"I’m done with great love. I’m back to great lovers," proclaimed Samantha Jones, arguably one of the greatest thinkers and, certainly, most prolific shaggers of modern times. Ironically, just in time for the Sex and the City reboot, it seems that Samantha’s favourite pastime – casual sex – is falling out of favour while finding true intimacy is making its way back in.
According to new data collected by the Kinsey Institute, the pandemic has changed our attitudes to sex. Researchers spoke to singles across America and found that over half of those surveyed now have no interest in one-night stands. This is the antithesis of the wet and wild summer of love initially forecast by experts at the beginning of the vaccine rollout in January. The singles surveyed were not only less interested in casual sex but were actively seeking monogamy: 44% said that commitment was their top priority and 64% weren't interested in having more than one partner.
I was intrigued to see if this trend was mirrored among my peers so I posted an Instagram story asking my followers if they would have a one-night stand and if not, why not. The results were surprising. Almost 70% replied that they wouldn’t sleep with a stranger and this response was split almost equally between men and women. Reasons ranged from being put off by previous bad experiences to concerns over personal safety and wellbeing. The common thread, however, was that no-strings sex is more often than not emotionally and physically underwhelming.
This seems even more unexpected when you consider the huge uptick in dating app usage since the start of the pandemic, with many of these platforms garnering a reputation for encouraging casual hook-ups. Match Group, which owns over 45 dating apps including Tinder, Hinge, Match and OkCupid, experienced a 15% jump in new subscribers in March 2020. When restrictions eased after the first lockdown in May 2020, dating apps were the first point of call for many singles. With limited options at our fingertips, park dates became de rigueur and a takeaway pint followed by a clandestine snog in a bush was the apex of modern romance.
But now that 'freedom day' has been and gone and we can touch, fondle and caress to our hearts’ (or loins’) content, we don’t want to. Experts at Hinge Labs, the in-house team of relationship scientists at Hinge, have found that despite witticisms like 'vaxxed and waxed' trending across the app, 75% of users are looking for a relationship, not something purely physical. "After a year of focusing on other parts of their lives, daters want to find their person and are committing to dating as their number one priority – above work, family and friends," said a Hinge researcher, predicting a 'relationship renaissance' for the remainder of 2021.
So why are we suddenly more interested in commitment? The answer, according to Samantha Tipples, a therapist at London’s Nightingale Hospital, lies in the distinction between intimacy and arousal. The two are often confused but this, Tipples explains, is wrong. "When we’re in isolation or home alone and want someone to watch TV with but instead we have sex with someone and they leave, it doesn’t fulfil our need for intimacy, it actually creates detachment," says Tipples.
"Of all the senses, touch is the first we engage in and so we can conflate touch with connection. This goes back to when we were babies with mothers picking up their children when they are in distress," she explains. "For months people have not been touched or been touching, which explains the amount of sex toys bought in lockdown. People are touching themselves to get the feeling they are being touched."
And so, Tipples concludes, the pandemic has caused us to realise the difference between true intimacy and the physical intimacy we think we get when we are in contact with another person. "Masturbation, watching porn, speaking with people online or hooking up with someone in a bush does not fulfil our need for true intimacy," she concludes. "Intimacy is born out of routine. Intimacy is knowing someone well, watching TV with them or going to sleep with them at 10 o’clock."
When we're home alone and want someone to watch TV with but instead we have sex with someone and they leave, it doesn't fulfil our need for intimacy, it actually creates detachment.
Loneliness, depression and anxiety rates have remained consistently high throughout the pandemic. According to the Office for National Statistics, loneliness in the UK increased as the months dragged on. From October 2020 to February 2021, 7.2% of adults (about 3.7 million adults) reported feeling lonely often or all the time. The data also shows that young people and single people were disproportionately affected by lockdown loneliness. It makes sense, then, that many of this same demographic are craving greater intimacy now that we can finally go out in search of it.
One word that continually cropped up in my Instagram inbox was a deep sense of 'hollowness' in the aftermath of a one-night stand. This is a sentiment echoed by Rihanna in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2015. "I mean I get horny, I'm human, I'm a woman, I want to have sex," she said. "But what am I going to do — just find the first random cute dude that I think is going to be a great ride for the night and then tomorrow I wake up feeling empty and hollow?"
This sense of post-coital melancholy is more common among women than men, says Tipples. "It has been identified that women are not necessarily motivated by the goal of orgasm and physical interaction but by emotional connection and intimacy." According to one study, women often "felt 'used' or 'cheap' and often felt regret after casual sex". Men, on the other hand, were on the whole more likely to enjoy the "physical aspects of casual sex and identified feeling lust, excitement and a release. They were also less likely to experience loneliness afterwards," she says.
Decades of research into one-night stands has shown that they can have a knock-on effect on our wellbeing so it stands to reason that after 18 months of the pandemic and its impact on our collective mental health, the emotional rollercoaster of casual sex may be unappealing. Georgia Stanbridge, 28, experienced a sense of malaise after a one-night stand this year. "I fancied a guy from my gym and after months of staring at each other across the weights section I decided to give him my number," she recalls. "We ended up going on a date and eventually went back to his for a drink. One thing led to another and we had sex. It was okay but to be honest I don’t remember much of it. Afterwards he decided to whip out his ukulele and sing Jack Johnson at me for about 15 minutes. I never heard from him again. I thought it was funny but afterwards I felt sick inside at the thought and had to change gyms."
One-night stands can still be a positive and even deeply cathartic experience for some people. After breaking up with her long-term boyfriend over lockdown, 29-year-old Lizzie Nielson found that casual sex helped her process her grief and even find a new boyfriend. "I split up with my long-term boyfriend in March just as coronavirus began and after a short period of recovery, and I mean short, I basically had a lot of fun until March of this year when I met my now-boyfriend," she recalls.
Despite her positive experience Lizzie caveats that she had to consciously separate sex from dating in order to mitigate any dashed expectations. "I had very much made the conscious choice to compartmentalise the two things, separating dating from sex," she remembers. "I think if you want a one-night stand that’s one thing, but if you go on a date with someone and it turns out to be a one-night stand when you didn’t expect it to, then of course you’re going to feel like garbage."
In a serendipitous turn of events, Lizzie stumbled across her current partner after what was meant to be a one-off hook-up. "The first time I hooked up with my boyfriend, I Ubered home at 4am. I accidentally left all my jewellery there so I was forced to see him again and thank god I did because he is truly an angel of life. I really didn’t want anything more than sex from that experience, it was only because of human error that it became a relationship."
Humans have always been obsessed with sex. History is littered with lotharios who scandalised their prudish contemporaries with their flagrant exploits, from Lord Byron to Russell Brand. Take a brief stroll around the National Gallery and you’ll be confronted with more nudes than your average YouPorn homepage. Even the Bible is a veritable smorgasbord of filth, packed with fruity endorsements such as this one from Ecclesiastes: "If two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?"
But coronavirus, it seems, has changed our attitude to sex once again. Whether we’re looking for love, DTF or in a relationship, the pandemic has placed the importance of real intimacy at the forefront of most of our minds. Who knows what the rest of 2021 has in store for us but if the data is anything to go by, it's not going to be the free-for-all we’d been told to expect. Perhaps it’s just as well that Kim Cattrall didn't sign up to the Sex and the City reboot; 17 years on from the last series, Samantha’s libidinous exploits would seem passé.