Last month, my colleague Meredith Balkus asked the hard, but necessary, question all single people attempting to survive and actually date during this pandemic need answered: When can we kiss????? This question has plagued me since the prospect of dating in the age of COVID became real following my pandemic-era breakup. All I want is to be one of Bong Joon-ho's Oscars, engaged in a kiss with another hot, coronavirus-free statuette. Will I ever know the mouth-feel of another human?
In the absence of the warmth of another human body, I've turned to a trusted, albeit kind of embarrassing and hopefully temporary, method for replacing actual touch: watching romantic movies and TV episodes to vicariously feel physical human connection.
After my breakup, I went from quarantining with a romantic partner, to going cold turkey, alone, back in my apartment. I have zero regrets, and I'm much happier now, but it's hard not to feel the jolt of a sudden loss of contact. Since then, the closest I've gotten to any sort of sexy or affectionate touch is getting my neck cracked by my chiropractor twice a week and getting a sonogram to check my uterus for fibroids—not exactly the sort of touch that gives you goosebumps.
With seemingly no end in sight to our global nightmare, it's impossible not to find myself staring off into space, fantasizing about a drunken kiss outside of a bar, embracing someone in a hug, or actually having sex again. This is compounded by the fact that every date I've been on requires social distancing (meaning, my dates and I sit six feet apart and chat over a drink) and, therefore, a level of chastity that I'm frankly not used to, especially as someone whose go-to first date line is, "Should we make out and see if we like it?" (This is a clutch move that has never failed me... until now.) All I hear in my head now is the forceful bark of “no touching!” a la Arrested Development.
This desire for physical affection has led me to engage in what I call "touch porn," meaning, I watch films or episodes of television where characters have an especially romantic bit of contact. It isn't really sexual; I'm not masturbating to a particularly saucy episode of Outlander (though godspeed to anyone who is, because that shit is hot). It's more about feeling ardor and longing while viewing expressions of intimacy that are currently unsafe.
You ever watch the episode of New Girl titled "The Cooler," where Nick grabs Jess in the hallway of their apartment and lands a passionate, "fisherman back to shore after months at sea"–type kiss on her—their first kiss!—leaving her shaken to her core, then hit the 10-second-rewind button so you can watch the kiss over and over, as you feel your breath catch in your throat and inadvertently stroke your lips imagining what it would be like to be kissed like that again? ME NEITHER, ha-ha… ha..
Except, yes. I absolutely do this, and it's tragic. When I watch two characters hold hands, or kiss, or have sex, all of a sudden, I find myself tenderly playing with my hair to feel the warmth I see onscreen.
I'm happy being single, but being single in a pandemic, not knowing when someone will ever caress your face (or put their whole neck into eating you out again) is absolutely horrifying.
"You have my sympathies on that," joked Linda Weiner, a St. Louis–based sex therapist who specializes in how physical touch can help with struggling with sexual anxiety, frustration, and pleasure.
"Touch is absolutely primal," Weiner, who trained under famed sexologists and the subjects of the Showtime series Masters of Sex William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, explained. "We need it for physical, mental, and emotional well being. Without it, we ain't so good… You are longing for something. It's human connection. You've turned to movies related to that, that stir that memory." (While Masters and Johnson were pioneers in the field of sex therapy, others have criticized the pair for only focusing their research on white, cisgender heterosexual individuals and observing sexual behavior in a lab setting as opposed to within a real social and cultural construct.)
In my most sexually frustrated moments, I've watched the sex scenes between Connell and Marianne on Normal People, the television adaptation of Sally Rooney's novel that some have affectionately called the "horny Irish teen show." Those scenes are so intensely sensual that someone had made a supercut of them and uploaded them onto PornHub until it got taken down.
With each rewind and rewatch, I studied the way Connell touches Marianne's face, or how his gold chain falls on his chest. The little ways in which even a small bit of Connell's touch on Marianne's skin charges the room with a sexual energy led me to softly rub my arm, like the kid at school who did shit like draw bird vaginas in their notebook.
"Stroking your arm—a lot of people do this without really noticing," said Weiner. "It's not unusual. Most of us do touch ourselves, whether that's conscious or whether that's meant for sexual gratification, or not. But we need touch. Period."
The sexually charged energy seen on Normal People is just not happening in my Brooklyn apartment, where I sit stewing in my own sweat like I'm in a boiling swamp Jacuzzi inside Satan's butthole. There is a blueprint for safely dating during COVID, thanks to my colleague's enterprising research, but the thought of all it entails is daunting. Then again—the thought of abstaining from putting my mouth on another person until 2021 is bleak.
The absence of physical touch can have palpable effects on a person's mental and physical health, according to Weiner. Touch, she explained, releases the "feel-good hormones"—meaning oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine—that help people deal with anxiety, stress and depression, and boosts mood, nutrition, and immunity. "[Touch] makes you feel safe and calm," she explained. "Otherwise, you feel very anxious, and could feel depressed, and could experience more pain."
Touching oneself while, say, watching Peggy and Stan kiss after declaring their love for one another on the series finale of Mad Men, is a form of "self-soothing," per Weiner.
"Another thing that can help during the pandemic is to touch yourself in non-sexual ways, and also for those who are so inclined in sexual ways because having an orgasm releases dopamine," Weiner said. "That is one of those feel-good chemicals that we need."
On a recent night, I laid in bed, ready to fire up my sister's Netflix account and engage in my dark, twisted habit. I flipped through the options and stopped in my tracks when I landed on the ultimate in touch porn viewing: the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, commonly referred to as "The Keira Knightley One." Period dramas, and the sweeping love stories of Jane Austen novel adaptations especially, are touch porn heaven. The societal expectations and courtship standards of the Regency period meant touching was highly forbidden, lest a young woman be branded wanton; a gentle graze of the hand would set the corset of a repressed upper class British woman in flames.
This version of Pride & Prejudice has the sort of delicately ardent romance that makes horned-up period nerds heave a heavy sigh, forgetting momentarily that everyone in that era probably had nasty breath. I chose to visit to early 19th century Hertfordshire, England, for one scene in particular: Elizabeth Bennet is leaving Mr. Bingley's massive estate after an afternoon checking in on her sister Jane, who caught a cold and had to stay the night, when the arrogant, extremely handsome, and conveniently loaded Mr. Darcy unexpectedly takes her hand to help her into her carriage. Elizabeth is startled by the feel of his hand upon hers, and clearly kind of into it, even though she thinks he's a total dick.
Mr. Darcy, too, felt something in that touch, because, as he walks away, they give each other a quick steamy glance, and the camera zooms in on his hand as he stretches it out, seemingly to shake out the electricity coursing through it. I watched that scene no less than five times. I put my left hand in my own hand for a few seconds. It, shockingly, didn't hit the same, but it still felt nice. I immediately became self-conscious even though I was alone in my room, giving me the same sensation as when my aunt caught me looking at my vagina with a hand mirror in the bathroom when I was 11. It's all normal and part of the natural curiosity of human nature, but the vulnerability of it felt cringe—in both instances.
"You're experiencing the pleasure of the memory, which is good," Weiner explained, validating the sense of loss that comes with missing people—and touching people—in these dark times, when even standing too close to someone can lead to infection.
Watching moments of touch on my screen, I kick myself for all the times I didn't relish in the warmth of a crush's hand in mine. Or that I stupidly passed on sex because I wanted to watch She's the Man for the four hundredth time alone at home. I have regrets! In longing for the feel of another person, it's hard not to grieve also for the possibility of touch. Safely embracing, kissing, and having sex with someone met in a post-COVID world isn't impossible, but it seems so wrought with uncomfortable conversations and dangers that it's hard to feel hopeful. And knowing that the excitement of a first kiss will inevitably be infiltrated by the fear of illness, tainting the moment and filling me with nerves for an innumerable amount of days until a negative COVID result comes through, also adds to that sense of loss. It’s all very overwhelming, and a little heart breaking. Even so, I'm not willing to give up that hope because shit is grim enough. Until then, I'll engage in my dorky little pastime, and wait.