Javier Benavidez, 35, is an unemployed Latinx creative strategist living in LA. Once stay-at-home orders were announced, Benavidez deleted his dating apps. "I was like, Well, this isn't gonna happen. I'm gonna learn how to bake bread, build a smoker, and teach my cat to walk on a leash," he said.
By mid-June, though, he was ready to get back into dating. "We have to date digitally," he said, or else risk isolation for an even longer time. "I'm talking five months of an unending hellscape that gets worse every single day," he said. "If you're not looking to connect with somebody—whether it's a fuck buddy, for short-term dating, a lifetime thing—I don't know how you're coping."
"None of this is ending anytime soon," Benavidez added. "Winter is coming. God, I hate myself for saying that. But people are tired of being alone."
In these dark, dangerous, and weird times, the pressure on dating has intensified. The trust, communication, and sped-up exclusivity with one partner required to safely date even casually during the COVID-19 pandemic is daunting: You need to have frank discussions about COVID testing; take precautions to engage in physical intimacy (and consider how to keep others in close proximity to you, like roommates, safe); and, well, protect your feelings and mental health in all this. Now, another threat is looming: the long, cold winter.
In many places in the U.S., winter means hibernation—and the desire to share it with a warm body, possibly one connected to someone you might actually like. As the air turns frigid, we're entering a much-earlier-than-usual cuffing season—a period that normally kicks into high gear in the fall, when single people scramble to find a partner with whom to weather the chilly, cocoa-filled nights. Cuffing someone means a winter full of sex, cuddling, kissing, and cozying. But with coronavirus hanging over us, locking someone down means being vulnerable not only with your heart, but your health. As a result, this cuffing season is set to be the most brutal, panic-driven one in recent history—think the Hunger Games of dating.
Sarah Puckett, a 23-year-old producer in New York, thought she had locked down a cuffing partner by June. She matched with a guy in March. Once, he walked two hours to hang out because he wanted to avoid public transit, and they even celebrated her birthday together. "I thought we were on the same page," Puckett said. "Like, we might as well continue to see each other—we'd already [been] exposed [to] each other."
Instead, the romance met an abrupt end. After about three months of dating, he broke up with her via text and Venmo'd her $15, writing, "Sorry for ending things like that. Here's beer/snack money."
"I've been clear on the apps about what I'm looking for," Puckett said. "Not someone who's trying to marry me, but is willing to have infinite sleepovers. Someone who I can cuddle with… [where] I can confidently say 'come over,' and [neither of us will] get sick [with COVID]."
Puckett's now cramming dates in while it's still warm. "I'm going on multiple dates a week to try to find [a cuffing partner] until it gets too cold to go outside," she said. "I'm afraid that there's not even [going to be other] social interaction once it gets cold, because everything's going to be closed."
Some dating apps have seen surges in usage as cuffing season approaches, according to data they provided to VICE. Hinge saw a 30 percent increase in messages among users in March, compared to January and February. Tinder shared that more members are swiping right on someone new, with conversations increasing by 20 percent. Bumble experienced a nearly 70 percent increase in video calls during the week ending May 1, versus video calls during the week ending March 10, when a national state of emergency was declared by the White House. On Lex, which caters to queer, trans, non-binary, genderqueer, and two-spirit people, messages went up 30 percent from March to May.
All the evidence points to this: Single people are scrambling to cuff earlier than ever. "[The approach of winter] feels like impending doom," said Nora, a 30-year-old queer grad student in Chicago who asked that VICE withhold her last name for privacy reasons. "I'm like, Oh my god, October—fuck. It's about to be dark and cold, and I'm not going to be meeting new people. I need to have somebody lined up."
"I don't like to think about going for a long time without having sex, or even having somebody physically close to me," said Nora. "I oscillate between being like, We all need to make some sacrifices, and, What the fuck, if I don't get laid, I'm going to go crazy."
Nora is preparing to cuff a pandemic winter cutie by setting her Tinder location range for under two miles. Recently, Nora had a date with a woman she met through the app—but who lived an hour away on public transit. "I know it's fucked up, but after date one, I'm thinking about logistics," Nora said. "I need people who I can bike to because it's wintertime. I'm not taking Uber or a bus."
"In the last four weeks, I'm getting more Hinge notifications and swipes on Tinder," said Nora. "It's the beginning stages of the panic." As a queer woman, Nora said, the tendency to "U-Haul" is already pretty common, referring to a long-running joke in WLW communities that stems from a joke made by lesbian comic Lea DeLaria on The Arsenio Hall Show back in the 90s about the stereotype of gay women moving fast in relationships. (The joke goes: What does a lesbian bring on a second date? A U-Haul.)
The fast-moving nature of this year's cuffing season extends to straight people, too. "I know people that have literally moved across states with [new partners] very quickly," said Benavidez. "People are just like, You don't want to weather this alone." (He's also found a way to benefit from this: buying inexpensive secondhand furniture that people entering pandemic cohabitation are eager to part with.)
Others have found disappointment on their cuffing season quests: getting ghosted by someone after sex, even when COVID-related considerations were discussed and, in some cases, plans for another date were made; relationships fizzling due to pandemic-related stress; simply not finding anyone you're excited to date at all.
But some single people aren't as into the strings-immediately-attached feeling inherent to this early cuffing season. Taylor Henderson, a 28-year-old writer in LA, deleted Grindr in May because he felt people were getting "pushy" and trying to force a hookup or meeting when he wasn't comfortable being with strangers during a pandemic. "There's desperation—and that was in May. I can't imagine what it's like now," he said.
"You don't know who's out here taking precautions, or who's out here meeting up with eight other people in a week," Henderson added. "It's kind of weird trying to feel out the trust level before you go out with someone." Instead, he's found a safety net in an ex-boyfriend.
Dating during a pandemic requires radical honesty and communication as single people weigh whether the risk of exposure is worth a connection, while also recognizing that the connection is a saving grace for navigating these hard times. And it'll be a lot tougher in 20-degree weather, when indoor date spots will be, as far as we know, inaccessible.
The conversations that need to happen to secure a safe cuffing season partner have been at the forefront of many people's minds—and they feel there's no time to waste about having them.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, 23, is a D.C.–based radio producer. She's actively avoiding "the emotional drama of being in a relationship," but is searching for "a safe, reliable, and mutually monogamous friends-with-benefits situation." She's weighing when to lay out her hopes for a reliable hookup on a person she's just getting to know.
"It's just finding the line of how soon to spring [the friends-with-benefits] conversation on somebody," she said. "As soon as it seems that [the relationship] isn't gonna die off in 48 hours—it's probably time to talk about [what I'm looking for]."
As winter approaches—along with a possible increase of COVID-19 cases—it's hard not to be scared of the future—and of not finding a trustworthy partner in harsh and uncertain times. But there's always hope, and there's always possibility, and that, for many people, is keeping them going.
"There are some wonderful connections that could be made right now," said Benavidez. "If you end up with somebody through this thing, it's ride or die. Not to go all Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail, but this is how you find your wartime consigliere."
To borrow from dancehall king Sean Paul, we're all out here hoping to find someone with the right temperature to shelter us from the storm. There's no time to waste, and as the Fahrenheit drops, our awareness of winter's coming, and the threat of not coming with someone else all winter, increase. Just as frightening is the thought of doing without a pandemic winter partner for other forms of intimacy—but if you can't cuff someone in time, as NYC Health said, at least there's always sex with yourself.
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