Random men beamed straight into my bedroom, one right after another, thanks to an app.
Like many people, I enjoy the male forearm. Two rolling pins of flesh swinging energetically alongside a body, or flexing under a layer of coarse hair, or bulging past the edge of a finely rolled chambray or oxford cloth—amazing. When I see a sleeve go up and reveal a thick shaft of forearm, I can imagine that forearm assembling a laser printer, or holding up a protest sign, or playing piano with one hand and holding out a spoon with the other, saying, “Here, taste.”
A penis, dangling like a bird that broke its neck and has to be euthanized, does little for me, visually. But a forearm, a calf, the occasional ear, that stretch of skin you would see if more men wore low-rise jeans—these are treats for the senses.
On Quarantine Together, the app that I have been using throughout the stay-at-home order to beam random men into my home for impromptu social distancing dates, there are no forearms. The app provides no pictures of faces, no gym locker selfies, no fuzzy underwater-camera images from vacations, no evidence that they have female friends or have held a baby or ever met a tiger. Every night, the app ushers me into a chat with a man whom I have never seen and know nothing about beyond his first name.
It’s the virtual equivalent of a confessional booth, and almost the exact premise of the show Love Is Blind—the Netflix show billed as an “experiment” that put sexy singles in enclosed pods, where they dated and eventually got engaged without ever seeing or touching each other. By night three of my very own experiment, I was voice-to-voice with a stranger, hanging off his every word, reading him my thoughts out loud, wondering, dizzily, what his forearms look like.
I am cynical about going on dates during quarantine. I know that some straight women are excited by the “slow courtship” that quarantine demands, apparently thinking that without physical contact on the line, men will be forced to talk to them. This line of reasoning makes me want to lie down and not get up until humans have evolved into some other life form. (If I could change one thing about dating it would not be, “Make strange men talk to me more.”)
But biological anthropologist Helen Fisher sold me on dating in captivity. Quarantine has introduced a valuable “intermediate step” between talking online and meeting up in person, she says.
“Sex is off the table. Money is off the table,” Fisher tells me. “I think we’re going to see fewer people having the first date, but I think the first date is going to become more and more meaningful because a lot of things will be weeded out before you spend your time, your energy, and your money on the first date. I really do think this is going to help people kiss fewer frogs.”
I think that dating apps are the single greatest tool to help women who date men waste less of their time being polite and deferential and defusing male aggression, and more time going after what they actually want. In the age of social distancing, we can wax poetic about how writing to each other for months without ever meeting may just bring back romance, but personally I don’t want to invest weeks before I find out if another person’s mouth tastes bad. I want to invest the time it takes to drink one whiskey soda. It’s a real risk: “You find them absolutely charming on the internet, you talk to them for several days, and then you kiss them when you see them in person and it’s the kiss of death,” Fisher says, laughing. “It happens all the time!”
But all courtships, whether they happen over the course of one night or one month, have “escalation points and breaking points,” Fisher says—and they can happen at any time. With social distance dating, “sure, you’ve expended a bit more time, but I think that’s the only drawback,” she says.
So, with the blessing of science (and no responsible alternatives), I tried going on dates during quarantine, diligently checking my phone every night and then dashing into another room to confess my feelings to strangers.
To sign up for Quarantine Together, I gave the app my name, my age, my zip code, my gender, and my preferred gender for matches. Every night at around dinner time, I get a text that says, “Did you wash your hands or stay indoors today?” If I respond “Yes,” they put me in another text thread, with a man. After a few minutes of talking with the man, we both get a text that says, “Just a heads up that this chat will close in a few. Let each other know if you want to hop on an audio call.” If you click the link in that text, it takes you to a video conferencing platform, much like Zoom, where participants can opt in or out of the camera function.
The chats have time limits, so to keep my week-long experiment going, I went on dates while cooking tomato sauce. I went on a date while watching a live concert. I went on a date, and during it my dad walked in, settled down in a chair next to me, looked at me and my date, and said, “This is a public space.” Some of the calls were video, some were audio only. Since the dates happened usually at random and with little warning, I didn’t do anything to get ready for them. I had never gone on a date in no makeup and a loose promotional T-shirt before. Now I have gone on many, and let me tell you, it is a humbling experience.
I was afraid these chats could easily attract Chat Roulette–style flashers, but my matches were more like the people who voluntarily sit in the front row at standup comedy shows. They were up for a little human adventure. Every time I was put into a chat with a match, I got a message from the app that said, “P.S. In the rare chance that your match is being disrespectful, just text ‘End Chat’ and it’ll automatically block your match from texting you.” But no one was rude.
Under normal circumstances, dating apps tend to bring out most people’s blandest, most inoffensive selves. A biochemist might write, “Ha ha yah I’m just making pasta. You make any food lately?” A Ph.D. candidate will text you, “Nothing too wild lol. Might watch re-watch the west wing at some point” as if this is a nice long runway on which a conversation can take off, and, perhaps, a shared life. Flirting with strangers during a pandemic has a different flavour. “At this point, people have got something serious to talk about—their fears, their hopes, their dreams, their disappointments,” Fisher says. “There’s a lot of data that shows that self-disclosure creates intimacy faster.” I heard fewer descriptions of people’s coworkers and commutes and more talk about their uncertainty, their families, the domestic arts they have taken up to pass the time. When one man said that he was sexually lonely, it didn’t feel particularly creepy. It felt like he was sexually lonely.
Dating online requires a kind of nakedness—a willingness to charge blindly toward an infinity of people with open need. Dating online during a pandemic only increases this feeling. But I loved looking through a window into other people’s lives in a time of instability—their evenings drinking beer, ordering groceries, passing the time, trying to divine the future even though the future is completely fogged in.
By the end of quarantine, I look forward to mastering social distancing dating apps, and being just like one of the stars of Love Is Blind—cozily ensconced in throw pillows and knit blankets, engaged to a person whom I have never seen and don’t really know, running, with my arms open and my heart full, toward my next mistake.
This article was originally published on GLAMOUR US