The New Rules of Dating, According to a Certified Sex Therapist

Welcome to the Horniest Summer in American History. In the throes of an era marked by state-sanctioned isolation, it follows that we’ve found ourselves deprived of any number of our standard modes of intimacy. We hear the word “unprecedented” thrice daily. Everything is both sexy and unsexy. Intimate and socially distant. For lack of a better word: complicated. We’re writing and rewriting our new “best practices” around sex and dating at large.

For some, love in the time of COVID-19 is a bit like having been proverbially sent to your room, and in turn, denied the pleasures of sex and dating on the whole. For others, it’s quite the opposite: An all-in, bar-nothing edition of partnership (in which you and your significant other spend every waking moment living, working, eating, and sleeping within the same very expensive walk-in closet — I mean, apartment). If you’ve familiarized yourself with any of Andrew Cuomo’s art nuovo, you’re well-versed in the trope that is the Quarantine Breakup (see: the boyfriend cliff). In short, present tense romance is a strange beast.

So, in service of fixing in on some piece of the watery, illusive concept that is “intimacy” in the time of Corona, I reached out to Cyndi Darnell, a certified clinical sexologist, therapist, and couple’s counselor, about the scope of her job right now. Here’s your behind-the-Zoom-curtain peek at what it’s like to confront matters of sex and dating for a living, in the midst of both a global pandemic and a social revolution.

Are you seeing any common threads in the issues your clients have been raising throughout quarantine?

I actually don’t feel that most people are coming to me with issues that are born out of quarantine. Instead, I think people have a bit more time on their hands. They’re not rushing around quite like they were a few months ago. Essential workers aside, for the most part, my clients are either working less, working from home, or not working at all. They have some space to sit with their own thoughts, their own discomforts, their own anxieties. And for many of them, cohabitating with a significant other is bringing a number of shared issues to the surface.

Under normal circumstances, both parties get out of the house, go to work, socialize, go on vacations. Now none of that’s happening. There are no distractions. There’s nothing diluting their time together. And because there’s less space and more time, I think people are feeling like they really do have the opportunity to prioritize something like therapy.

Couples, even the happiest couples, need space.

I have a number of clients coming to me right now and saying, “I’m in a relationship that is, for whatever reason, not satisfying me. How might I be more satisfied?” Those existential questions are my specialty. I don’t take a diagnostic or illness-based approach to sex and relationship problems because, well, I just don’t think sex and relationship-based issues are illnesses. They’re part of life. They require some work and some questioning. And it’s only natural that, when you have more time on your hands, you’re inclined to start thinking: What does my relationship mean to me, and why? And that’s the nature of all existential inquiry: What is the point of all this?

One could say, well there is no point except what you make of it. It’s about agency. So people are sort of doing that now — reclaiming that agency, seeing a therapist, figuring out how to build out their relationships in the most satisfying ways possible, asking the important existential questions.

At the moment, couples are facing a lot of issues that were bubbling under the surface over the past few years, and are just now coming to the foreground. Not because the relationships are necessarily falling apart, but because they’ve gone from maybe spending fifteen hours a week with one another to 80-plus hours. And with plenty of good reason, that comes with complications.

I’m also seeing a rise in anxiety-related conditions. Surrounding sex, there are things like unreliable erections and trouble orgasming that manifest when anxiety levels are particularly high. And obviously, anxiety levels right now are very high. So a lot of what I’ve been discussing with my clients centers about strategies for getting space, strategies for communicating more effectively, strategies for checking in with your body, strategies for having the discussions that should have been had a couple of years ago about the details of your dynamic.

What are some strategies for getting space from your partner right now?

Generally, if you’re living in close quarters, I encourage couples to take turns going out for the day. If you can, take your laptop to the park and sit and work there. If there’s someone in your pod with a spared work space, try that for a day or so. If it feels financially plausible, consider renting an Airbnb close by and allowing yourselves some elongated time apart. Couples, even the happiest couples, need space.

Traditionally, we’re not trained to be able to say to our partners: “I need to go away from you because I can’t stand being around you all the time.” With good reason: this sounds off-putting. We’re so inclined to believe that if we need space from someone we love, it might say something negative about that love. The standard narrative is, “You’re my partner, we’re in love and we should spend every minute together that we can.” But frankly, for most people, that’s not how love works.

For many, navigating questions of space for the first time is challenging because it makes them question the relationship. But the relationship is not necessarily in trouble simply because you — and your partner — want to have time by yourself. It’s just a new skill that needs to be learned and in that way it’s much more of a social problem than a psychological one.

Have you encountered any Quarantine Breakups?

Honestly, I’m not seeing too many of these. That’s not to say they’re not happening. But likely, folks wouldn’t come talk to me if they’d already made up their minds to break up, anyway. A bartender is probably a better person to consult about that.

It’s a relatively unsexy time to be alive. Beyond the pandemic, we’re looking at a racial revolution, a political reckoning, the collapse of our economy. Do you think that’s having a significant effect on your clients’ sex lives?

Yes, definitely. I have many clients for whom the combination of COVID and the political and social climate has been really stifling sexually or romantically. But in these situations, the main thing to understand is that this form of processing is necessary and important. Whether or not it’s uncomfortable, we have to sit and feel these things.

The fact that you’re having strong emotional responses to this extraordinary time of social and political upheaval is not a weakness. It’s not a flaw in your character. It suggests that you have empathy and compassion and awareness. And for some people who it affects in deeper and more complicated ways — Black people in particular — of course these wounds are torn open. There’s trauma involved. And if they’re finding it difficult to cope, it’s not a sign of weakness or a sign that there’s anything wrong on an individual basis. This is really a time of reckoning at a social level, and while individuals will feel it and experience it differently there’s such a robust movement happening currently, and that change is inherently destabilizing. For everybody.

Is there anything to be done about that?

Generally, only during major wartimes have we seen this kind of instability. No, we’re not having a war right now — or at least not in the entirely traditional sense. But what we’re having is a social revolution. On the one hand, it’s an extraordinary thing to participate in, and on the other hand, it’s incredibly unsettling. So, in short, losing your mojo in the midst of all this doesn’t mean you’re a flawed person, or that you should try to dispel this emotional processing from your brain. It means that you’re reacting to your environment which, under the circumstances, is entirely reasonable. Even good and healthy. In time, the ‘mojo’ will come back.

At bottom, no matter who you are, it’s likely that you’re feeling less safe than usual right now. Your nervous system is taking a lashing. Even if whatever you’re confronting doesn’t affect you personally as an individual, it affects your community. It affects your loved ones. This will throw you off both mentally and physically. So, I encourage my clients to reflect on what matters to them, what their values are, what kind of people they want to be, and then scale out from there. What kind of person do you want to be in your community? What kind of community do you want to live in? What are your community values? Looking at these things from the broadest possible lens can help us think practically about solutions and coping mechanisms, but at the same time, it can help us distance ourselves from some of the more personal torment.

Are your clients still going on dates or hooking up with new partners right now?

The short answer is: Yes. Beginning and maintaining a relationship exclusively online is very difficult. So I do encourage folks, once they’ve gotten to know someone online, to interact in person — while of course being attentive to health protocols. The way we should be approaching these conversations is sort of similar to how we might approach STI tests. We should disclose the date of our most recent Covid test, and discuss the necessary steps we’re both taking in order to make it possible to meet in person without endangering ourselves or our loved ones. We need to use protection (masks) and meet under safe circumstances (outdoors).

That said, there are, of course, aspects of traditional dating that are simply off the table right now. There’s no way to attend a sex party safely. Even if you have COVID-19 antibodies, we don’t have enough research to know if you can catch the disease again or spread it around.

There’s no definitive quantity of porn that is necessarily unhealthy. It really depends on whether or not the person in question experiences their porn consumption as problematic.

Fortunately, having Zoom sex — or Facetime sex, or whatever platform your prefer — is a completely valid way of interacting until physical intercourse becomes more available. No, it’s not the entire solution to this problem (the problem being our inability to go out and pursue casual intercourse), but it’s certainly a method that people are encouraged to use without any sense of shame or awkwardness. Under the circumstances, it’s a blessing that we have these kinds of technology. It’s a gift.

While cohabitating, have your clients experienced any issues around masturbation or porn consumption?

A lot of folks worry about the porn they consume and the amount — and if they’re living with friends or partners, they’re now facing the impact of that in a new way.

That said, there’s no definitive quantity of porn that is necessarily unhealthy. It really depends on whether the person in question experiences their porn consumption as problematic. If they don’t, then odds are, no one’s being harmed and there’s no problem. There’s no culturally sanctioned “this much porn is acceptable in a day.” So, when clients are stressed about it and they come to me wanting to talk about it, my interest is in why they think it’s a problem rather than how much time they’re spending. If you feel your consumption is out of control, it’s good to consider what it is that’s making you think that. What about your consumption is distressing you? What effect is it having on your life? On your relationship? On your work?

Do you think this period will have long term effects on dating and sexuality, even after there’s a vaccine?

I suspect that our dating lives will look different for a long time. We won’t know anything about how this virus affects us in the long term, and we’re going to have to be cautious for a while for that reason. Say, you’ve had the first iteration of COVID, then it mutates. Next year, you might be susceptible again. There are so many floating questions. We have very few answers in the larger sense, which means we’ll need to operate with caution for the foreseeable future — even when there’s a vaccine.

What do you imagine the dating scene will look like in the short-term future?

For single people, dating is still happening, but it’s happening in a really different way. Something as casual and simple as a first date requires people to spend some time thinking about their values and what matters to them and what kind of relationship they want to have. These are questions we usually try to save until we’ve developed a comfortable rapport with someone. They’re not “first date” questions, per se.

It makes hooking up not impossible but more complicated, and it means limiting the number of partners we engage with.

If you’re living with older people — or other people at all — that will really affect your ability to run around and meet people and enjoy casual hook-ups. Sharing a home with someone makes you responsible for their health and wellbeing as well as your own. We’re learning a whole new way of navigating an interpersonal and social context.

While dating, we’re going to need to have much bigger conversations about our health protocols and our values before we even meet up in real life — which is an odd thing at the very outset of a relationship. It makes hooking up not impossible but more complicated, and it means limiting the number of partners we engage with (if we’ve been previously inclined to “shop around” as it were). For now, we’re going to have to choose one or two people who practice the same protocols as us, and who have the same health values as we do. So in that way, our dating scene right now is going to feel far more labored than a normal hook-up might. But it still exists.

Of course, there are generally a lot of negatives there. But do you think there are circumstances where this particular version of dating is actually beneficial for some?

In a way, it’s like going back to an old-fashioned way of doing things. From a health POV, you kind of have to “go steady” with single individuals, because you could really harm someone if you don’t.

That means, at the outset, there’s a prolonged period of chatting online, and going through the motions before committing to a real-life meet up. There’s a tacit understanding (which should also be discussed) that, if you’re making the choice to engage physically, there’s some longevity or exclusivity attached. For some people, that’s a good thing. It’s an easier way to approach dating if it feels scary. Things have to move slowly, and I do think some people are enjoying that shift.

I think others are really struggling with it, though. When you’ve had a smorgasburg of opportunities available to you, and then, all of a sudden, you have to choose, it’s limiting. If you’re hardwired sexually for adventures, and play, and group activities and that kind of stuff, this is going to be a really hard time for you. There’s no blanket solution. It sucks. There’s no other way you can slice that pie.

Graphic by Lorenza Centi.

Eliza Dumais

Eliza Dumais

Eliza Dumais covers food, fashion, lifestyle, and Justin Bieber in no particular order.

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