In Sex and the Single Girl, late Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown’s iconic 1962 manual for a new breed of man-hungry, urban working girls, a section was devoted to how to meet men. You had to go to places where men go, and start conversations. Construction or engineering conferences, for instance. Or aeroplanes. “There’s something sexy… about being sequestered 20,000 feet above the earth, almost as close to a strange man as a banana to its skin,” wrote Gurley Brown.
Six months ago, the idea of getting as close to a strange man as a banana to its skin was both possible and even exciting (providing that man was attractive, of course). Now, even if the idea no longer fills one with Covid-tinged terror, it’s hardly the sort of thing one can do. Physical proximity has become taboo, verboten, fraught, socially unacceptable and complex with all but your nearests and dearests.
The effect of this on all our lives has been profound, but for those who might have been looking for romance when the pandemic struck, or are looking now, the death of close-up, spontaneous, in-person meetings has been deadening. Online dating, and apps in particular, have for the last few years been corroding the potential for spontaneous meetings – in bars, young people go out with friends, and express zero interest in flirting with strangers. The reason, they say, is that when they want to activate ‘dating mode’ they use Tinder at home on their beds or sofas. Depressing. But even as recently as 2014, online dating accounted for only a third of couples – dating sites and apps have never quite been the only game in town.
Now, thanks to the total assault on everyday life delivered by the year 2020, they are. This is the year that pretty well all of Helen Gurley Brown’s tips for meeting people became truly impossible. It is the year that all the old ways of meeting people became obsolete.
Not obsolete in the way, say, dial-up internet became so (there can be nobody on earth who misses that), but obsolete without our full approval. Even the most enthusiastic internet dater is piqued by the idea of meeting someone ‘naturally’. The killing off of the ‘natural’ way – meeting someone next to you on a plane sans mask; bumping into someone at a bar; meeting someone at a conference, lecture, or in the queue for the cinema – goes against the most basic social urges.
My closest lockdown buddies were two neighbours, both single. We’d meet in the communal garden for socially distanced wine and crisps every Friday. The other week, one of them sent a photo from a magazine offering 1960s advice on “129 ways to get a husband” – we all chipped in with the ways that were least possible in the Year of Covid.
It was a bemusing endeavour because so few were possible – from ‘go to all reunions of your high school or college class’ to ‘get a job demonstrating fishing tackle in a sporting goods store’ to ‘get lost at a football game’. The award for least possible, though, was “drop a handkerchief”.
Perhaps the biggest calamity for the unplanned meeting is the destruction of the office and the dismantling of work as we know it. In the 1990s, one in five romances began at work; pre Covid it was about half that. Mid-Covid, the number has surely dwindled to close to zero. This is a shame. It’s no surprise that the majority of those 1960s tips for meeting men concern work, including ‘Volunteer for jury duty’ and ‘don’t get a job in a company run largely by women’.
Work is an obvious place for romance to blossom on strong foundations: shared lifestyle, interests, knowledge, and goals. Those forced to seek kinship with fellow humans exclusively through online dating must work extremely hard to establish anything like that much in common.
But where previously it was only the main option, online is now the only option. As one of many avenues to intimacy, apps and sites are handy. But as the sole repository for hope, they become rather oppressive. Having to take one’s romantic fate entirely into one’s own hands, in the unromantic, studied domain of photos and profiles and swiping and instant messaging and Zoom calls, is exhausting and sterile-feeling, somehow. The rejuvenating possibility of the unplanned, the new, the fresh, isn’t part of the picture anymore. Thanks, Covid-19.
The quest for intimacy marches on, as it always will. But now, bowed down by a traumatising year in which the very idea of easy physical intimacy and spontaneous close contact has been poisoned, we are questing online because we have no choice. Bumble, Hinge, Happ’n and Tinder, owned by Match.com, have reported a boom year.
The apps are adapting to meet the demands of the new Covid-cowed world, with new video calling platforms and, in Tinder’s case, temporarily making free its ‘passport’ feature, allowing singles to chat to anyone in the world. “As an area becomes more affected, whether it’s in Seoul, Milan or New York City, we see new conversations flourishing and lasting longer,” Tinder’s former CEO Elie Seidman said in April. But that’s where the passion ends: even now, six months in, sex in the Anglosphere remains laced with fear. Canada’s chief public health officer has warned against sex with people you don’t know well, and masks even with those you do. “The lowest risk sexual activity during Covid-19 involves yourself alone,” she intoned gloomily.
At the terrifying, depressing peak of the pandemic in April, being able to chat with someone online if you were single and alone was indeed a lifeline. But that temporary lifeline has become the whole scene, and spells the end of a long era of romantic adventure, exploration, and the chance to sit banana-skin close to someone on a plane.