proven to be a necessary release. “Dating was hard before. It felt like I was constantly on the relationship-hunt treadmill, like the world was turning really fast and I wasn’t keeping up. In lockdown, everything slowed down. Finding ‘The One’ means dating properly, taking things slowly. So when dating wasn’t an option, it allowed me to think purely in terms of sex and kink. That was really liberating.”
Considerations about the safety of their actions rarely figure in the equations each woman makes going into a date or hook-up. Dr Eleanor Draeger, a London-based sexual health doctor and a representative of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, points out that in reality there is no risk-free way to have sex when it comes to Covid. “In an ideal world people would wait until they’ve been vaccinated and lockdown has been eased before meeting new people,” she says. “Someone may look perfectly healthy but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have Covid; current government data shows that up to one in three people who have Covid don’t have any symptoms.” And beyond personal risk, she argues that there is still a huge strain on the NHS which needs to ease before we can return to some semblance of normality. “Ultimately, more cases of Covid strain every part of the service. In my sexual health clinic, some of the staff have been redeployed to work with Covid patients, so we have fewer staff available to see sexual health patients. And that’s happening in all parts of the service. From an NHS perspective, and from a population perspective, it’d be really great if everyone stayed at home.”
Jess argues that thanks to dating apps, we’re used to meeting relative strangers online, and shouldering whatever risk that may bring. “Obviously Covid adds another layer of worry, but if going into the pandemic you were used to making those calculations about how risky it would be to meet a stranger, then it won’t be that hard to factor Covid in and convince yourself that it’ll all be OK.” In fact, many of the women we spoke to for this piece pointed out that the flood of new users hasn’t led to a host of new behaviours but rather amplified the behaviours we were already engaging in. “The seeds were sown before the pandemic,” says Jess, “with sexuality becoming less binary and things like polyamory becoming more accepted. With that added element of danger and death, I feel like people don’t want to put off experimentation. I think it’ll be another sexual revolution… the next few years are going to be wild.”
*Names have been changed.
Main image by: Vadim Cherenko
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