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As summer approached and the coronavirus vaccines spread, Kimberly Resnick Anderson could feel the anticipation radiating off of her clients. The sex therapist treats a broad range of people at her Los Angeles practice, with patients who are in their 20s and in their 70s, who are partnered and single, who are in monogamous relationships and who practice polyamory. But many shared one belief: This summer was going to be full of hot, casual sex.
Now, about halfway into the summer, that belief has yet to become reality.
“My patients are finding themselves not as horny as they thought they would be, not as sexually responsive as they thought they would be, and generally find themselves in a different headspace,” said Anderson, who also works as an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Some people are back out there. But COVID just did a number on people’s mood and self-esteem and confidence.”
After months of isolation, the idea that summer 2021 would be a hookup-filled “Hot Vax Summer” has been held up as a kind of light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Now, it’s late July; the fabled Shot Girl Summer should be in full swing. And the question remains: Are people really partying like it’s 2019? Or was the promise of an easy, breezy summer filled with casual hook-ups just that—a promise?
“My patients are finding themselves not as horny as they thought they would be, not as sexually responsive as they thought they would be, and generally find themselves in a different headspace.”
Enter Wet Chaste American Summer. Dating apps are finding that their users are more interested in chasing committed relationships rather than the low-key flings that better fit the Hot Vax Summer ethos, representatives from Tinder and Hinge told VICE News. Sex therapists across the United States also said that, while some of their clients are thrilled about the prospect of dating again, others are struggling to indulge in uncut sexual hedonism—and had varying degrees of interest in even doing so.
“It is more about, ‘I feel lonely, I want a partner.’ It’s more about people seeking quality dating advice,” said Emily Jamea, a sex therapist in Houston. “There’s kind of a shift away from this hookup culture.”
When asked about Hot Vax Summer, Tara Galeano, a sex therapist in San Francisco, laughed. “I know that there’s a stronger desire for it and people are really wanting it,” she said. She’s not sure if that’s panning out. “What I’ve always heard is that people who are talking about it”—that is, sex—“aren’t having it.”
Three-quarters of Hinge users are looking for a relationship this summer, according to a May study of more than 2,000 users. Although Hinge is often known as the “relationship app,” meaning that its users tend to want more serious commitments, that high interest in relationships hasn’t wavered as the pandemic has waned, according to Logan Ury, Hinge’s director of relationship science. The world-changing pandemic might not have changed people’s dating habits as much as advertised. Just 14 percent of respondents fit the profile of what Hinge has dubbed a “Roaring 20’s Dater,” who “wants something casual and feels ready to get back out.”
“The rumors of this ‘casual hookup summer’ were vastly overstated,” Ury said. “My book came out in February and so I’ve been doing a lot of small group book talks and book clubs and things. And what I kept hearing from people is this idea of, ‘I spent the pandemic alone, it made me prioritize what I’m doing in life, and what I really want to find now is a partner.’ I just wasn’t hearing this narrative of, ‘What I want is casual hookups.’”
“The rumors of this ‘casual hookup summer’ were vastly overstated.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Tinder found that its users were prone to doing more work before in-person meet-ups. Conversations became 32 percent longer, while nearly half of all users had a video chat with a match. That’s not terribly surprising, since meeting in person meant a risk of catching a plague, but Sophie Sieck, who handles communications for Tinder, said that long conversations and video chats have remained popular even as access to coronavirus vaccines has grown.
“There’s a growing trend, actually, I think of young people looking for more committed relationships,” Sieck said. More than half of Tinder users are between the ages of 18 and 25. “This idea of ‘hookup culture’ is just really not a part of the way Gen Z dates.”
The dating apps’ findings also match with the results of a survey by Kinsey Institute, of Indiana University, which partnered with Cosmopolitan and Esquire to ask 2,000 Americans about their hopes and dreams for their post-pandemic sex life.
Released in March, the survey found that people weren’t planning to indulge in a sexual smorgasboard once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. More than half of participants said that they weren’t interested in one-night stands, while 64 percent said that they were less interested in having more than one partner at a time. Rather, participants wanted to get deeper into relationships before getting down: 37 percent said that they planned to wait longer to have sex. And out of surveyed single people, 52 percent said that they wanted to pursue a committed relationship next.
Another Kinsey Institute survey of 2,000 Americans, conducted between May and June, also backed up those findings. More than half of single respondents said that they are now less interested in casual sex, while more than a third said that sex on the first date would be a “deal-breaker” for them.
“At the same time, people are saying they don’t want a relationship just for the sake of having a relationship. They want the right relationship for them and they want to take things slow,” said Justin Lehmiller, a Kinsey Institute research fellow. “That’s where, I think, this whole idea of the Hot Vax Summer is kind of wrong, because the impression that it gives is that everybody’s gonna want to go out and make up for lost time and have all the hookups and wild and crazy sexual experiences. But that’s not really what we’re seeing in the data.”
Sieck posits that the death knell of hookup culture has been sounding for some time—the pandemic just sped it up. In fact, young people have been having less sex for years: One 2020 study, which analyzed the sex lives of about 4,000 American men and 5,000 American women, found that roughly 19 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 24 were sexually inactive between 2000 and 2002. Between 2016 and 2018, however, that share increased to about 31 percent. The percentage of sexually inactive women also rose, from 15 to 19 percent.
“That’s where, I think, this whole idea of the Hot Vax Summer is kind of wrong, because the impression that it gives is that everybody’s gonna want to go out and make up for lost time and have all the hookups and wild and crazy sexual experiences. But that’s not really what we’re seeing in the data.”
Other studies have found variations on this theme, leading to a phenomenon that has been dubbed, by various sources, to be a “sex recession” or a “Great American Sex Drought.” Researchers have blamed it on a host of problems, including the lack of committed relationships among young people. (More people are waiting until they’re older to get married, while fewer people are doing so at all.) That suggests that it’s the ability to partner up, not party around, that leads to the sex promised by Hot Vax Summer.
“It actually seems to be the couples who are gonna be having the hot and kinky summer,” Lehmiller said. In the recent Kinsey Institute study, most couples reported that their partner is now better at understanding and meeting their sexual needs. “There’s long been this myth that singles are having way more sex, on average, than people in relationships. If you look at the data going back decades, married couples on average are having more sex than singles.”
The question of whether the sex recession has given way to a sex boomtown also evokes a deeper, more existential inquiry. If Hot Vax Summer was ever going to live up to the hype, young people would not only have to return to their pre-pandemic behavior, but meaningfully transform themselves to the point that a generally sexless generation would suddenly be obsessed with the activity. In other words: Will surviving a minor apocalypse permanently change us?
Will surviving a minor apocalypse permanently change us?
Given that the coronavirus pandemic is pretty much unprecedented in U.S. history, there’s not a lot of evidence available to answer this question. The 1918 Spanish influenza frequently gets cited as proof of Hot Vax Summer’s inevitability because it preceded the Roaring ‘20s. But Erica Ryan, a historian who directs Rider University’s gender and sexuality studies program, said that the connection between the 1918 pandemic and the boozy, horny excesses of the ‘20s is tenuous.
“I wrote two books on the ‘20s and read countless newspaper articles, magazine articles, organizational reports, and, honestly, I saw the Spanish flu by name mentioned a handful of times over years of research,” Ryan said. According to her, the 1920s arrived at the confluence of a handful of social forces—urbanization, the flow immigration, the rise of a youth culture—that all built into what modern Americans now think of the Roaring ‘20s.
Even at the time, Americans didn’t think the Spanish flu had much of an impact on them. “When people asked them what caused this, why is the world so drastically different for us than it was for our grandparents—they pointed to the war,” Ryan said of people in the 1920s. “The experience of World War I was the most concrete thing that they could grasp onto, to say, ‘That is the thing that changed our lives and changed our country.’”
Trauma specialists are also trying to gauge how the pandemic has reshaped Americans’ mentality, although they’re pretty sure many are still traumatized. For well over a year, people have hovered in uncertainty as they caught COVID-19, watched loved ones battle the disease, lost jobs, been trapped in their homes and on their own. Now, the vaccines are available and COVID-19 restrictions are lifting, but the threat of disease remains real. There’s no clear sign telling people that the healing can begin.
“I think the choice of personal safety and moderation and control and still being social is going to be the overwhelming choice as opposed to throwing caution to the wind,” said Tamar Rodney, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing who studies trauma. “There’s a social drive to get things back to [a] new normal—whatever it is, we want things to go back as close as possible to the way it used to be. Trauma, though, by definition, can arise at any stage of life. It could be months, it could literally be years, before someone experiences the effects of the trauma they went through.”
Jennifer Aull, a sex therapist in New York City, has several patients who are single women in the 30s. At the beginning of the summer, they were thrilled to reintegrate dating into their lives. But now, Aull said, her clients have yet to have “crazy, wild, lots of dating experiences.” That could be because her clients’ social circles have shrunk, as people left New York. It could be because many of her clients are realizing they want to be more deliberate about who and how they date. But, Aull says, you can’t underestimate the toll that the pandemic continues to take on mental health.
“After you’ve protected yourself from a global pandemic for a year and a half, it’s very hard to just turn that off,” she said. “The trauma of what’s happened, for all of us—you can’t just stop that either.”
Ury, Hinge’s director of relationship science, said that her team has found evidence of what they’re calling “Fear of Dating Again,” or FODA. In the May survey, more than half of Hinge users said that they were “nervous and apprehensive” at the idea of being back on the dating scene.
Even the whiplash between the dire reports about the delta variant and the media’s sunny excitement over Shot Girl Summer could be rough on people. Conflicting media reports can engender stress, said Dana Rose Garfin, an assistant adjunct professor in the Department of Health, Society, and Behavior at University of California, Irvine.
“That being said, I think people want good news,” Garfin said. “I think if you try to tell people now, ‘Hey, there’s this delta variant, you need to be careful’—people don’t want to hear that. Well, some people don’t want to hear it and some people are still very concerned.”
“The Roaring Twenties were roaring for just a small subset of the population.”
Which brings up another wrinkle in the Hot Vax Summer narrative: As of early July, much of the U.S. hasn’t even committed to the “Vax” part. Just about half of Americans age 12 and older were vaccinated. COVID-19 cases are spiking among those who skipped the vaccine.
Ironically, this split also may be the biggest similarity between the mythologies of Hot Vax Summer and the Roaring ‘20s. There are, certainly, individuals who’ve been able to enjoy a sexual smorgasboard this summer, just as there were certainly liberated flappers in the ‘20s. But most people didn’t, or couldn’t, live that way.
“It loomed large at the time. The press and writers and movies loved to amplify that flapper, speakeasy life in the 1920s. But the reality was more than half of Americans lived below the poverty line,” Ryan said. “So the Roaring Twenties were roaring for just a small subset of the population.”