Q: “It’s post-pandemic times and I’m so lonely after being socially distanced as a single woman for a year. In the Before Times, I wasn’t opposed to bringing someone back to my home if I wanted to get together with them, even if I had just met them. Now, though, I feel so awkward and self-conscious (both about how I look after wearing sweatpants for a year, and just, like, on a safety level). Help! I feel my sexual and social mojo is broken.”
Rachel L., New Jersey
A: Rachel, you’re the woman of the year. Not just ours—the nation’s. Because every therapist, sexual wellness expert and single woman we spoke to felt many of the same things that you describe But luckily, these advisors have some tips and tricks for managing the new post-quarantine dating scene, as well as your own anxiety.
Truth #1: You’re Not Alone—A Lot of People Are Anxious About Dating and Sex Right Now
According to sex therapist Tammy Nelson, clients are expressing major anxiety about re-entry to not only work and socializing but also to their old sex habits. “Loss of social skills, bad home haircuts, extra pandemic pounds,” Nelson writes. “As the reality hits, lots of people are freaking out.”
The first step, experts agree, is to acknowledge your discomfort. According to Vienna Pharaon, New York City-based marriage and family therapist, “Managing anxiety requires us to gently acknowledge it first and spend some time with it. It is better for us to get to know it than to deny and hide it.” (She co-founded an online mental health app called Mine’d to help clients do just that.) “A great reminder is remembering that we are all in this together. The insecurities, fears and doubts you might have are probably showing up in one way or another for [potential partners] too,” she says.
Truth #2: Practice Makes Perfect
So once you’ve noted your anxiety, how do you move past it? Baby steps, says Emily Morse, sex podcaster and “the Dr. Ruth of a new generation” according to the New York Times. “After a year of social distancing, many of us have forgotten how to flirt and date IRL. The good news is that with practice you’ll be stronger and sexier than ever before.” On a recent episode of her podcast Sex with Emily, she reminds listeners to meet the gaze of someone they are interested in, approach them from the front so as not to startle them and to brush against them (but not in a creepy Hollywood producer way) while talking to let them know you’re interested.
Alternatively, the experts are clear that you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you’re not out swinging from chandeliers—or getting as lucky with tons of partners—as you did before the pandemic. Austin, Texas-based Tammy Shaklee, LGBTQ ally and advocate and proprietor of H4M matchmaking service, says “I personally think the past prolific hook-up culture has been tempered a bit, at least for now. I hear singles being more discerning. Meaning, if this could potentially be a risk, is this the person I would risk it for? Just because you took the vaccine seriously does not mean your fellow single did the same. If they express their justification for not taking the vaccine, is this person worth a hookup?”
Truth #3: Be Clear with Yourself and Your Date
“Instead of more open-ended questions, I hear folks asking WHEN did you have COVID? What date was your second vaccine shot?” Shaklee says. “More people [are] taking personal responsibility to make sure it’s been two weeks since the second shot. We are seeking signs of responsibility, self-control and due diligence in personal and public health.”
Marriage and family therapist Pharaon concurs: “Whether you’re looking for something serious, a fun summer fling or a hookup, it’s really important to get clear on what you need in order to feel comfortable and safe. Take some time to consider what matters to you: Do you care if someone is vaccinated? Are you only interested in people who are dating one person at a time? Do you want to know more about their lifestyle so you can determine whether it feels comfortable for you? She also recommends that while online or IRL dating doesn’t need to drastically change due to COVID concerns, “It’s probably good to start off a bit slower as your system acclimatizes” and “check in with yourself and how you are feeling” after swiping, texting and dating. That way, returning to in-person dates is not only a way to return to sex, but also an exercise in improving your self-knowledge about what you do and don’t like in a relationship, even if the relationship is one that lasts only a few hours.
Our favorite expert tip, though, has little to do with the “inside job” of esteem-building. It comes from matchmaker Shaklee, and it’s one we can easily embrace—shopping. As she puts it, “If you, like many of us, gained the Covid 15 or 20 pounds,” then [go out and buy] some nice, new formfitting and comfortable clothes and undergarments that rock those new curves.”
After all, a little retail therapy never hurt nobody.