The struggles and sorrows of pandemic sexuality

Navigating a college sex life during COVID-19 is tough

Stereotypically, college is known for partying, trying new things and hookup culture. But with students living the best years of their lives remotely and wandering the ghost town that is campus, how does one become intimate and have sex with other people without risking the transmission of COVID-19? 


Personally, dating as a queer, nonbinary college student living in Portland during an apocalyptic event, I can honestly say that it’s been challenging. With the endless texting, disastrous Zoom dates and countless rapid tests to go on a single outing, this pandemic has made being closer to someone more challenging now than it has ever been. 


Typically, people used to worry about contracting sexually-transmitted infections, but condoms can be used to prevent that. Now, people are also worried about contracting COVID-19, resulting in protecting themselves and others by wearing a mask and showing proof of vaccinations.


Meanwhile, back in the United States, on-campus housing has drastically changed as a result of the pandemic, restricting the number of people in elevators and not allowing visitors in your room. Despite all of those restrictions, hooking up hasn’t stopped. 


We humans are biologically designed to respond to touch. It is touch that we associate with emotion, and the absence of it leaves a need to be touched. I once went a whole year not touching anyone. Not even a simple handshake—and I felt that distance between me and everyone growing each day. 


Maybe that’s why college students are still hooking up during a pandemic. We all want to be closer to someone, even when the world feels like it is ending.


Engaging with someone outside of your social bubble is always a risk. But we are social creatures, and now we must navigate the fatigue of social distancing. Whenever I have hung out with friends and met new people, right when we go into their dorm—boom—the masks come off. There is this complete level of trust that no one is sick, and that we are safe—which is likely wishful thinking.


For example, let’s say my friend Alice just started hooking up with a guy from Blackstone, a dorm across campus whom he shares with three other guys. One of his roommates is a Starbucks barista who works with at least four other people every shift, and they serve hundreds of customers each day. One of those people has a dad who is an anti-vaxxer who just caught the virus. With the average busy schedule of a college student, many still don’t have the booster shot—and the chain of transmission can be a very complex gamble.


With the end of winter break and school becoming fully remote, it can get lonely for students living on-campus who were promised a normal college experience. What I have personally learned during this pandemic is that dating and sexual encounters are possible if you set boundaries and make certain expectations clear from the beginning. Communication is key.


For college students in long-term relationships at the beginning of the pandemic, many may feel like they lucked out, and that they can ride this pandemic out together and don’t have to worry as much about getting sick or feeling alone. 


A friend of mine who felt incredibly isolated during the pandemic said that she reached out to one of her exes and established a friends-with-benefits situation because she was alone after her cat died. She craved to be close with someone—masturbation only went so far—and he made her feel safe and somewhat loved in a way. This situation over months finally turned into them giving their relationship another chance.


When COVID-19 first hit, I was in a relationship with a guy in my building—whom I fooled myself into thinking I was in love with. He wasn’t a bad guy, just a guy who was overly critical. He made me cry when I pointed out Wes Anderson had no Black characters in his movies, and that Quentin Tarantino wasn’t the epitome of cinema. Film students, am I right?


I’ve endured the historic toilet paper shortage, Zoom burnout and COVID-19 coming out with a new variant every other week. But I got to the point that I would have stayed in a toxic relationship with someone that wasn’t healthiest for me. I was willing to settle with just about anyone. I was lonely the first few days after I dumped him. Then I did what any sane lonely spinster would have done in that moment.


I made a Tinder account.


During lockdown, everyone and their mother was on a dating app. It was the summer of love, and there were plenty of fish in Portland—and being queer, the pool of potential partners was okay. Throughout the entirety of the pandemic, I was in many short-lived relationships, went on countless boring dates and had endless text chains that weren’t going anywhere. Some were kind, some a little strange and a few pushed past my level of comfort.


On one date in particular, I wanted to try and keep my mask for the entirety of the time unless I needed to eat. He told me the last date he was on was well over a year ago, and I was the first person he matched with. He was a nice guy, he also went to PSU, liked Brandon Sanderson’s books—and was a bit overly touchy, but I didn’t mind that. 


It wasn’t till the end of the date, when he walked me home, that he took my mask off without my permission and kissed me. It felt like it was in slow motion as he smashed his lips against my face, grabbing my hair to hold my head in place. I didn’t know how to react, but I kept thinking about whether I needed to take a rapid test or not.


After that night, I kept thinking, “Did I give him an indication I wanted him to kiss me?”


I explained to someone in my Medieval History class what had happened, and she replied that she noticed some guys she’s gone out with were leaning towards wanting to do more than what she was comfortable with—even a little more sexual aggressive. 


Throughout my college experience, guys often seem to know how to skirt around the notion of consent to a point—and when you call them out, they make it seem like you’re overreacting.


I wondered if this instance was a byproduct of wanting to feel connected during an apocalyptic pandemic. Was it triggering arousal, or was it simply him being an asshole? I blocked him after that date.


Since that incident, I have asked many fellow college students how COVID-19 has impacted their sex lives. Collectively, one way or another, COVID-19 heavily impacted how they meet people—from meeting people solely on dating apps to private messaging those they find attractive during Zoom calls. People are also trying to develop deeper relationships nowadays with others, and doing it the old-fashi


oned way by getting to know someone for a while before sleeping with them. 


For the people still hooking up, they are choosing to be physically vulnerable through risking exposure, and being emotionally vulnerable in trusting that their partner has not tested positive.


Even if you’re going to hook up, it’s always best to be safe because it’s not just your health you need to factor in. You are also responsible for the other person’s health. As my father would say, it’s always best to play it safe and don’t be stupid.