A Year With No Sex, Love or Dating In the Pandemic and Through Lockdowns
Illustration: Christa Jarrold
Life

One Year Without Sex, Love or Dating

One writer looks back over the lonely reality for single people in the UK during the pandemic.
CJ
illustrated by Christa Jarrold
March 17, 2021, 9:00am
To mark 12 months since the first UK lockdown, we're looking back at the year that's been.

Being single throughout the first lockdown might not have been so hard if I hadn’t begun 2020 still very much in a couple. I still remember the Christmas card he gave me and the message he wrote inside: “I loved spending 2019 with you, looking forward to more in 2020 and beyond”. I so wanted that to be the case. But a month later we were both sat in the bedroom of his flat, faces red with tears and my case packed to leave for the last time. “Can we still see each other?” he asked, his eyes glistening with the naive hope of an adolescent. Yet his 35-year-old rational brain surely must have told him the answer. He knew we couldn’t. The reason for the split was as simple as it was life shattering. He said he wanted children, one day. Children that I had never dreamed of myself nor could ever give him, even if I wanted to.

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They call it a deal breaker – the ultimate one, really, as there is no hope and no compromise – yet the expression makes heartbreak sound like a boardroom negotiation. It would be more accurate to say the relationship had a terminal illness and I chose to assist its death with dignity rather than let it carry on to an inevitable, but uglier, end years down the line. To me, it was a cataclysm that left me confounded by grief. Grief that felt more like physical pain for months. Months that, unfortunately, happened to coincide with a pandemic, which turned the other aspects of my life upside down, too.

“Now’s the time to get really good at wanking”, my also recently single friend Gemma says matter-of-factly over Whatsapp voice-note, as if masturbation was a skill like kayaking or getting a soufflé to rise, before adding, “and phone sex”. It’s the end of March 2020 and pressure is increasing on Boris Johnson to put the UK into a full lockdown. In the six weeks since my breakup, coronavirus has become a growing global disaster. The advice is clear: do not leave home, do not touch anyone, do not date, do not fuck. 

Of course I can physically go without sex or dating – for the past six weeks I did just that. But I also told everyone that this was ‘actually fine’. Bragging constantly about a forthcoming summer of promiscuity was a lame attempt at a confidence trick on my own brain. In the immediate aftermath of my breakup, the idea of another man’s touch or his weight on mine truly seemed inconceivable and undesirable. Yet when this became officially illegal, I panicked.

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In the year since the start of the first lockdown, single people have largely been ignored or erased in government communications about living with COVID restrictions. If, like me, you entered this pandemic single (or if you are in a couple where you don’t cohabit) sex has technically been illegal for most of it. There was a brief period where it was possible from July to October but any new relationship embarked upon during this time would need to have become exclusive and cohabiting within a matter of weeks to have survived the second wave. It’s safe to say most of us who went into this pandemic single still are and will be for some time to come.

Of course, no one actually thought it would go on this long. Most of the official advice a year ago wasn’t dissimilar to my friend Gemma’s - it was an era of Zoom dates, sex toys, phone sex and nudes, I was reassured by online magazines and sexual health charities all of whom sounded very upbeat about this new era of remote sexuality. Even a year ago, I sensed they were missing the point. Sex and dating, for the newly single me, were about reprising an old ritual of encountering other people in order to rebuild a coherent picture of myself as a sexual being.

It’s a common belief that any straight cis men who are titillated by the offer of sex with a transgender woman must be physically fetishising us. It’s an analysis I’ve always found tedious and reductive about what even the most casual encounters with strangers have taught me about people and about life. Some years ago, I anecdotally noticed that men on dating apps seemed much less bothered about the idea of being with a transsexual if they’d recently gone through a divorce or a long term relationship had ended. Their once imagined lives broken, they were hoping to see what a woman exiled from many heterosexual norms might have to teach them about their own failings. For years before I met my ex, I had gone “for drinks” with the sort of man who secretly hopes that by tasting my deviance, he’ll learn something more interesting about himself. It’s a vampiric exchange; a contract of heat and blood. I suppose last year I desperately hoped that the roles could be reversed. That, post breakup, with my own failed attempt at assimilating into heterosexuality, cis men might teach me about how to do normality better next time. That I would get to be the vampire.

I had taken the gamble to be single. I hadn’t chosen to be alone and bereft indefinitely.

Devoid of such luck, I instead spend significant parts of the first lockdown glued to Hinge and Tinder talking to people. In lieu of the ability to actually meet, I stay talking to men I may have previously swiftly turned down for a real date. I regale my friends who are bored with lockdown with stories of my improbable virtual interactions. At one point last summer, for example, I was talking to three different Army officers (don’t worry – different regiments!) despite the fact my politics are anti-imperialist enough to question if soldiers should even exist. When Vera Lynn died last June, my friend Huw cattily referred to me as “our very own Forces’ sweetheart” in the group chat.

At other times, the loneliness is too dark for jokes. Until things started to open up in July last year, I was tormented by memories of my ex flooding back to me in the hours, days and weeks spent alone in lockdown. His hand on the small of my back on a crowded tube platform, the time he rowed me around the Plaza España in Seville and I took the piss the whole time because being treated just like any other girl with a boyfriend on holiday was so unfamiliar, the specific way the cadence of his breath would change during sex, the way his face would melt into a disarming smile when I’d outsmarted him in a debate about some political point or other.

One criticism of government policy during the pandemic is that it has entrenched traditional norms in which only couples get the comfort of touch and intimacy. Having gone through the worst breakup of my life without even so much as a hug from a good friend or a gym class that promises to restore my self worth, it is inevitable that there have been moments in the past year I regretted my decision to leave my relationship. In breaking up with him, I had taken the gamble to be single and make room for another life, more suited to my own long term needs and desires. I hadn’t chosen to be alone and bereft indefinitely.

Given the pandemic’s side effect of reinforcing socially conservative romantic arrangements and aspirations, my rejection of my ex’s offer of precisely these things has also come back to haunt me at times. “You’re a transsexual and he was a tall, handsome, intelligent homeowner with great teeth: why the fuck did you do that?” my stimulus-starved brain started to bark at me. Sometimes, the queries were crueller: “Why don’t you want to be a mother anyway?”, the sadistic voice inside me asked. “Not much of a woman after all, you?” 

I must first claw back the other parts of my life when this purgatory eventually ends.

Tired of second guessing my own judgement, I’ve given up on the pursuit of dating for now. It was brutal and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but, in the end, time did the work in healing me from my breakup - we have all lived with restrictions for so long my relationship with my ex now feels like it took place in a different age, a time of crowded bars and packed restaurants. I can exchange a brief text with him now or even visualise his future wife and kids and not feel the searing pain. I can be glad he has the space for his own future, too. 

It’s not just time that’s helped: a brief late summer romance with a (slightly) younger man who unexpectedly slid into my DMs on Instagram managed to change my negative patterns of thinking about whether I’ll be alone forever: we didn’t work out long term but dating him showed me it may work with someone else. A second breakup, even if less intense, followed by a second lockdown, was a fucking chore. Again: no affirming spin class and no drinks with the girls. Since that whirlwind relationship ended so abruptly when we returned to lockdowns last autumn, the unsustainability of trying to build a serious relationship after all this solitude, anxiety and uncertainty has convinced me that I am not in the mindset to offer anyone else any kind of healthy relationship. I must first claw back the other parts of my life when this purgatory eventually ends. 

The pandemic has shown single and coupled people alike that all relationships are practical things, built more on a mixture of chance, timing, proximity and long-term compatibility than they are on initial chemistry or sexual desire, which you can have with many people. I loved my ex-boyfriend so much that, at times a few years ago, he seemed like my only true happiness. But it was still right our relationship ended, as many have done during the pandemic for similar reasons: incompatibilities and insecurities were revealed with the removal of distractions and overexposure to one another.

In the year since lockdowns began, I have relied so heavily on remote support from my friends that my yearning for romantic reassurance has receded just as my need for in-person laughter and fun with my friends has grown to desperate levels. I long for the conviviality and spontaneity of the house party that runs until 6AM, the unplanned dinner out, the gossip and the sarcasm. After the hard work of surviving these lockdowns without friendship, how could the arduous work of building a lasting romantic love compete?

For years before I met the man I adored then had to leave, I would imagine meeting someone like him and the life we would build together. I would daydream about how such a man would smooth over every scratch and dent left in my spirit by the unenviable tasks of being trans and a woman in this world and make it stronger. Of course, I hope I’ll find love again after the pandemic but I no longer fantasise about the more fulfilled and resilient and powerful woman I’ll eventually turn into when I have it. Alone, I have already become her.

@shonfaye