When was the last time you went out on a date?
A mysterious dating survey began circulating among students at the Wharton School of Business last year. The Google Form started showing up in inboxes just as shelter-in-place orders were becoming increasingly common worldwide.
The title of the questionnaire, “Love Is Blind, Bschool Edition,” was inspired by a hit Netflix show. The show is about couples who talk in isolated pods. Some subsequently get engaged without ever setting eyes on each other.
The rules outlined in the survey form were simple. You first had to make a fake email address. You then told the creators the business school you attend, your sexual orientation, and your gender identification.
The creators randomized that information and set up a match, introducing a pair to each other for email correspondence. After a week, the administrators allowed texting and video chats.
Dating and Sex in the Midst of a Pandemic
Fast forward a year later and the world of dating is far from that which we all once knew. Coronavirus has completely upended the ground rules of dating in the digital age.
Match – the company behind online dating giant Tinder – has seen stocks tumble. The company has also had to balance public health with its mission statement. The firm is now rolling out a feature that lets users match with people outside their immediate geographical area.
“Tinder understands that our members are oftentimes meeting new people in-person, and, given the current environment, we wanted to remind them of the precautions they should take,” the company announced last year.
Whitney Wolfe Herd, the founder of dating app Bumble, was far more succinct in a public letter: “Please date virtually for now.”
Creepy Goes Mainstream!
Pre-coronavirus, texting someone to set up a date was fine. But calling a person, let alone video-chatting before that first date, verged on creepy. Now it’s perfectly acceptable.
Dawoon Kang, a co-founder of Coffee Meets Bagel, says her company now hosts virtual meetups for 10 to 15 members at a time. The meet-ups consist of a video call moderated by a company representative.
Jazz, a woman from London, has been on dating apps since 2014. She says video calls have made dating pleasantly less casual.
“I can now have first meets on video and build an emotional connection with a man over the physical,” she told MIT Technology Review recently. “Three weeks no-contact means you will be able to drop the fakes like flies and engage with the ones that are truly wanting to have something more.”
Jazz claims she hasn’t changed how she presents herself during the video calls. She wears loungewear lingerie and no makeup. “If they like you like this, then they’ll like you in any state,” she says.
But the changes go well beyond the rules and etiquette of dating. Quarantines and lockdowns are forcing people to figure out how to have sex without touching, too.
Sex Gadgets, Virtual Strip Clubs, and Zoom Sex Parties
Some 51 percent of people are masturbating more since the lockdowns began, according to a survey commissioned by the online sex toy boutique, Ella Paradis. Some 92 percent of adults have used sex toys since the outbreak, as well.
People are trying out the newest sex gadgets. They are visiting virtual-reality strip clubs, attending Zoom sex parties. Many are even scouring PornHub for very specific porn: homemade videos that fetishize coronavirus.
Polly Rodriguez, the founder of sex toy retailer Unbound Babes, says that when the coronavirus arrived, sex tech firms struggled. Many sex toys are made in China, which meant the supply chain was badly hit.
But demand remained robust. Unbound Babes scrambled to fill orders for vibrators just as health authorities reported the first cases of coronavirus in the US.
The company says demand soared 30 percent in the first week of March and then another 40 percent in the second week. “This is usually our slowest time of year,” says Rodriguez.
The demand for sex toys is increasing across China, too. Before the outbreak, the country was already the world’s biggest exporter of bedroom aids. Exports jumped by 50 percent year-on-year during the first half of 2020, says Chinese e-commerce giant AliExpress.
Now Chinese women are driving a surge in the domestic demand. “Quite a lot of women … who are sexually active, have a very open attitude toward using sex toys,” says Yi Heng, a prominent sex and relationships advice blogger. “They see it as very natural and normal.”
Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, also believes that some of the changes are permanent. The pandemic has “set the stage for the sex tech revolution we’ve been all anticipating to take place sooner than we thought,” he says.
The Kinsey Institute researcher attributes at least part of the new interest in sex technology to demographics and social distancing protocols.
“The percentage of people who are single is higher today than it’s ever been,” he says. “We have a lot more people who aren’t living with a partner or spouse than ever before.”
And it’s not only single people interested in sex toys these days. Lehmiller predicts that the coming months will see a lot more committed partners begin to experiment, as well. Of course many couples already enjoy the benefits and variety offered by sex toys.
“You’ll see an increase in remote-controlled sex toys where people can engage sexually with a partner through technology from a distance,” he says. “You can sexually engage without oral transmission.”
Not everyone will be able to take advantage, though. Those who are feeling the brunt of the global economic recession won’t be able to afford the new gadgets.
Vibrators and so-called teledildonics are still luxury goods. They can cost in the triple digits, and that makes them prohibitively expensive for many people. That’s why Step Tranovich of the sex tech startup Cute Little Fuckers says his company’s sales have been nosediving.
His customers, too, are facing uncertain times. “My clientele is largely transgender and queer,” he says. “They’re already marginalized and have a less stable income stream. Unfortunately, when big things happen, they are the first to get laid off and be financially disadvantaged.”
Still, Lehmiller says that current quarantine orders will lead to very different relationship rules well-after the contagion is gone.
“People are actually using this as an opportunity to get to know each other at a much deeper level than they were before,” he says. “And that has the potential to lead to much stronger relationships.”
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