Virtual Flirting and Cheating Are at an All-Time High. What Happens Next?

The pandemic has occasioned a golden age of long-distance dalliances, but it can't go on forever

November 12, 2020 7:52 am
Covid and cheating
Has the pandemic changed how people cheat?
Chad Springer/Getty Images

At the beginning of quarantine, I wrote about the dearth of male horniness befalling society. I talked to friends and lovers about a gap that was leaving women undersexed and men overwhelmed. And while I’m happy to say that things have seemed to level off and the men in my life are all once again horny, the way we indulge that horniness has certainly changed.

Dating has long since gone digital: apps, DMs, sexting. But with the advent of isolation and quarantine has come a new definition of what it means to be in a long-distance relationship. I’ve cycled through a few digital crushes since quarantine started: sexts and FaceTime sex with men close by and in other states, sliding into DMs and having my DMs slid into. It’s not the first time I’ve sourced men from the internet or managed distance with modern technology, but doing so with everything going on lends some new challenges.

Finding love and sex amid a global pandemic brings about a sort of abandon — people are engaging in virtual sex in ways and with people whom they wouldn’t normally consider. One friend even posited that the impossibility of it all is part of the elixir; the stakes are low and the world is on fire, so the typical half-logic that usually threads our romantic decisions seems arbitrary and unnecessary. A man in the same state as me is in many ways as unattainable as one living across the ocean in Europe, but this also means a man thousands of miles away is also technically as attainable as one close by. If you can’t safely fuck someone living two towns over, really, everyone is long distance, which, in a way, makes the options and possibilities endless. 

But there of course remains the question, where is any of this going? When the pandemic started, I became involved with a man in New York who I met through work. The distance seemed feasible and at the time we naively thought we would be traveling come summer. Still, there was the nagging reality: How long can we keep this up? When the subject arose of seeing each other post-COVID we agreed that we both wanted to, but it didn’t take long for us to run out of things to say to each other.

This is of course not unique to a quarantined world. Most relationships wear out their welcome whether we nurture them through a pandemic or just a series of ultimately unfulfilling dates. It’s more that while COVID-19 has brought a certain liberty to dating, those same conditions can be overbearing; they challenge us to come up with newer and more novel ways the flame alive. How many different sexts can you send? How many different ways can you film yourself masturbating for a long-distance lover? (More than you’d think, I’ve found!)

But there’s more to it than just the mechanics of a relationship.

In a non-COVID world, I’m typically pretty quick to sex. If I’m attracted to someone and they can make me laugh, I’ll put out on the first date, gladly. But for the time being, physical intimacy is an impossibility in many cases. That’s been frustrating — really, really frustrating. In the hierarchy of things that make the heart grow fonder, sex ranks well ahead of distance. But its absence has also brought clarity to the digital dating experiences I’ve had a lot quicker than usual. 

It’s also created some unsavory or downright absurd experiences, like when the ex-colleague I occasionally flirted with online let me know he was isolating with his girlfriend by adding me to a Close Friends story on Instagram where she was tagged. Or the prominent realtor in England who sexted me feverishly for a few days about a month ago, begging me to come to the U.K. He was “on holiday with family,” which didn’t really raise any red flags, but he had a very odd masturbation schedule for a “single” guy: hiding in the bathroom, not being able to wank (as he elegantly put it) at night or in the mornings. Then he fell off for a few days and I got annoyed. When he posted a story of himself at work, I snidely replied, “Oh is this why you haven’t responded to me,” meaning of course, that he was working. Suddenly, the story was gone, and shortly later, I was blocked. When a friend went back and re-watched the story for me, she spotted it: a wedding ring. He was married and thought I was calling him out on it.   

Now, it would be hard to say with certainty whether these situations would have panned out any differently were we not in the middle of a global pandemic. I’ve talked to some folks specifically about COVID-19 and infidelity, and what I found was not altogether surprising. Men are still cheating more than women, and people who were cheating before COVID are still cheaters during quarantine. Cheaters at large are struggling to maintain virtual affairs under the watchful and now perpetual presence of their partners.  

For others, old online routines have been interrupted. One married man in his thirties tells me he frequented cam sites before quarantine. Recently, though, he says he hasn’t been able to engage as much because his wife is always always in the house. “I never have the place to myself anymore, so I don’t get to patronize the cam-site anymore,” he says. “I’ve been way more active on my anonymous Twitter account looking for folks to sext with, to some success. Mostly I’m just taking way more pictures and videos of myself and sending them to anyone who shows interest.” And as to be expected, there was one rogue response from someone who was still arranging illicit trysts IRL, pandemic be damned. 

It’s of course foolish to talk about these phenomena in absolutes. Though COVID-19 and the ensuing quarantine have taught many of us that our relationships are more tenuous than we realized, for others, the trials have strengthened their relationships and made them grateful for the person they have in their life. The only thing we can say for sure is that the traditional means — i.e., in-person ones — of courting and fucking and cheating and falling in love have been rendered moot, and in their place, more fraught but perhaps more enlightened dynamics have risen.

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