When London went into lockdown in March, Sasha* hadn’t kissed anyone for four months. Like everyone, she had no idea how long the city’s lockdown would go on for, and as the weeks turned into months, it was snogging that was on her mind.
‘There were so many times during lockdown where I’ve sat in the living room with my housemate and been like: for fuck’s sake, why is no one matching with me [on dating apps], I just want to kiss someone!’ says Sasha. ‘I was getting to the point where I genuinely didn’t know if I would be able to kiss anyone or have sex with anyone properly because I’ve completely forgotten how to be with people, even socially.’
This was the scenario that countless Londoners found themselves in when Boris Johnson made the announcement (on March 23) that the country was going into lockdown. Suddenly, it was against government guidelines to mix with anyone outside your household, which meant that, overnight, dating IRL was off the cards. If you didn’t live with your partner, it seemed like your fate was sealed: months of celibacy and baking banana bread. Dating apps started launching virtual video-chat platforms. ‘Zoom dates’ became a thing. Sunday supplements ran stories about how lockdown was going to make serial daters stop hooking up, slow down and develop meaningful relationships. But in reality, something different happened.
Tinder had its biggest day ever on March 29. That same week, activity on the website of members-only sex club Killing Kittens increased by 330 percent. More recently, dating app Badoo found that one in three Londoners was tempted to have sex with someone from outside their household. And, away from the prying eyes of housemates, neighbours and the government, Londoners started meeting up for dates and more. With no end to social distancing on the horizon, they’ve been navigating the murky waters of dating during a global pandemic – a time when even hugging has become taboo – putting themselves and their flatmates at risk for the sake of love or sometimes just a hookup. Call them selfish, horny or romantic, but they have great stories of dating in lockdown London. Here are a few.
‘It’s an absolute nightmare trying to time taking my bins out’
The guy who had sex in Hackney Marshes. The guy who travelled the length of the Victoria line for an illicit hookup in peak lockdown. The woman who pitched a tent in her boyfriend’s garden when his housemate wouldn’t let her inside the flat. Ask around, and you’ll hear plenty of stories about the lengths people have gone to to keep their sex lives going, but the tale that comes up time and time again? Londoners hooking up with their neighbours.
Katie*, who lives in Clapham, didn’t know her neighbour Danny* before lockdown. He was on furlough and started working out every day in the courtyard outside Katie’s window. ‘I’d see him daily and the thirst was real,’ says Katie. They started sleeping together. And they weren’t the only ones.
For Rob* and his neighbour Sally*, it started with a bit of harmless chat over the garden fence. They’d both started gardening more in lockdown and, towards the end of March, they got talking regularly. They both live alone and have families living on either side of them, which served as a constant reminder of their isolation. Rob welcomed the new connection with his neighbour. ‘I definitely felt lonely for the first few weeks. It was nice having someone who understood what it was like.’ Talking to Sally helped ease his loneliness. ‘It was good to feel that excitement of meeting someone new and talking and flirting, as opposed to just talking to your closest mates on Zoom.’
But hooking up meant trying to avoid the watchful eyes and twitching curtains of the other neighbours on their quiet cul-de-sac. ‘That was the most awkward thing, trying to sneak in when the other neighbours weren’t outside. It was either hop over the garden fence or sneak around the front,’ explains Rob. ‘I’m more of a fence hopper. But the neighbours can definitely see.’ It meant they eventually decided that dating wasn’t the best idea. ‘It's not the easiest temptation to ignore. Thankfully the houses are detached,’ laughs Rob. ‘But it could be a bit awkward for future relationships. How many people you’ve liaised with are literally within six metres of your bedroom?.’
Things didn’t end so amicably for Katie and Danny. ‘He ghosted me,’ says Katie. ‘I’ve realised he’s a bit of a tool. And [he] messaged me weeks later to “check I was okay” as I live alone. That was when we had that week of rain – I think he was stuck indoors and bored.’ She’s been trying to avoid him ever since. ‘It’s an absolute nightmare trying to time taking my bins out.’
‘We sanitised and then held hands’
It’s been well documented that lockdown forced lots of people to suddenly move in with their boyfriends or girlfriends, even people they’d only been on a few dates with, but what happened to those people who started something totally new from within lockdown? Surely being trapped indoors with only Zoom to keep you company isn’t conducive to sparking romance – or at least that’s what Olivia*, who lives in Highbury, thought.
She was surprised when she was introduced to a friend of a friend in the early stages of lockdown via a Zoom dinner party. They hit it off and started talking every day – and so began their lockdown romance. ‘I think being stuck at home had benefits for the relationship. We both had more time on our hands to get to know each other. Rather than going for a quick drink, we’d spend hours talking or sending each other music,’ says Olivia. ‘Plus, not being able to meet up or touch made everything more sexually charged.’ Eventually, after talking for three weeks and much agonising over the rules they decided to meet up in person for the first time.
If first dates could be a bit awkward before all this, now it’s a total minefield. Dating apps have introduced measures to try and manage this – Hinge launched in-app video calling in June, while Bumble’s new feature means you can let any potential matches know what kind of dating you’re comfortable with: virtual only, socially distanced or socially distanced with masks.
Olivia decided to meet her date in a park. They planned what was allowed in advance: Should they kiss? Would they touch? They took things slowly. ‘After hanging out for a while, we sanitised and then held hands. It was very romantic’, says Olivia. It was the start of a two-month passionate romance.
‘Lockdown meant we were both more open but we were also more vulnerable,’ says Olivia. ‘Being at home all day, removed from your friends and daily routine, is a situation that can break down some of your normal barriers and create the possibility of intimacy, but it’s also really destabilising and makes you more anxious, which is pretty hopeless when it comes to starting a relationship.’
‘I felt like time was running out’
‘What this pandemic did was to make people feel they were out of options. It created this sense of: “I really want to meet someone and now I can’t”,’ says Dr Lucy Atcheson, a psychologist who specialises in relationships and has clinics across the city. She says the main thing she’s noticed about dating during this period is that people are having ‘more extreme reactions’. That could mean hooking up with your neighbour who you’ve never spoken to before or throwing yourself into a whirlwind romance with someone you met on Zoom. But it could also mean something more bleak, like obsessing about a future without a partner and feeling alone in a way you never have before. ‘Now, there’s an urgency. People are putting pressure on themselves to meet someone under these difficult circumstances,’ she says.
For many people, who were happily single before this, this kind of pressure has come out of nowhere. This is something that resonates with Ciara*, who lives in Wandsworth with two housemates. She’d previously embraced the independence of being single, but in lockdown, that changed. ‘Suddenly I started to feel really, deeply lonely. I’d see my couple mates on Zoom and start to feel really sad.’ Thoughts crept in about the future, things she’d never worried about before. ‘I’m in my early thirties and I started to feel like if I wanted to have a kid, I’d probably want to settle down soon and time was running out.’
In fact, when lockdown first kicked in, she approached it practically, thinking of it as a good opportunity to take a break from dating. ‘It can be so horrible in London, so I thought maybe I could focus on myself a bit’, she says. For months, she stuck to the rules. But in late June, lockdown was loosening, the weather was scorching and her phone was flooded with messages. ‘Pretty much every guy I’ve ever slept with or dated started messaging me. It was day after day of, “Hey, how was your lockdown? What are your feelings on the rules?”.’ It seemed like everyone was breaking the rules, so why shouldn’t she? But her housemates – one recently single and one in a long-term relationship – were against it. ‘When I tried to raise it with them that I might go on dates they shut down the conversation,’ says Ciara. Instead, she started dating in secret. ‘It made me feel guilty. I’d be in the park drinking cans with a boy and constantly worrying about whether my flatmates would spot me. When the guy would try to touch my hand, I’d be scanning the crowd like a spy.’
Ciara was left feeling like the whole thing was a waste of energy. ‘Trying to date anyone long-term seemed pointless because the lies would just add up.’ In the end, she hooked up with someone, but it wasn’t exactly relaxing. ‘I was still super nervous that one of them was going to come back [to the flat] and I’d just be there nude, like: “Er, sorry.”.’ In some ways, hooking up with someone made Ciara feel better, but given the complications around dating right now, she’s not planning to do it again soon.
‘We ended up having sex in the rare bird enclosure’
As for Sasha, who spent lockdown wondering whether she’d ever kiss anyone again, she finally had her opportunity in June. Like Ciara, she’d found that trying to spark something over text or messages on dating apps felt a bit pointless. ‘You’d say one or two things to each other and that would be it,’ she explains. ‘People haven’t really got the energy for it because it’s like: what is the goal here? No one knows what’s going to happen.’ But then, something changed.
She matched with Hettie* on Hinge and they spoke for two days before agreeing to meet up in Regent’s Park. ‘We’d been flirting loads in our messages and being very forward. I said: if we did want to kiss, would you be happy to do that? I thought it was best to ask,’ says Sasha. Then, she went for it. ‘I ended up straddling her and kissing her in the middle of the park,’ she says. Not usually one for public displays of affection, she suddenly didn’t care. ‘I think it’s because I hadn’t kissed anyone for fucking ages,’ she says. The pair ended up having sex in the rare bird enclosure.
Sasha thinks lockdown has brought out a different side to people when it comes to dating. ‘In normal life, I wasn’t this active. I wasn’t on the apps as much and I definitely wasn’t having sex with people in parks.’ She’s been wary of telling people about her bird enclosure hookup, though. ‘I don’t want to tell all my friends because obviously it’s not allowed and some of my friends are really hot on social distancing. I’ve avoided telling one of my housemates too.’
There’s no easy way to navigate dating during a global pandemic. From Zoom dates to hooking up in hedges, all the daters I’ve spoken to have approached it differently. What unites them is loneliness. The pandemic has left people feeling deeply isolated and starved of physical contact. It’s also made people feel like it’s now or never in terms of going for the things they might have previously been avoiding – from adventurous sex to serious relationships. It’s these feelings that have driven people to break the rules. But it’s clear things are complicated when they do.
As lockdown has eased, more and more people are treading a difficult line. Follow the rules and your only option is to go on socially distanced dates. Break the rules – whether that’s for a hug on a first date, a casual hookup, a snog at the pub or even having sex with your partner who you don’t live with – and you could be putting people’s lives at risk. With so many logistics and moral dilemmas to consider, none of the daters I spoke to had managed to build anything long-term in lockdown.
Olivia, for example, says her romance ended abruptly when she realised that there were practical factors she’d been ignoring. ‘I realised that it couldn’t actually work outside of lockdown,’ explains Olivia. ‘He normally lives abroad and was only back in the UK because of the pandemic. Covid created a kind of suspension of reality, but it caught up with us in the end.’ Meanwhile Ciara is taking some time out for herself: ‘Maybe I did actually need it.’
Sasha isn’t holding out for anything serious. She’s planning to see Hettie again but, like everyone trying to navigate dating right now, she has no idea what the future holds. ‘I’m trying to be as relaxed as possible because you can’t start something serious now, can you?’, says Sasha. ‘It’s just a bit of fun for now.’
*Names have been changed
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