Author | Photo The Lovers II, 1928 by Rene Magritte

Desire in the Age of COVID-19: Learning to Love from a Distance

My current relationship began eight weeks ago and its evolution through the pandemic has been both an eye-opening and erotic experience, despite and because of Social Distancing.

Contemporary dating culture is frequently criticized for its emphasis on the immediate gratification of casual hookups at the expense of romance. ‘Netflix and chill’ has become the watchword of a generation (which, for those unversed in hookup vernacular, is a euphemistic rather than a literal proposition). 

Many people I speak to feel there is something stale and soulless about the ways technology has transformed contemporary dating; swiping through profiles, reducing a person’s essence to no more than 200 words and six pictures. I meet up for dates  quickly to feel out our dynamic in person, but these interactions feel less like meet-cutes and more like job interviews. 

Lonely and frustrated, I dove back into the dating scene again in January; the swiping generating both literal and existential nausea. Ready to give up, I began a promising conversation – he had been a dancer, now a teacher, paralleling my own interests in academics and theatre.  When we met in early February, instead of the standard first-date stiffness, it felt like we were old friends catching up after years apart. 

After our second date, things ramped up quickly until we were seeing each other every other day for dinners, trips to see theatre, ballet, daytime coffee dates, takeout, and – of course – Netflix and Chill. Then the pandemic hit. 

Advised to stay home and to limit outings to only what is essential, we suddenly found ourselves in a long-distance relationship. 

However, unlike those trapped in different cities, we live within walking distance. We now find ourselves  in a modern iteration of a Regency courtship: we can meet, walk six feet apart, and talk. We can write to each other. We can sit alone in our respective homes and pine. 

These social changes have transformed the romantic landscape: what counts as permissible has shifted, and with it what counts as transgressive and erotic. Experiences we previously thought of as quaint – chaste walks with a suitor – are the new reality. The limits aren’t concrete but their palpability makes literary Victorian courting rituals oddly relatable. 

As an academic, I often get lost in my head at the expense of tuning into my body. But I’ve started noticing that when I walk with my Gentleman Caller, the physical space between us is charged. I’m so much more conscious of it, of maintaining it, of getting too close because we’re making room for others to pass, or when one of us momentarily forgets and leans in too far. I’m aware of how much I want to cross it and of how easy it is to unthinkingly reach out to take his hand, or his arm, or to touch his hair. 

Whatever you might think of the culture of immediate gratification, our ability to indulge in it is gone. In other words: these new social norms are providing space – a LOT of space – for desire to exist without being able to act. I’m forced to just… experience it. 

There is something delicious about this opportunity. I’ve written before about how desire can be a tricky thing for women to experience comfortably. We’re socialized to acquiesce to social pressures, not to mention prioritizing the desires of men (even if someone isn’t intentionally being pushy). Knowing what you want can be so easily obfuscated by the expectations and actions of others. 

But now, I’m immersed in these feelings.   

Expressing them requires tuning into the smaller things: the shape of facial expressions, the musicality of tone, the specificity of words. When you lose one of your senses, the other ones heighten. The feeling behind how we express ourselves, and how we look at each other, is especially poignant now. Despite the distance I feel his physical affection emanating to such an extent I sometimes forget how long it’s been since we could touch. Being so expressive, he’s remarkably legible, and the way that he takes me in from a distance often feels downright transgressive. (They can’t fine us for that, right?) 

So not only do I have space to feel my desire, I am also experiencing being desired. And it is electric.   

The current limitations require getting creative. We find different routes to take through the city, often sparking once dormant memories and stories. We have been cooking food for each other (mostly soups) and while we can’t eat in the same room, it helps mealtimes feel less lonely. Acquiring items for each other during intermittent trips to the store has become a romantic gesture. The flowers he’s bought have replaced his presence in my home. 

Unable to introduce him to friends in person, I’ve posted Instagram stories about the ‘ballerino’ (Italian for male dancer), creating a courtship narrative: from the tokens of affection (like disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer, currently worth more than petroleum), scenes from our walks, and food he’s made. 

I’ve long held that online dating thwarts the fun of getting to know someone before asking them out. Instead you spend the initial dates establishing both your romantic dynamic and figuring out who this person is, what their life is like. This social pause has reversed that again, slowing down the physical dating timeline, while accelerating emotional intimacy. 

Not least because one of our main activities these days is talking. To keep the conversation interesting, we reached for things like 36 Questions To Fall In Love, designed by psychologist Arthur Aron (and others) to facilitate relationship connections. The questions have breadth and depth: from asking you to recount the story of your life in four minutes, to the details of how you conduct stressful phone calls, to when the last time was that you sang to yourself. By the end, you have a richer picture of who the other person is.   

Note the simultaneity of two seemingly opposite effects: the tension of mutual attraction is building, while trust and familiarity are being established. The result is the opposite of objectifying. (Subjectifying? Magical? The holy fucking grail as a woman?)

Who knows how our relationship will translate to the world when things finally shift back towards normal. Not every relationship struck up during this time will last. Some simply exist to offer necessary but temporary distraction, or comfort, or care. 

I’m hopeful that this alchemy will survive the eventual shift back to whatever our new normal will be. Meanwhile, I’m going to savour it while I can. 

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