Will lockdown change our shallow dating culture?

    3 April 2020

    You’d think the ‘me’ generation would love nothing more than a bout of self-isolation. Just think of all those exciting insta-opportunities – ‘here’s me watching me as I clean my teeth’, ‘here’s me enjoying a bit of me time.’

    Notwithstanding the young’s narcissistic tendencies, even they must be chomping at the bit, locked in stinky flatshares with no prospect of escape. They still have their beloved dating apps of course but what use are they now? Swiping can only get you so far before one or other of you has to agree to hook up or shut up.

    So hungry are we for connection that despite strict WHO guidelines it appears there has been a marked increase in dating app usage over the past few weeks. The world’s most popular platform Tinder recently sent out a message reassuring users that social distancing doesn’t have to mean disconnecting “we hope to be a place for connection during this challenging time but it’s important to stress that now is not the time to meet in real life with your match. Please keep things here for now.”

    But isn’t keeping those sorts of ‘things’ in cyberspace a tad cruel? They are effectively encouraging horny singles to continue whetting each other’s appetites without any hope of a happy ending. That’s not ‘connecting’, that’s water torture. And what about those lonely souls looking for something more than a dispiriting digital encounter? With drinks parties off the calendar along with every other social gathering, the chances of meeting anyone new is nigh on impossible.

    In theory of course it has never been easier for young people to connect. For the first time in history single women no longer have to rely on men to make the first move, which for many women has come as a source of relief, the consensus being that men are pretty hopeless when it comes to asking them out. This democratisation of dating has also come as a boon to young men who may have grown weary of always having to be the instigator. Contrary to popular belief, not all men enjoy the thrill of the chase. Going up to women in bars feels a little creepy especially in the Weinstein era.

    But the ease and convenience of online connections has come at a price. Too much choice has fed our indecisive natures, creating a sense of entitlement. Pre-virus online dating appeared to offer anxious millennials a way out of social media isolation but what we are now discovering is that more choice doesn’t necessarily lead to more fulfilling relationships. The ability to make meaningful connections depends on our willingness to accept sacrifice but for a generation brought up to believe they can have it all because they are worth it, compromise is seen as an infringement of their right to be happy.

    The manic search for perfection can become highly addictive – with each swipe the hope of someone prettier, younger, funnier, better. Unrealistic expectations have led to an intolerance of fallibility and a wariness of meeting in the real world. Every failed attempt at a connection weakens resolve and damages self-esteem. Those looking for a long-term relationship or just a casual encounter start to question their faith in humanity. The world appears to be full of stupid, unattractive people who consistently fail to live up to impossible ideals.

    Perhaps a period of extended isolation will finally bring us to our senses. We should use this time to reflect on how best to reconnect once we return to normality. Maybe we should look again at periods in our history when we valued qualities such as restraint and denial, when we weren’t afraid to defer gratification if it meant getting to know someone first.

    Those buttoned-up Victorians for instance were acutely aware that actions came with consequences and that sex and emotion were inextricably linked. Intimacy needed to exist within a moral framework for it to have any kind of meaning. Understanding that sexual intercourse was more than just recreational fun imbued romantic love with weight and profundity; the sanctified body was no longer simply a vessel for pleasure but a unifying bond linking the physical, spiritual and emotional realms.

    We have also tended to dismiss the 1950s as another stiflingly uptight period in our sexual history but instead of sneering at their prudery, we should ask why a post war generation treated intimate relationships with such reverence. Perhaps the spectre of all that death and destruction reminded them of the value of sex’s primary purpose, that of bringing life into the world. War had cheapened the very notion of human sanctity by making life dispensable. Dignifying the means of creation gave us back our sense of worth. The high-minded morality of the 1950s sprung out of a longing to find meaning in all the carnage.

    Before Covid-19 changed everything, we hadn’t had to endure anything like the fallout of two world wars, so that fragile sense of our own mortality had largely disappeared. As reticence turned to decadence, our attitude to sex inevitably coarsened. With human existence once again under threat and all desire put on hold, perhaps we need to re evaluate our cavalier attitude to human interaction. Let’s start by treating sex and relationships with the seriousness and respect they deserve.

    The Seven Ages of Man – How to Live a Meaningful Life by James Innes-Smith published by Little Brown later this year.