So, this year has been a lot – and we’re only halfway through. When lockdown measures started rolling out in Australia in March, many of us had to rethink how we live our lives by finding ways to stay entertained, sane, and connected while being physically distant. One facet of life that this has had a huge impact on is online dating. To paraphrase a meme currently doing the rounds, dating in 2020 has quickly gone from sussing out if someone is into the same stuff as you, to figuring out if that someone has the wherewithal to see out a worldwide plague, an international antiracism movement, and the climate apocalypse with you.
While plenty of businesses have had to figure out how they shift their offering into the virtual realm – we hosted the Time In Awards to celebrate the phenomenon – there was already a plethora of platforms for meeting potential dates at our digital fingertips long before the current health crisis came along. However, the way people engage with these apps has changed. The era of Tinder ‘fuckbois’ gets more complicated when they need to court their targets for longer, with more weight placed on in-depth conversation when an IRL meetup isn’t going to be for a quick hookup. The conversation about who else someone might be seeing is far more important when there’s not only feelings and sexual health at stake, but a global health emergency to consider.
Photograph: Unsplash/Yogas Design
I couldn’t help but wonder…
…if these issues – and the sometimes hilarious, sometimes shocking stories that go along with them – have been coming up for the people in my life (and to be honest, myself), surely there are some wider trends at work? To find out, I sent out a Q&A to a handful of people who’ve been out there in the online dating world over the past few chaotic months, and contacted some of the biggest dating platforms, as well as the creator of a niche queer virtual dating event.
You might reasonably assume that at a time when physical contact with strangers can literally cause your death, that we’d be less inclined to chase romantic opportunities. But that’s not the case. According to Hinge, which brands itself as the dating app for people who want to get off dating apps, they saw a 30 per cent increase in messages among users this past March, compared to January and February. Hinge also says that almost half (44 per cent) of users have been on a video date during iso times, and of those users, more than half (52 per cent) said they were likely to continue incorporating video chat into their dating process even when they’re able to meet up safely in real life. Over at Bumble – an app which angles itself as the feminist alternative to Tinder, where women make the first move – they’ve seen things picking up as social restrictions have started to ease.
“We know that social distancing has drastically changed the way our users date,” said Lucille McCart, the associate director, APAC, PR and comms at Bumble. “In this current environment, users are talking for longer and having better quality chats, as evidenced by the 76 per cent increase in video calls on Bumble in Australia (during the week ending May 1, vs sent during the week ending March 13), and the 17 per cent increase in messages sent during that same time period. The average time for a video call on Bumble in Australia is 28 minutes, which shows that our users are using this feature to build truly meaningful connections.”
Video dating – a bold new frontier?
These stats are fairly consistent with the daters I spoke to, although their attitudes were polarising: about half of them gave video dates a crack, while the rest of them seemed utterly deterred by the very idea. According to Emily*, a straight woman: “You can’t sense someone’s vibe over a video. Also how do you end the date? It’s not like you can say you’ve got other plans.” Stefan, a straight man, simply put it: “That whole enterprise makes me cringe.”
According to Charlie, a gay man who attempted a couple of video dates without much success: “Sometimes virtual dates feel like an interview rather than a naturally flowing conversation… I think body language is just as important as verbal communication. There’s a whole other side to dating than just the verbal communication – and I’m not talking about the dirty stuff. Gestures, posture, etcetera, it all can help gauge a situation and see how it’s going.”
Virtual dates are “more of a young person thing” according to Glen, a 61-year-old straight divorcee whose dating platform of choice is Plenty of Fish. “I’ve had phone calls that may be considered a date, just talking about anything and everything, but it never occurred to me I could have a virtual date,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kris, a gender-fluid person who defines their sexual orientation as queer, has had a more positive experience: “It’s been fun being creative and trying to find new levels and definitions of intimacy. For me dating is so much about sharing experiences with someone, that’s how I form bonds. So many people in the creative arts sector are doing online festivals, film screenings and sharing recipes, it has given me the opportunity to share moments with someone without breaking social distancing rules. Video call dates have also been a great excuse to get dressed up and do a full face beat.”
Kris has also found that dating virtually allows them to explore intimacy more comfortably; physical distancing has actually revealed a preferred style of dating: “I feel safer behind a screen knowing that I can disengage or set boundaries without risks of safety or having to find a way home. It has allowed me to be more thoughtful throughout my dating process and be honest with not only the person I am dating but also with myself. Society as a whole has really slowed down and forced us to reassess our behaviour and our priorities, I hope we can maintain this level of thoughtfulness and compassion.”
Virtual speed dating – a bolder new frontier?
It was only a matter of time before virtual speed dating organisers threw their hat in the ring of the online events that have been so plentiful recently. And like their physical world equivalents, the online versions hold much of the same potential for both fab and flat encounters. As the lockdown era progressed, Delsi Cat, the creator of Unicorns, an all-inclusive queer party enterprise that hosts events across Sydney and Melbourne, decided that it was time to take the speed dating wing of Unicorns online too, hosting two events so far, open to people all over the country. Delsi’s events hit a particular yet broad niche of people looking for that “initial sparkle ‘woo-woo’ connection”. They’re open to people of all genders, ages and sexualities and have options for polyamorous people to date as a couple, triad or single.
A recent survey of Unicorns attendees showed that there were more transgender, non-binary and cisgender women attendees than any other demographic. “I actually created it as I couldn’t find any real-life dating events that catered for people who were attracted to multiple genders and had strategies in place to ensure the space was safe and inclusive for people of all gender identities,” said Delsi.
According to Delsi, Unicorns – Dating & Friendship has a better success rate than The Bachelor/ette: “I know of at least four romantic couples that were born out of Unicorns that are still together, and heaps of friendships. I have also witnessed many on the night pashes, and phone number swaps. I now often have couples walk up to me at a Unicorns party and tell me they met at my events and have been together since.”
You can follow Unicorns on Facebook to stay up to date with virtual and IRL events.
Photograph: Anna Kucera
The new rules of meeting IRL
When it comes to meeting up in person – something that is becoming more of a consideration as restrictions ease – approaches amongst those surveyed were mixed. While many apps released statements about putting health first and following the rules, there were still many accounts of people trying to line-up hookups, even when social restrictions were at their most strict.
Although she would have previously insisted on meeting in a public place first, Emily has found it logistically simpler during lockdown to just invite dates over to her place instead. Glen found that a McDonald’s coffee date in the car was a good solution when most places were closed. Meanwhile, Charlie found that “particularly on apps that are more for ‘casual encounters’ [like the gay male orientated Grindr and Scruff] it seems a few guys have thrown social distancing out the window”.
During the most locked-down stage of iso, Kris toyed with the idea and temptation of meeting up and sent some saucy messages, but never followed through: “There is something very sexy and desirable about the forbidden, especially when you have been deprived of touch for so long.”
Stefan partook in the popular iso trend of going for a “walk in the park date”, and when eateries got the green light to welcome back 10 people at a time, he took her on a second date to a pub where they were surrounded by strictly no more than eight other diners. Rules about customers needing to order food threw a spanner in the works when the date announced she was “intermittently fasting”, and Stefan thought he might be eating two meals by himself. Fortunately, she eventually gave in to hot chips.
What did we learn about dating during iso?
“I’ve realised how much money I waste on first dates with people I barely have anything in common with. Staying in has been great for my bank account” – Stefan
“Avoid those that wanted to meet up during isolation, they clearly don’t care about the wellbeing of others” – Charlie
“It really isn’t that hard to treat people with respect and compassion and I won’t be making concessions for people’s poor behaviour moving forward” – Kris
“It’s made me realise that dating is not a priority to me, and I was really doing it out of habit. Before I thought I was lonely because of my divorce and how my marriage broke down. I think I was engaging in dating out of spite or to try to show my ex-wife that it was over and I had moved on, but Covid showed me I’m not really lonely. I just needed to shift my priorities” – Glen
“You should really like the person you’re with, because this may not be our only pandemic” – Emily
Just as with any time in history, during the great isolation of 2020, people have still been on the hunt for romance, connection, intimacy and sexual fulfillment. It is important to note that in Australia, we’ve been a lot luckier than other countries, but that should be a green light to be complacent. As we move forward, don’t forget to consider the health and safety of yourself and anyone you choose to make the step to meet in the “real world”. And wash your damn hands.
*Names have been changed for privacy.