I’ve been intermittently on Tinder over the course of the pandemic.
I’m not proud of it. But as I have swiped (mostly left) through dozens of fish-holding straight men: it has become clear that I’m not exactly alone.
We’re all bored, thirsty and lonely. Aimless virtual flirting is, for some, better than none at all. There is an almost formulaic process to matching. After a few awkward and planned opening lines, the quarantine Tinder chat stumbles along:
“Do we meet in person?”
“Who else have you been seeing?”
“What are we willing to risk to get some?’”
Consent and boundaries can already be tense to navigate with strangers. When those strangers potentially carry the coronavirus, those boundaries around physical autonomy extend beyond standards of sexual consent and into a newer, greyer, area.
Consent still describes whether you feel comfortable taking your clothes off around someone, or with them undressing around you. But does autonomy now include your right to remain masked? Your right to only be in a private room with people who value your security enough to keep their mouths wrapped?
A couple of months ago I matched with a guy on Tinder. He assured me over Snapchat that both he and his roommate had COVID-19 less than three months ago, that both of them had tested positive for antibodies and even so, had been physical distancing.
He asked me whether I would be down to meet up in person. After all of the ghosting and small talk, that directness and the promise of relative safety from COVID-19 was refreshing. And so, I agreed. He was kind of cute and from all the ways you can catch a vibe online, seemed normal.
I went to his apartment on a Friday night. I had met people from dating apps before, but always in public before going to their place and never during a pandemic. Beyond the anticipation and the normal, often justified worries about meeting someone new, I wasn’t sure if I remembered how to hold maskless eye contact with a stranger. What do you do with your mouth again?
He lived in a minimally furnished condo in a nice building near the university. It smelled like cigarettes mixed with Amazon packaging and bachelor pad. He, a short Indian guy with a sharp haircut and intense eyes, met me outside and we hugged. He was the first stranger I’d touched in months — hugging him felt discomfiting, even slightly anxiety inducing but it wasn’t bad.
His roommate, red eyed and apparently surprised to see me, was rolling a blunt when I showed up. To make small talk, I asked him what it had been like having COVID-19. He was confused. As I turned to face my match he (guiltily) grinned and said, “Oh yeah, I lied about that.”
He assured me he did really have COVID-19 three months ago, but his roommate, who I was in a room with unmasked, had not. They evidently had not been distancing either. The pile of cigarette butts and roaches on the balcony was the work of at least seven undergrad tech bros, passing their spit around. I inhaled with hesitation, suddenly and futilely conscious of all the particles in the air between us.
While my risk may have been relatively low, my paranoia wasn’t for myself, I live with family, whom I didn’t want to and have no right to endanger.
I’ll pause here and say that this anecdote does not end in trauma or sexual assault. But it does fall into a quarantine-specific hookup dilemma. Transparency during a COVID date is an ambiguous area under the umbrella of consent — an expanding one as we reckon with a culture that deprioritizes the autonomy of marginalized individuals so consistently and insidiously that it often isn’t clear whether and to what extent, boundaries are being violated.
Under normal circumstances, as long as I’m being safe, who I sleep with shouldn’t be anyone’s business but mine. But if my personal choice to expose myself to some horny dude’s dishonesty could inadvertently transmit the coronavirus to people I care about, that exclusive agency over sexual autonomy fades.
What’s bodily autonomy when every choice impacts an expansive web of connections and dependence?
Right now, the boundaries we assert, or fail to assert, around our own bodies can have extreme impacts not only on our own safety but on the health of everyone else.
And while he wasn’t doing anything to keep me there, with some combination of inertia and awkwardness and possibly ‘girl conditioning,’ I sat stiffly on the brown leather couch while his pinky finger crept towards mine. We never touched but we sat awkwardly watching Twin Peaks for an hour before I made an exit.
I’m fine but I feel fortunate the situation didn’t go wrong in the ways it probably could have.
COVID-19 cases are still accumulating worldwide and even so, we cannot be wholly reliant on those with antibodies to stop the rate of transmission.
Even in normal conditions, infringements on agency and consent harm people all the time.
Marginalized identities — queer and trans communities, BIPOC, women, disabled people — are already more vulnerable to social norms that approach our boundaries as permeable, breakable or just invisible.
According to a 2019 study on undergraduate students at Vancouver Island University, 84.3 per cent of respondents had experienced some form of digitally focused sexual harassment, which includes behaviours such as receiving unsolicited nudes, sexuality-based harassment online or having their sexually explicit images circulated without their consent.
For people made especially vulnerable by physical comorbidities and/or by societal oppression, COVID-19 must influence our social scripts around online dating and casual sex.
But how do we set boundaries and recognize what constitutes a violation of those boundaries, when our whole understanding of autonomy, personal risk and collective risk has shifted rapidly?
To meet someone for a hookup, we don’t just need to trust that they will respect our autonomy by not touching us without asking. We need to be able to trust that they’re being upfront about all the other people they may be touching.
Everyone is grappling with some uncertainty about social interactions, whether that’s COVID-19, Tinder chats or the etiquette of the Zoom private message. For an informal vibe check, I asked a Whatsapp group about their Tinder experiences.
“It’s the incessant cycle of ghosting and getting ghosted,” said a first-year science student. “The small talk phase makes it hard to actually find any meaningful connection.”
The cycle of uncertainty and thirstiness rattles through infinite loops.
“It gets so boring to just talk to strangers without there being that glimpse of ‘I might meet them and we might really hit it off,’” said UBC first-year Hirari Soto. “The ego boost eventually wears off and the dating app just becomes another app to go on when you’re bored.”
There is a palpable tension when the conversation leads to a dead end. On top of the existing stressors of quarantine life, the exhaustion of feeling out these boundaries can make typing out a response feel futile.
As a meta-conversation starter, I also asked some Tinder matches about how they were feeling about the app.
“A big difference [on quarantine Tinder] is people’s lack of intent in general,” said Quinn, a 22 year-old software engineer whose bio says he likes social psychology, anime, learning violin, and you ;). “I feel like conversations die a lot more easily than before. Both parties will seem interested but then just sudden silence.”
Romantically, platonically, in the streets, on our phones: On all levels, social norms adapt.
This moment requires recentering the existing dialogues of sex and consent around genuine respect for others’ boundaries. It also requires knowing and intentionally communicating our own.
Pandemic or not, those are healthy practices to cultivate.
I pulled way back on Tinder-ing after that one meetup; cases where I live in Seattle abruptly spiked after the holidays, and if meeting someone in person ever felt worth the risk, after December it definitely did not.
This is the final stretch before, hopefully, a healthier and more open summer.
It’s February, still too cold and damp to comfortably sit in the grass on a Friday evening with a friend or date. Once spring comes, how different will our conversations look? Once we can touch each other again, I wonder whether and for how long guilt and inhibition will linger.
This article is part of Autonomy, The Ubyssey’s 2021 sex issue. You can read more here.