How Sex and Dating Changed in 2020

The year in sex, pandemic edition

December 30, 2020 5:31 am
couple enjoys a romantic dinner as an apocalyptic hell scape blazes in the distance
Dating in 2020 was ... different.
Ronnie Kaufman/Kevin Key/Getty Images

It was the horniest of times, it was the least horny of times. It was an age of abstinence, it was an age of chaotic sexual energy. It was 2020, a year dominated by a pandemic that upended just about every aspect of daily life, and our sex lives were no exception.

Ostensibly, a deadly virus that affected millions of people worldwide should have had nothing to do with sex. And yet, almost immediately — some might even say inevitably — we made it about sex. It started way back in the blissfully unwitting days of late February, when most of us should have been much more worried than we were. COVID-19 pickup lines started popping up on dating apps, and some people — who clearly deserve a cut from that new commercial — even made dating-app profiles for the virus itself. From then on, COVID and sex were destined for strange, if ultimately unsurprising bedfellowship. 

Almost overnight, there was coronavirus-themed porn, followed by a boom in COVID erotica. The phrase, “Love in the time of Coronavirus” became unavoidable before editors even had time to realize what an unoriginal headline it was. Whisperings of a forthcoming coronavirus baby boom began in March, and were swiftly dismissed in favor of baby drought predictions. Halloween brought sexy hand sanitizer costumes, and at one point Trojan condoms even managed to turn the wholesome lockdown hobby of bread-baking into an erotic 69-page cookbook

In short, things got weird fast, but the pandemic’s intersection with sexual culture also had pronounced effects on our lived sexual and romantic experiences. From the concerned singles asking Dr. Fauci if it was safe to hook up with their dating-app matches to the couples suddenly forced to spend unprecedented lengths of time either together or apart, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the ways we date, love and copulate. While some of these sex and dating trends were brief flashes in the pandemic pan (remember when everyone what talking about glory holes?) others have stuck around a little longer, and may become more permanent fixtures of our romantic future post-COVID

We all got a little taste of celibacy

A popular joke during the earlier days of the pandemic centered around the idea that we’re “all incels now.” Indeed, for many single people without a sex partner to quarantine with — or even some particularly careful partners who didn’t live together and were temporarily forced into de facto long-distance relationships — the first few months of the pandemic marked a significant dry spell. My own nearly five-month stretch of sexlessness from March to August was the longest I’d gone without sexual contact of any kind since high school, and for a while, those first few weeks of confusion and chaos had me — like many others — wondering if my last pre-lockdown hookup was actually the last sexual encounter of my life. 

This was a foreign feeling to most modern singles, particularly those of us who have spent the majority of our adult dating lives on apps, operating under the awareness that a potential new sex partner was only ever a right swipe away. Suddenly, the 24/7, on-demand access to sex we’ve had at our fingertips for much of the last decade became far less effective as people decided hooking up with strangers from the internet probably didn’t count as social distancing.

Meanwhile, those who preferred more old-school methods of dating didn’t fare any better. With restaurants and bars closed and working from home the new law of the land, one’s odds of going home with someone after a night out or striking up a (probably ill-advised) workplace romance dwindled to just about zero for most people. While lockdown-flouting hookups weren’t unheard of, they were generally frowned upon, and for those of us unwilling to brave either a deadly virus and/or the public scourge of COVID-shaming, the pandemic put our once carefree sex lives on hold indefinitely.

Remote dating became a thing

Not everyone put their love life on the back burner entirely, however. With in-person dates off the table for most singles, many turned to remote dating in order to keep some semblance of a dating life alive. Just as Zoom took over our work lives, family gatherings and happy hours, it also became the hottest date spot in town as the single and quarantined waded into the brave new world of video dating.

However, video dating wasn’t an entirely new pandemic invention. In recent years, dating apps like The League had already launched in-app video-dating features that allowed users to video chat prior to meeting in person. Once the pandemic hit, of course, any online dating platforms that didn’t already offer virtual dating features were quick to hop on the trend. But while pre-pandemic video-dating features were designed to help users feel out a potential date before actually going out with them in person, video dating in the age of the pandemic was meant to replace in-person dates altogether. In 2020, all dating became online dating.

And remote sex became a much bigger thing 

With casual sex off the table for most singles and many partners forced apart amid lockdowns, early COVID was boom times for remote sex. In our quest for socially distanced hookups, we took advantage of the wonders of modern technology to advance our horny agenda and also resurrected some old-school classics. As predicted by yours truly, phone sex made a major comeback. For those who prefer their virtual sex more technologically advanced, Zoom sex presumably followed successful Zoom dates, and we sexted so hard the New York Times declared nude selfies “high art.”

Long-distance sex toys also had their day, part of a broader boom in sex toy sales as people invested in vibrators to help alleviate pandemic boredom, horniness and stress. While bluetooth-enabled sex toys that allow partners to control each other’s toys from a distance have been gaining popularity over the past few years, the pandemic finally gave that technology a time to shine. As NSFW’s Daniel Saynt told Zachary Zane for InsideHook earlier this year, adding long-distance sex toys to the mix gave the virtual encounters that took over many people’s sex lives amid the pandemic-imposed dry spell “a little more meat and potatoes, allowing partners to satisfy each other while staying apart.”

It was a make or break time to be in a relationship

While the loneliness and abstinence into which the pandemic thrust most single people led many to believe the dutiful monogamists who fulfilled their societal obligation by settling down with a long-term romantic partner got the better end of the deal in quarantine, those who were coupled up when the pandemic hit didn’t necessarily have it any better. 

For those in early relationships, the stress and logistical complications of lockdown forced many new partners into premature make-or-break decisions. With lockdowns looming, many young couples were forced to take the leap and move in together, resign themselves to an indefinite long-distance relationship, or call off their budding romance altogether. 

Even for partners who had already been living together for years, work-from-home orders meant many couples would be spending longer periods of uninterrupted time together than ever before — with potentially disastrous results. Rumors of a post-COVID divorce boom have been circulating since March, and extramarital dating site Ashley Madison has the virus to thank for a spike in pandemic-weary spouses seeking affairs.

Safe sex means something different now

While COVID-19 talk on dating apps may have begun as a joke, it didn’t take long for pandemic precautions to become a legitimate concern on most daters’ minds. Once singles were ready to return to in-person dating, sussing out a potential partner’s likely COVID risk level became standard pre-date practice for many. As Zane wrote for InsideHook earlier this year, “STI prevention isn’t the only health concern we have to think about in the bedroom these days.” In the age of viral illness, safe sex takes more than a condom.  

What it does take, however, remains unclear. As Zane noted, “While health officials have attempted to lay down guidelines for COVID-safe sex, it seems everyone’s more or less playing by their own rules.” Ultimately, he added, “People want to have sex, and they’re going to have it one way or another.”

But were we horny or not?

Depending on who you ask (or whose op-ed you’re reading), the pandemic has either been the horniest time of our lives or a sexless wasteland entirely devoid of desire. While a surge in public displays of online horniness seemed to dominate the timeline during an early stage of the pandemic to which some have attributed a certain chaotic sexual charge, others like Cosmopolitan’s Carina Hsieh argued that it was, in fact, a distinctly un-horny time. Still others took a more nuanced approach to measuring society’s pandemic horniness temperature. Writing for InsideHook, Caroline Reilly suggested that women were horny, while men were not.

So were we were horny or not? Was 2020 horny? Was coronavirus, itself, horny? Clearly, horniness is in the eye of the beholder.

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