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How vaccinations are changing dating, hookup culture and ‘safe’ sex

Young, fun and full of Pfizer, i-D talks to vaccinated 20-somethings about what their sex lives look like after a 12-month dry spell.

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
17 March 2021, 11:05am

Photo via Instagram

Even speaking over Zoom, Rachel* still lowered her voice to a conspiratorial level. “I’m getting the vaccine on Tuesday,” she whispered. “Finally I can just do what I want.” Neither a healthcare worker, nor among those at high-risk of Covid-19 (the criteria to receive the vaccine in the US, currently), Rachel is one of many determined to be vaccinated for personal reasons: she’s 20-something and recently single. What Rachel wants is to date — specifically, she wants to have sex — and she’s not the only one hoping the vaccine may widen her hookup horizons.  

Although, Rachel is one of the luckier ones. The climate in her native California has allowed for year-round outdoor meet-ups, even as LA’s lockdown restrictions have fluctuated in severity. Three thousand miles away in New York, things have been a little more grim: not only does leaving one’s borough require public transport or endless Ubers, but a decade’s worth of snow in one winter practically derailed Covid-friendly dates. While many young people will have found hookup buddies and romantic relationships within their pandemic comfort zone, those who've done things by the book (read: adhered to CDC guidelines) have gone an entire year with little to no intimacy. “I just want the vaccine so I can finally be slutty,” Beth*, a 26-year-old Brooklyn-based journalist tells i-D.

Who would’ve guessed that — after a year of cabin fever and separation from our close family and friends — our pursuit of normalcy would be almost entirely rooted in sex? Apparently the CDC, who just last week released their new set of social guidelines for those vaccinated. They allow for maskless indoor gatherings among fully-vaccinated people, and even with those unvaccinated, if everyone involved is at low-risk for severe disease. The new guidelines also clarify that if you’re vaccinated and come into contact with someone who’s tested positive for coronavirus, there’s no need to quarantine if you’re symptom-less. “CDC announced I can finally get railed again,” one elated Twitter user responded

This isn’t the first time over the last year the government has inadvertently invited themselves between our sheets. You’ll remember the New York state hookup recommendations, advocating for masturbation, sexting and — last resort — masked sex (hot and sanitary!). They weren’t alone in trying to alleviate the loneliness, or tension, among the self-isolated. You might also recall Pornhub’s worldwide offer of free premium and the cam girl boom. Tinder, Bumble and OKCupid usage surged. And even Lily Allen released a vibrator

“In the back of my mind, I know I’m not only putting myself at risk, but my roommates.”

But it was never going to be enough, not really. Unfortunately, there’s no replacing the rush of real-time affection, and after 12 months, even the most Covid-conscientious have become desperate to scratch that itch. Now, when scrolling through Grindr in a major metropolitan area like New York, the typical titles of sexually available men — “twink,” “daddy,” “looking now” — have been replaced with just one word: “vaccinated”.

After breaking up with his boyfriend in early quarantine, 25-year-old Will Lanthier began perusing potential partners online. The attitudes of men on dating apps in Brooklyn, he says, were divided. Some just looked to chat, while others seemed to pretend the world wasn’t on pause at all — advocating for in-person meet-ups. Will himself fell somewhere in between. When he did eventually heed hookup culture’s call, Will was wracked with post-coitus guilt over his flagrant irresponsibility. 

“In the back of my mind, I know I’m not only putting myself at risk, but my roommates,” Will says, adding that each of his three roommates in his Bushwick apartment have a different approach to dating during the pandemic. “It feels like my dating life is in the same limbo it’s been since the start of social distancing.”

In February, a tweet alerted all “NY fatties” that anyone with a BMI over 30 qualified to receive the vaccine in New York. It concluded with a link to sign up, and the promise that vaccines were “aplenty”. Will has always had a “complicated” relationship with his body and though he qualified for the vaccine, he was left with mixed emotions. As a person with no existing health conditions, did he really deserve it? Furthermore, did this mean he was too overweight? Simultaneously, a series of vaccine-policing posts appeared on his social media feeds, disparaging those who’d been vaccinated without fitting the ‘traditional’ mold of eligibility. 

“We’re all desperate to go to the club with our friends, meet new people, make connections, kiss, hookup, date,” Will says of the vaccine watchdogs online. “At the end of the day, I thought if I could benefit off of what our country determines as a qualification to get the vaccine, I had to run with it. If my thick thighs were ever going to save me, I pick now!”

For Jacob*, a retail buyer in Brooklyn, the vaccine was also a matter of being in the right place at the right time — that place being, well, online. Eligible as a public service worker, he would periodically refresh vaccine sites throughout the day and ended up getting lucky later in the evening. A straight, cis, single man, Jacob says his dating approach hasn’t so much evolved as been stunted over the last year. Moving to New York only six months before the pandemic, he never really had the chance to “hit the field,” and he became increasingly dissatisfied with online dating.

After months of virtual chatting, Jacob all but gave up on attempting to find a connection from inside his four walls. Picking up his phone to solid slabs of grey text, he often just wanted to put it back down. That said, he’s hopeful vaccinations will offer new social horizons. His circle of friends consists of other single, vaccinated and romantically dissatisfied Brooklynites, and though he says their newfound immunity has left them hopeful — that hope is not necessarily “rooted in dating”. Primarily, they just want to reconvene in public, platonically or otherwise. 

“One thing I think we also need to realise and respect in others is that this has been an emotionally difficult time for all,” Jacob says, though he’s eager to start dating once he’s fully vaccinated. “I am looking forward to being able to meet people in real life as opposed to digitally.”

Half-vaccinated couples are also contending with a new set of social expectations. Research coordinator and DJ Blake Song, has received both vaccinations, while his partner, Bailey Kinsolving, a marketing specialist, is yet to have her first. As a result, the LA-based couple are still taking precautions to avoid spreading the virus, even as that becomes increasingly difficult. Recently, they had to make several trips to Bailey’s Northern California hometown to visit her sick grandfather. Several weeks ago, they attended his funeral among various members of Bailey’s family. Even after Blake had been vaccinated, both got tested prior.

“The pandemic is not over, and we are very aware of that,” Bailey says. “We are inherently cautious people, so we are doing our part to be responsible in the decisions we make and the people we see.”

Freelance writer/journalist, Brianna Holt, suffers from asthma, and thus will receive her second dose of the vaccine in New York this month. Her boyfriend, Oskar ‘Oski’ Rozenberg, is a professional skater who frequently travels for work. Oski has no underlying health conditions, but expects he might be vaccinated come July per Olympic committee requirements. The pair have been dating since October 2019, and split their time between New York and California. 

“We’ve become conditioned to caution, and that’s difficult to unlearn.”

Prior to Brianna’s vaccination, the pair found a kind of compromise in the fact that Oski’s inherently more social profession is entirely outdoors, whereas Brianna usually completes her work solo, indoors. Nonetheless, Oski still wears masks while interacting with film crews or other skaters, knowing that — until now — Brianna might be seriously at risk were she to contract the virus. “Being vaccinated has definitely made me feel safer about social interactions, but also has made Oskar and I feel safer around each other,” she says.

Now, Brianna worries about the collective “frustration” felt by those non-vaccinated. Many are chomping at the bit to connect with friends and family in-person, she says, but the risk hasn’t changed. “Just because there are less people in the ICU or on ventilators, doesn't mean a multitude of super-spreader events could not cause another Covid surge.”

Last summer, Blake and Bailey set an August 2021 date for their wedding. It could be perfect timing considering Biden’s ambitious vaccine roll-out, but they’re prepared to compromise if things don’t go as planned. No doubt each guest will be required to present negative Covid tests — regardless of whether or not they’ve been vaccinated — as an extra safety measure. We’ve become conditioned to caution, and that’s difficult to unlearn. 

“I think we both are on the same page [with regards to the pandemic],” adds Blake. “Of course we'd love things to go back to ‘normal’ right now, but it's patience that will help us emerge from this in due time.”

“Patience” will remain a running theme for those still navigating pandemic-stricken cities. Truly ‘safe’ sex, or anything in close quarters, still feels foreign. It will take unlearning all our newfound habits, carefully refined over the past year spent stripped of all the fundamentals of a fulfilling social existence. We can all talk a big game in regards to our sex lives and party calendars this summer, but it’s Blake and Bailey’s approach that likely best reflects society’s sentiments at large: just because we finally can get back out there, will we?

Well, if there’s a will, there’s a way. “Would it make me feel better meeting up with someone else who has received the shot once I have myself? Sure,” Will Lanthier says. “As long as they’re nice and cute — I’m open!”

*Name has been changed.

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