The New Normal: Dating During COVID-19

Dr. Brian J. Troth //

The trouble with normal is that so very few people are. I’m referencing Michael Warner’s The Trouble With Normal, in which the author shows that our notion of ‘normal’ is the result of society accumulating data. Once we knew how many people fit into a category, the majority category became synonymous with ‘normal.’ Somewhere along the lines, abnormality became a synonym of bizarre. That said, abnormality should only be seen as that which provides the difference without which ‘normal’ would not exist at all. COVID-19, this nefarious disease that has us relying heavily on technology to maintain some semblance of ‘normalcy,’ has revealed not only a new normal but also showed us the possibility that ‘normal’ can be uncomfortable.

When, in March 2020, the world went into lockdown, I was single and lived alone with a cat (not much has changed, but now I can eat in restaurants). I quickly realized that it was hard to be single during lockdowns, and I, like so many others, turned to my cell phone and social media in order to communicate with my students, deliver lessons, attend happy hours with my running group, and meet men. Bref, I turned to my phone in order to live.

I could have chosen to write this blog about any aspect of my digital life, but I am placing emphasis on dating and more specifically on sex. If sex, as Julian Dibbell once argued, is life’s most body-centered activity, then it stands to reason that sex would be life’s most impacted activity once the physical body is removed from the equation. Indeed, it has been argued that the body is not a secondary entity when it comes to dating online. Until the body is introduced, ‘seduction [is] only provisional’ (Witt 21). Virtual love has thus been construed as a villain that controls desire and denies us our freedom; virtuality is undermined by a return to the  ‘real’ (McCaffrey 28). Real is freedom.

Yet if we can perform ‘real’ work online and have ‘real’ conversations through text, then why couldn’t we find ‘real’ love through our phones? The lack of a physical body has never stopped someone from having sex online (Waskul 3). Without a physical body, those who engage in cybersex must simply evoke one (73). The body must be written into existence (42). It’s not, Waskul argues, that the body and the self are separate entities. Rather, we must accept that one does not ‘automatically imply the other’ (127).

I have argued elsewhere (see my forthcoming chapter ‘Hookups’ in Queer[y]ing Bodily Norms in Francophone Culture) that many of us participate in the creation of a digital identity, part of which is wrapped up in our dating profiles. There are those deceptive individuals who create fake profiles. We shall exclude these catfishers and focus on the other people one might find on a dating app. Users of apps like Tinder, Scruff, Grindr, and OkCupid carefully curate their profiles and select photos that are meant to catch the eye of possible romantic partners before they swipe left for ‘no.’ The profiles not only represent the person creating them, they re-present them. The goal is that the digital body—connected to a physical one—can entice another digital body, itself also connected to a physical one.

Our digital bodies, just like our physical ones, manufacture desire. And the production of desire is as beautiful as it is capitalist. Inasmuch as we live in a capitalist society where production is the linchpin, anything that produces should be regarded with reverence. Even if, or perhaps especially because, it’s not what we’ve considered ‘normal.’

COVID-19 has forced the world to halt in some ways, but it cannot fully grind to a stop the production of desire. Rather, COVID-19 has displaced that production process. It has relieved the physical body of its duties and has placed the onus on the digital body. Consider, by way of example, that Tweets containing the word ‘nudes,’ affixed to tweets about coronavirus, have increased 384% according to a study by Khoros (Ferrari).

It appears that virtual dating has become, for lack of any other choice, our new normal. I, for one, hope that our new normal sheds light on the fact that normal may be uncomfortable. Perhaps that will alleviate some of the burden of bizarreness that has unjustly been placed on that which is abnormal.

If, with text messages and FaceTime, our new normal has begun to resemble science fiction, we should not be surprised. After all, we have been promised for decades that the future is nano. The beauty of science fiction, though, has always been that ‘its authors never had to work out the logistics of how we would arrive in the future’ (Witt 201). It was never explained to us how we would get to this point. We did not know the ways in which we would have to reconfigure our own lives.

We figured this out ourselves. The reconfiguration of our lives and our dating lives has its precedent, though. Online dating, before it became the only safe way to date, has always been entrusted with the maintenance of sexuality, imbued with physicality even though it was disembodied. The goal of online dating has never been to avoid the physical encounter. Online dating was envisioned to be its precursor, producing desire between two people to physically meet one another. Both parties have always understood that their seduction was provisional until the screens were removed. 

If anything, the production of desire can now go unchecked. It is not just disembodied, it has been liberated from the body. Whether I date someone in my city or on the other side of the world is of less importance than it used to be. The pressing question of this era is when introducing the physical body might be possible. Until we have an answer to that, we shall continue swiping.

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