The macro effects of the coronavirus impact are undeniable: Tens of thousands of lives lost, , life seemingly suspended in midair. But the pandemic’s impacts have also rippled down to the minutiae of daily life, like and .
Uncertainty is now an inescapable presence. As someone who’s single, I often toil over what sex and dating will be like “after this is all over,” when and if it’s ever really over. While no one can know for sure, of course, I decided to ask futurists — people who stare uncertainty in the face for a living — for their thoughts.
Where we are now
First, let’s look at the present: Plenty of folks are still meeting people, whether virtually or by eschewing social distancing rules (and risking lives in the process) to meet up in-person. Dating apps raced to add features to keep users swiping or “liking,” from to .
Ross Dawson, futurist and co-author of the , which was initially released in 2016, believes that the pandemic accelerated already-existing trends. in the United States pre-pandemic. People have fallen in love through screens for decades now — and we’ve seen it’s not just about sex, but intimacy and engagement. , for example, was a Kickstarter campaign in 2014.
What the pandemic did do, however, was push people to virtually date beyond chat. We’ve gotten creative while quarantining, now having dinner or watching a movie with a date over FaceTime. “That’s something that you are less likely to have done in the past,” said Dawson. “[You’re] sort of pushed into this situation where you’re trying to get to know each other or to build a relationship or engagement.”
“We are finding creative ways to connect intimately on all the other dimensions of intimacy.”
Dawson has actually been surprised about how slow-moving people have been with building these genuine relationships online. “It’s gone more slowly than I would have expected in terms of people really using these tools of communication and connection to engage, not just superficially with social media or chitchat or memes and stuff to ones which are truly engagement,” he said. “A lot of people are discovering the potential of this for the first time.”
Group chats are replacing bars and parties as “pick-up zones,” according to Bryony Cole, founder of and co-founder of , a game for intimacy during COVID. “The emergence of online sex parties and mixers is also allowing people to dip their toes into worlds they may have been hesitant to explore in the physical realm, like NSFW sex parties,” said Cole in an email to Mashable.
Cole also thinks the pandemic has somewhat reverted dating into old fashioned courtship — getting to know each other before exchanging any touch or body fluids. Indeed, op-eds in the and have celebrated this shift, and it’s been a running joke online that only being able to communicate virtually is rendering dating into a 21st-century Austenian story:
You know who’s really gonna suffer during this social distancing?
Dudes on dating apps
Welcome back to courtship, Brad. Welcome back to talking to a gal for WEEKS prior to meeting.
We’re pen pals now, my dude.
We bout to get Jane Austen up in here.
Now, write me a poem.
— Kaitlyn McQuin (@kaitlynmcquin) March 15, 2020
“We are finding creative ways to connect intimately on all the other dimensions of intimacy (emotional, intellectual, spiritual and shared experience),” wrote Cole, “whether that means swapping a recipe for the other person to cook, or actually cooking the dinner and getting it delivered to them, or divulging a deeply personal story.”
Cole believes the pandemic engendered an acceleration of an already-existing trend: The shift in sex culture. With the popularity of shows like Sex Education and Euphoria and Gwyneth Paltrow’s The Goop Lab exploring sexual wellness, it’s like our society was already primed for this shift according to Cole.
The pandemic hasn’t changed futurist Faith Popcorn’s predictions on the future of sex and dating but, similar to Dawson and Cole, she envisions an acceleration. Popcorn, who established her futurist marketing consultancy in 1974, said this acceleration is already being seen in sex tech: Sales of teledildonics — smart sex toys that can be remote controlled by people on different continents — are increasing (just as ).
These spikes in sales could change VC attitudes of the sex tech industry for the better. “I have already seen a shift in attitudes with investors looking to dip their toes in the $30bn industry,” said Cole. “Previously there were challenges accessing funding because of the shame and taboo associated with sex, now it looks like an incredibly lucrative industry to be a part of, as we realize intimacy is essential.”
While these are largely positive shifts, the pandemic may be responsible for negatives as well. Popcorn pointed out that only during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the demand for couples therapy is up 48 percent, a Talkspace representative told Mashable.
But these are all occurrences happening now. What about when the pandemic is over?
The immediate aftermath
In the wake of the pandemic, Popcorn predicts a big spike in divorces; . Beyond that, she predicts a phased return — a term more often used in connection to after time away. While people are craving sex and connection, they’re also scared that they could contract the virus. Popcorn said this will lead to — certifications that a potential hook-up is virus free — being popular among singles. Those with antibodies will reenter the dating pool faster.
Dawson also compared immediate post-pandemic sex and dating to working from home. Just as many companies will revert to a sort of midpoint — where not everyone is working from home anymore, but some people never return to the office — many people will go back to dating in real life right away, while others won’t.
Since far more people have experienced virtual dating, said Dawson, it’s now an option among the array of other dating options. He imitated someone’s future reasoning: “If it’s easier and it works, then yes, we can go out for a drink or a physical dinner. But maybe, for whatever reasons… let’s do a virtual dinner today. That’s actually gonna work because we’re an hour and a half away, let’s just try that instead.”
Another analogy Dawson gave was to international travel. Just as some people will be on the first flight to a foreign country, some people will seek out sex immediately — but not everyone. Others will stay put at home, and still others will not be so quick to touch and exchange bodily fluids.
In Cole’s observation of online discussion, she sees three groups emerging: “A first wave of people that are eager to get out there, a more cautious wave of folks who will only start to date when everything has opened back up and the government have okayed it, and another wave of people who may have found their new preference, to spend more time with themselves.”
She doesn’t foresee dating changing that much beyond the presence of video chat — but it depends on how long social distancing lasts. “If we were in lockdown for years instead of months, yes it would have an impact,” said Cole. “For now I expect to see normal dating patterns bounce back, albeit with some honed virtual flirting and sexting skills.”
Popcorn thinks that some people will retreat from relationships. They will experience what she calls armored cocooning, a segment of her general term , which is the need to protect oneself from the realities of the world. Armored cocooning is taking extreme measures to protect and prepare one’s household to survive and thrive. It includes necessities like food, education, and telemedicine. This coincide’s with Cole’s third group of (non)daters.
Popcorn also foresees a level of hedonism, of people enjoying not only sex but drugs and alcohol, partying, indulging in food and purchases. Like , Popcorn said that some will buck the tradition of monogamy.
“We’ve looked in the face of the end of the world,” said Popcorn. “Monogamy? Come on. Savings accounts? Come on. Saddling my shoulders with a mortgage? No way.”
“Monogamy? Come on. Savings accounts? Come on. Saddling my shoulders with a mortgage? No way.”
Dawson, too, believes that this experience could lead people to open their relationships. For him however, that’s because the pandemic came at a time where . “We’re at a social threshold,” said Dawson. “For sometime now there’s been more discussion, it’s become more acceptable, it’s become part of the conversation. The stigma is disappearing.”
“I think that this is part of that acceleration piece,” Dawson said on non-monogamy. “In the sense that it’s an existing trend reaching a threshold.” He’s unsure of how massive this specific acceleration will become, but the pandemic could act as a trigger of sorts; people who may have been interested in non-monogamy previously may actually go for it when the pandemic is over.
Looking further into the future
According to Popcorn, we’re all going to have varying degrees of PTSD after the pandemic, similar to living through a world war. This will not only make therapy — including therapy bots — essential, but it will impact our nerves, tempers, and subsequently our relationships.
This is, at least partially, because parents see they may not always be able to regulate childcare to the educational system. “After farming, after we started coming to cities, people have found relief in send[ing] kids to school,” said Popcorn. “Now we’re seeing that maybe school will not shelter our children.”
When adding in the uncertainty of our future, the presence of climate change, more and more people may opt to be childfree. Furthermore, the massive job loss and healthcare uncertainty many people in the US are facing right now doesn’t bode well for a twenty-first century baby boom.
Cole agrees that birth rates will decline. “While some predict a baby boom because of isolation, if we look at history during times of economic uncertainty, we can assume the population will drop,” she said.
Dawson and co-author Jenna Owsianik had several predictions about what the in their report. Here are two examples: First dates in motion capture worlds will become popular in 2022, and by 2024 people will be able to both be anybody and be with anybody in photo-realistic virtual worlds.
Dawson stands by the report, but believes one prediction may be thrusted forward due to the pandemic. By 2028, according to the report, over a quarter of young people will have had a long-distance sexual experience. “We might be able to push that forward a little bit,” said Dawson. Given that many people are opting to sext and send nudes now as opposed to risk meeting in real life, that’s certainly a possibility.
Both Dawson and Popcorn believe that human-robot relationships are the future. The Future of Sex report predicts that one in 10 young adults will have had sex with a humanoid robot in 2045, and Popcorn pointed out the rise of . Popcorn also foresees more people who consider technology integral to their sexuality.
“We must change and we can change.”
While this is speculation as of now, Dawson is optimistic about how the pandemic could be a catalyst for positive change. “This is a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “We must change and we can change, and in so many aspects including the nature of social relationships and how we connect and how we relate and engage and give each other pleasure.”
Cole, too, foresees positive moves going forward.
“We’ve moved on from shame,” she said, “we’ve gone beyond the giggles over vibrators from 90s Sex & The City, we’ve elevated our social sexual awareness with movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, and now, the future of sex is set to blossom – both as an in industry, a cultural conversation and critical part of our lives.”