How The Pandemic Is Changing ‘Dating’ For Commitment-Phobic Gen Z

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
For many of Gen Z, the term ‘dating’ is simply not part of their vocabulary. The word suggests formality – an ancient romantic courtship familiar only to the likes of a corset-wearing Keira Knightley waiting for a young gentleman to take her to tea and assess whether she will make an obedient housewife
The six letters have almost become a curse. "We are NOT dating!" I howl at my mum, feeling my face burn at such a mortifying description of my relationship status. "We are seeing each other." Naturally, she thought this was the same thing – an insane suggestion. It’s the difference between nonchalance in the face of romantic adversity and sending essay-length texts about "the pain you caused me" to the boy who took you to Nando’s twice. One term suggests fun independence; the other suggests settling in suburbia by 22, joining the PTA, never having sex again and looking forward to Strictly Come Dancing every Saturday. Mum says I’m being dramatic. I say I’d rather not take the risk. 
Gen Z have long been branded the commitment-phobes of society. Tech-savvy and remarkably picky when it comes to committing to a romantic interest – particularly when views differ on social issues such as climate change, feminism and racial equality – it’s no wonder that those born in the late 1990s and early 2000s have earned themselves this title.. This is the generation with an (apparently) endless rotation of options on dating apps, who get the 'ick' when things become overly formal. So when lockdown eased this summer and the hospitality industry began reoperating with various new restrictions in place, Gen Z were pushed into the dating deep end with a fresh formality they could no longer escape. 
Clumsy kisses under strobe lights were exchanged for sterile restaurant booking systems and complicated apps for ordering drinks. The unspoken question on so many minds: will I know if I want to sleep with this person by the time the clock strikes 10?
"It definitely added a big layer of formality," explains Bella, 25, about post-lockdown dating. "It was very hard to be spontaneous and the restrictions made things awkward."
Anya, 19, agrees. "I went on a Hinge date when lockdown eased. The booking system put me off initially but I decided to bite the bullet. Honestly, I wish I hadn’t – the whole thing felt embarrassingly formal and the girl didn’t wear a mask on the subway, which was a huge red flag."
While many of those who remained sexually active found that the newly imposed formality killed their sex lives, others found the opposite. Alice had never had a one-night stand before the first lockdown yet as restrictions lifted, she found herself engaging in casual sex. "The threat of another lockdown made me want to live in the moment more than usual. I live with my parents as I’m a recent graduate and many of my friends are in the same position. If we wanted to stay out, it often meant texting boys who were hosting an after-party of sorts or going home with people we’d met on the night out, which often led to sex."

As case numbers rose and rules tightened, gatherings were limited to just one household per table. Some young people, like Alice, began bending the truth for the sake of their love life. "My friend and I went on a double Hinge date. The guy texted to warn me that the bouncers are really strict with the household rule. He said we should pretend they were our boyfriends."
Unlike the solitary, banana bread-filled months earlier in the year, the winter lockdown seen some express contempt for the rules. By the end of October, the UK government was reporting around 22,000 new cases daily as the virus swept through the nation. Although many couples have been forced to separate for another painful stretch of time in order to protect themselves and their families, ‘dating’ (socially distanced or not) and hook-ups continued for many. 
Nineteen-year-old Ella from London says that, actually, she finds socially distanced outdoor meet-ups far less awkward. "I met up with a guy during lockdown and we just went on a walk and got some takeaway coffee. Although going for walks can get a bit boring, I loved the non-traditional date as it was far more chilled and there was less pressure to conform to stereotypes such as the guy paying the bill for a meal." 
Lorna, who is from the Peak District, admits that she has been breaking the rules to have sex during lockdown. Despite the complications, she is beginning to see the benefits of hooking up in a world where clubbing is off the table. "Although the closure of clubs and bars has made it more difficult to meet someone, it’s good that there’s less alcohol involved. The sex is better sober and I’m far less likely to regret it. Lockdown has made me more confident. I don’t feel I need to have a drink to kill the awkwardness."
Despite the cynicism at the organised and formalised world of dating we are now living in, senior therapist Sally Baker sheds some optimistic light on the issue. "In lots of ways, raising the bar for dating is going to be a positive experience," she explains. "Pandemic dating means that physical intimacy is more highly valued as it comes with a greater potential health risk."
Baker recognises that the ‘ick’ is a significant issue among young people as they begin to get closer to a potential partner. However, pandemic dating might be the cure. "Building an authentic connection and intimacy takes time and effort. The ‘ick’ factor is part of the old rollercoaster of meeting people easily and getting swept along without any real emotional investment. In the post-pandemic world, Gen Z has been gifted the perfect excuse not to be rushed into anything they’re not sure of and can take all the time they need to move forward, pause or stop."

Perhaps this enforced self-reflection is a positive outcome of the pandemic – or maybe a close inspection of your bleak love life is the last thing you need right now. Whatever the case, as university students come home for Christmas much earlier than usual, with little certainty about when they will return, it’s clear that young people have a long few weeks ahead. 
How long will you be back in your hometown before cracks begin to show? How many days will it take for your finger to hover over your boyfriend from year 10’s name in your contacts? So what if he used to introduce you to his friends as "the lanky goth" – he wears a minimalist earring now, so clearly he’s really cool? Perhaps getting married by 22 isn’t so bad, even if it is just to validate my 15-year-old self.

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