Looking for love: The perils of dating in a pandemic

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Restrictions have eased, but it's been a long, tough lockdown for singles choosing online dating. Hannah Fortune reports

Finding love during a global pandemic has proved to have its challenges. While stay-at-home and 5km-radius rules were in place, singles across Melbourne had to navigate a completely new way of dating. 

Market data portal Statista reported that 1.7 million Australians are using online dating apps, with the majority of users aged 25 to 34.

Diana Alverez and Ryan Bailey met through dating app Hinge in August.

“I wasn’t getting any matches and had kind of given up but then Diana popped up and we connected straight away,” Ryan said.

After giving up on dating apps, Clare Fitzgerald joins Ryan Thomas in the park for a covid-safe picnic. Picture: Hannah Fortune.

“I actually stopped talking to her for two weeks because I was worried about getting a fine if we met up, at the time it felt like the lockdown was never going to end. Eventually I caved and messaged her again. We went for a walk, had lunch in a park and I’ve stayed over every weekend since.”

While Ryan was predominantly concerned about the risk of lockdown penalties when meeting up, Diana had very different fears. 

“I had never used dating apps before, they just didn’t seem safe. I had seen so many horrible reports of girls being killed or raped.” 

In a recent investigation, Four corners and Triple J Hack called out Match Group (Tinder, Hinge, Okcupid) for not doing enough to protect users against abuse and sexual assault. 

Video: Diana Alverez and Ryan Bailey talk about planning their first date.

As part of that investigation, Janine Rowse from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine led a study on sexual assaults associated with dating apps. “Most sexual assaults facilitated by a dating app happened on a first face-to-face meeting and the majority of those were at the alleged offender’s house,” the study found. 

For Diana, being in the safety of her home during lockdown gave her more confidence and encouraged her to give it a go. 

“You know when a guy is just looking for sex. I was able to spend hours chatting with Ryan, getting to know him and working out if he was a good man, without any pressure of organising a date,” she said.

The couple said they were excited about restrictions easing and being able to date like pre-Covid couples. 

“We are actually going to a Colombian restaurant for dinner tonight and it feels like our first date all over again,” Diana said. 

Awkward meetings in lockdown

Western Sydney University researcher Lisa Portolan, host of of the podcast Slow Love and specialising in studying digital intimacy, said her research on dating apps in isolation showed users across the world are having longer conversations via the apps.

“Indian Tinder users described a rise in longer Tinder conversations. Which made many question if COVID-19 marked the return of Jane Austen-like courtships,” she said.

Clare Fitzgerald, after weeks of Zoom meetings with wine and many phone calls, agreed to a face-to-face date with someone she met on Hinge. 

“Our convos were very flirty and honest and felt like we knew each other even though we didn’t. Perhaps there was a stronger element of fantasy to escape the reality of lockdown.”

Since they were in stage 4 restrictions, Clare invited him to her home as part of the intimate partner bubble. The curfew meant her date had no option but to stay that night. 

I felt like I had already consented to something happening prior to knowing if that is what I would really want. I felt a lot of pressure for things to go well as there had been such a build-up. 

“We were both very nervous, a bit awkward and drank too much wine, the next day we went for a masked walk and a coffee and had a very uncomfortable goodbye.”

After this meet-up, his communication dropped off. Clare was left with with a feeling of pointlessness towards online dating during the pandemic.

“I think I might be more inclined to try and connect with people in real life, at the pub or local café in appreciation of the fact that we can now,” she said.

Lisa Portolan said Clare was one of many who had similar experiences.

“People started going through this cycle, because lockdown wasn’t ending, they felt like ‘what’s the point’. It was this loop where people were downloading, engaging, getting exhausted and deleting.” 

Lisa said research showed many Aussies had focused their attention on themselves, with sex toy sales skyrocketing across the country during the pandemic. 

One of Australia’s largest online adult toy stores, The Hot Spot, reported an increase of 42 per cent in sales this March compared to last. Sales from the 25-34-year-old age group have increased by 50 per cent, with seven out of the 10 purchases being made by women, the report on miragenews.com said.

“The stigma around female pleasure and sex toys has largely been lifted,” Lisa said.

“The adult toy brand Vush had astronomical sales during Covid and have introduced influencers such as previous Bachelor contestants to really normalise self-pleasure.”

Other celebrities are getting on board like UK singer, Lily Allen, who is raising awareness of sex positivity with her #imasturbate campaign. She has also released her own female adult toy. 

In a statement to the Daily Mail Allen said: “Female pleasure in itself is a taboo subject. The only way to make subjects no longer taboo is to speak about them openly, frequently and without shame or guilt.”

Lisa said that although we have experienced huge changes to the dating scene already, there are more to come. 

“We are in the middle of a historical rejigging of our understanding of romance, intimacy and sex. It’s safe to say the negotiation of intimacy has been irrevocably changed – even if it is only for the short while.”

Even with all the challenges this year has posed for singles, Katie O’Dea, an avid dating app user of the past seven years, has a positive outlook for the future of dating. 

“I’m probably more excited than ever to actually be able to get out and about and go out for dinner and meet new people at bars. I think the social dating scene will and should skyrocket.”