Before the pandemic, we didn’t really need to think too much about our physical interactions on a date. So long as there was consent, a hug, a kiss, a hand casually resting on the thigh, and even the indiscriminate one-night stand, was all a part of hook-up culture. But when touching becomes so normalized, it can also be taken for granted. As a coach working with men on integrity, accountability, and sexuality, I consistently found that some men approach dating with the expectation of touch. Ironically, this entitlement often caused frustration when they were not regularly experiencing physical intimacy: if touch was so normalized then everyone should “get” it.
Clearly, social distancing has radically altered the expectation of touch. Today, we stay outside each other’s “personal space” as a matter of public health and safety. This has shifted the way we’re thinking about sex, dating, and our own bodies. I have seen this shift in my male coaching clients and the 200 male members of the sex-positive membership community I run.
Here’s an example: the norm of social distancing disrupts the expectation that a man should just lean in for a kiss on a first date, challenging both people on the date to find other ways to communicate their desire and negotiate intimacy.
“There is no longer an expectation of physical sex,” says Boston-based men’s coach Gibran Rivera. Throughout the pandemic, Rivera has been facilitating group calls for hundreds of men. He says these men have expressed the need to focus on things outside of touch, as touch can no longer be the focus of the date. “It’s like, “Oh shit, I have to get to know who you are,” he explains.
“Because the stakes are so much higher, men are investing a lot more time, energy and curiosity in that first date,” says Joshua Hathaway, a prominent men’s coach in California. “The first thing that happens is [the partner] becomes a human; [They’re] not just a sexy photo and a few texts.”
I recently experienced this phenomenon myself, on a date with someone with whom I’d agreed not to break social distance. I noticed at least a few moments where I might otherwise have escalated from a deep eye gaze into a kiss, but instead held back. Instead of the rush of sensual gratification, I felt the vulnerability of staying with the gaze for longer than was comfortable; there was nowhere else to go.
This was frustrating, of course, but it was also sexy. After all, we always want what we can’t have, and now none of us can have what we want, at least not right when we want it. COVID-19 invites us into resistance, anticipation, and communication, rather than immediate gratification.
Mazin Jamal, a coach and anti-racism instructor in San Francisco, observes another implication of this forced distance. “Reverence,” he says, “comes from having to work harder.” And this newfound reverence for physical intimacy extends beyond sexuality. Withdrawing access to the touch that many men used to feel entitled to, "from fucking to fistbumps," says Rivera, has created an overall “greater awareness of the need for touch.” As a result, the pandemic is also encouraging many men to honor their own bodies in new ways. “I’ve definitely seen some men double down on porn addiction” during the pandemic, concedes Jamal, “But I’ve also seen some men really awaken to conscious self-pleasure practices and take them to another level.”
These shifts may be uncomfortable and frustrating in the short term, but they’re good news for our society. Seeing touch as something special, rather than something to be expected, is a healthy adjustment for men to make (And one consent educators have been trying to teach us for decades) After all, low expectations, greater reverence for the sheer intimacy of touch, and explicit communication have all been shown to reduce sexual assault and lead to better sex. In fact, one of the rare silver linings of the Pandemic may be that we emerge from this experience with a little more respect for each other’s bodies and an awareness of how incredible a privilege it is to share them.