Sex & Love

How the Pandemic Ended Casual Sex

Women are not sacrificing their time — or health — for superficial pairings anymore

Smiling Black woman sitting on a terrace with her laptop, on a phone call.
Smiling Black woman sitting on a terrace with her laptop, on a phone call.
Photo: Peter Dressel/Getty Images

Ayesha Faines is ZORA’s newest relationships columnist. You’ll be hearing her musings on the intersection of love and power on a biweekly basis. This column is her debut.

“Before Covid, you could never get people to be open,” my college friend said one night over Zoom. “Men wanted to go to happy hours. They wanted to play rounds of ‘who do you know?’ Now, you’re actually getting to know each other.”

Judging by the looks of the women on my screen, we were all shocked, mainly because she lives in the heart of D.C., a city where single, college-educated women outnumber men 53 to 47 — a city where singleness is a way of life.

But on this particular night, the romantic report was anything but bleak.

As a statuesque, Black, über-educated, thirtysomething professional searching for “the one” in Chocolate City, my friend was practically starring in her own weird, apocalyptic rom-com — and loving every minute. The pandemic had replaced a blur of boozy brunches with scenic bike rides and masked strolls through the park.

Maybe we should have seen this coming, that like everything else dismantled in the wake of Covid-19, our half-hearted hookups might also go up in flames. Without bars and trendy restaurants, nightcaps are a bit harder to maneuver. Travel restrictions curb the fantasy of limitless options, and these days, sex comes with a whole new set of risks.

Social distancing is fundamentally changing how we date and mate, by imposing on our traditional means of encounter. But for women who want something with strings attached, the scales may finally be tipped in our favor.

Despite its sexually liberated promises, our casual sex culture still prioritizes men.

Before a killer germ drove us all indoors, we were trapped in a dating culture that revolved around casual sex and female disposability — a culture that tends to treat women a lot like paper plates.

We affectionately call these open-ended liaisons “hooking up,” but even the term itself is revealing. “Hook up” originates in the African American vernacular and means to give away something of value as a favor, as in “Derrick hooked me up with a free VIP pass.” Emphasis on free.

The truth is our dating culture helps men get the hookup — access to sex and emotional labor, all the while investing the bare minimum in time, energy, or resources. Despite its sexually liberated promises, our casual sex culture still prioritizes men.

To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of casual sex, because keeping it casual has its merits; relationships are time-consuming and present their own set of liabilities.

Rather, this is an indictment of the terms of sex, which in modern heterosexual flings are all too often dictated by men. We’re sexually liberated, yes, but we are still contending with double standards that make our sexual experiences unequal, sexism that centers male desire, and socialization that discourages women from centering their own.

All of this complicates the business of getting what we want — whether that’s a real orgasm or a real relationship.

When I asked one of my closest male friends if dating had changed, he told me casual sex was definitely more of a challenge to pull off. “Women are playing more home games now,” he shared. “They don’t have to conform to the standards men set.”

Spending time with anyone is a gamble, and fewer women are willing to roll the dice for a mediocre text exchange. These days it takes more than a subscription to a streaming service and a bottle of wine to get close. It takes patience. And a personality.

Weeks of phone calls and video dates can reveal compatibility and intention in a way that coy glances over cocktails cannot.

Of course, none of this means casual liaisons are anywhere near obsolete. Approximately a quarter of Americans ages 20 to 31 broke quarantine for sex during the month of April alone, when shelter-in-place orders were at their height. But judging by mask usage, we all know by now that disaster affects people in different ways.

Some of us are willing to risk it all, while others are only comfortable taking calculated risks, with people who seem worth it.

Someone asked my D.C. friend how she chose which men to meet in person.

“If he meets all of my qualifications, I agree to meet,” she answered without hesitation.

I can’t remember the last time I heard a woman refuse to even entertain someone who didn’t meet all of her qualifications, and as extreme as that sounds, I’ve long believed that for women, there is power in choice.

If dating is a silent negotiation that establishes the terms of sex, then, as in any negotiation, the party most willing to walk away has the most power. To be clear, women have always had this upper hand, but when you are raised on a diet of fairy tales and admonitions to “get chose,” it’s easy to act against your own self-interests.

We’re talking more and linking up less, and that arrangement has a way of shifting the focus from physical to emotional intimacy. Weeks of phone calls and video dates can reveal compatibility and intention in a way that coy glances over cocktails cannot. Sure, dating during a pandemic is infuriatingly inconvenient, but there are plenty of ways to meet new people online, and finally we have the time, and the breathing room, to be as deliberate and choosy as we please.

Disaster has a way of shifting our focus toward the things that matter most. Covid-19 stripped away much of the glittering accoutrements of the lives we knew, but it also gave us more time, something of which there never used to be quite enough.

For some of us, more time alone will amplify just how lonely being single can feel — and that’s the push, the urgency, some of us need to take inventory of what we want and seize this unique opportunity to establish a meaningful connection.

For others, the downtime is a chance to attend to our most important relationship: the one we have with ourselves. Given the inherent stress of staying alive in a pandemic, for now, that may be enough.

I’m a columnist for Zora 🍯, founder of Women Love Power, talking head & salsera 💃🏾! | IG & Twitter @ayeshakfaines.

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