Arts·Pandemic Diaries

No sex and the city: With casual intimacy off limits, we are losing out on momentary connections

"I am finding ways to sustain long-term relationships, but I haven't yet found ways to replace these ordinary, ephemeral intimacies."

Writer Maighdlin Mahoney on mourning ephemeral intimacy in the time of social distancing

(Maighdlin Mahoney)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

It was April 2nd. The date seems inconsequential in retrospect, one of a slew of days that have started to fade into one another. But this otherwise forgettable date was immortalized when I unexpectedly, incredibly, received three (three) text messages...from three (three) women that I had casually dated or slept with in the last year...none of whom I had seen in over five months.

April 2nd: the day that queer women started to feel lonely, horny, and freaked out about the future of casual sex and dating.

When my phone buzzed the first time, I was surprised but mostly flattered, a bit curious. Right on cue, the tingly feelings of a forgotten crush were reignited. When text number two arrived, it was accompanied by a measure of confusion. Odd, that both would reach out on the same day. By the third, I had to pause. Too weird.

The messages themselves gave nothing away — all some variation of "How goes it, isn't life wild these days?" None of the women knew one another, so it couldn't be intentional. Could it really be that the queer women of the GTA panicked and reached out to their past flings in unsettling unison? What were they looking for when meeting, kissing, and hooking up were off limits?

(Maighdlin Mahoney)

I sifted through my memories in search of a common thread or explanation. I had been out with two of them multiple times, with the other only once. Two of them were in open relationships with primary partners; one was single and monogamous. I had slept with two of them but not with the third. One had bleached blonde hair but missed when it had been dyed blue. One kept a box of cheap red wine on her kitchen table. One could talk about Russian literature and bell hooks in a single breath.

The only similarity was the explicitly casual nature of our relationships — centered around fun, low-stakes flirting and no-strings-attached sex.

A-ha! So that must be it, then — they were reaching out to sext.

Now, this might have been a projection of my own desire and cooped up horniness, but it seemed fair to assume that at least one of the three was looking to get their virtual flirt on. Yet none of the conversations ever got there. The small talk quickly fizzled out into quarantine-related platitudes, and I waited and waited and nothing flirtatious emerged. No one offered any explanations for this sudden, out-of-the-blue contact, and the messages uneventfully trailed off.

I respect, and honestly envy, folks who are transitioning successfully into virtual dating and sex. But months later, my mind keeps wandering back to April 2nd and those three messages. Clearly there is a desire to connect that is not satisfied by dating apps, or texting, or even sexting. Did our messages fizzle out for lack of interest, or for a lack of conviction that what we were reaching for still exists?

(Maighdlin Mahoney)

Casual sex and dating, at its best, is a place where uncertainty can become thrilling, crackling — sexy. Meeting someone you have never met before, not knowing if you'll walk away after one drink or after dawn. Asking a person, a stranger, about their family, their routine and their aspirations, until suddenly they're not a stranger anymore. Wondering what their bedroom looks like. It is the unpredictability and suspense about the immediate future that can excite us, leave us leaning forward in our seats. Now that physical contact with strangers is off the table, the loss of casual intimacy serves as a reminder of how difficult it is to touch one another and embrace the uncertain. How nerve-wracking, the idea of kissing or even shaking someone's hand.

While we're mourning lost time with family and close friends, it can often feel flippant to mourn the loss of casual sex and dating — but these fleeting connections fill out the edges of our lives. The same way that our lives are filled by checking in with our favourite baristas or long-running jokes with our co-workers, by the bud you grab a beer with (probably several) every six months or an exchange of glances with someone on the subway. I am finding ways to sustain long-term relationships, but I haven't yet found ways to replace these ordinary, ephemeral intimacies.

The messages of April 2nd were perhaps a hopeful gesture that faded away in proportion to the hope itself. Were they about being horny? Almost definitely, or at least in part. But they were also implicitly about a fear that we are losing the ability to be momentarily, fleetingly connected to one another. I don't know how to get that back — maybe it starts with simply reminding myself to keep reaching for it. Take a risk, send off a sext, see what happens. You never know — I might just get lucky.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Maighdlin Mahoney (she/her) is a freelance writer with a background in theatre production, creation and performance. You can find her on Instagram at @maddymahoney.

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