You have been conducting research on online dating during the corona crisis. What can you tell us about it?
”Not much yet. We launched a survey about online dating and personal relationships. It’s now closed and we’re about to start analysing the data. I do have some predictions, even though I can’t back them up with data right now. As a researcher, I must also say that these times are a research goldmine. It feels like an experiment and the whole world is exposed to it. These are extraordinary circumstances since the entire world is suddenly in the same boat, which hasn’t really ever happened before.”
What intrigues you most about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on online dating?
”The corona crisis made me really curious about video dating because it wasn’t really a thing before, but now it seems that it is. I think that now that people are forced to video call for their work all the time, they are becoming more comfortable with using it for other social activities as well. In a time of not being able to meet other people face-to-face, having a date through a video call is a way to find out if people really are who they say they are. What do they sound like? How do they behave? Do we really have a connection? A lot of dating apps have also realised their users cannot meet face-to-face at the moment, and are now capitalising on it: Tinder and Happn, for instance, are now introducing features such as audio messages and video calling in the applications.
“I also wonder if the crisis has had an impact on the motives that people have for using dating apps now: for instance, if you previously used it to have sex you can’t really do that anymore, except for sexting. Finding a romantic partner is also more difficult now, since you can’t really meet people face-to-face. A possible outcome is that online dating will now be more about finding people to comfort you in this stressful period: perhaps we’ll find completely new motivations for using a dating app during this unusual period of time.”
Our social contacts are definitely more limited now. Can dating apps help single people combat loneliness during quarantine?
“I do think so, yes. Especially if you’re a single person living by yourself, it might get really lonely and then a dating app could be the place you go to look for other single people to bond with, who are in the same situation.”
A lot of measures have been imposed that make dating quite difficult. Are users respecting the social distancing rules?
“I hope so, but I’m afraid not everyone will. Of course, this depends on the situation in your country, and how concerned you are about the virus: if you feel like it can’t touch you at all, then of course you engage more in risk-taking behaviour. With regards to sex, I’ve heard people believe things like ‘if you do it doggystyle you can’t get infected’, or ‘if you don’t kiss you can’t get infected’. Clearly this isn’t very good advice; if you can get infected just by touching the same doorknob, I don’t see how doggystyle is going to help you.”
So how do you hook up then, when you can’t physically meet? Are we sexting more now?
“I think we’re definitely sexting more now. That’s another interesting point to look at in research: have people who haven’t sexted before, started sexting in quarantine? Perhaps they’re feeling like ’well, I’m horny but I don’t really have another option, so let’s just go for it’. Or is it just the people who already had sexted previously? Video dating and sexting can change the way we experience intimacy, when we can’t physically meet. So if you’re horny in quarantine, it doesn’t mean you can’t have some sexual fun – there are still ways to do that, and sexting has the potential to fulfil sexual needs. You can still strip in front of each other through a video call like you would do in person, and people are definitely getting creative with this.”
Is quarantine the ultimate test for a romantic relationship?
“I think the quarantine can really test your relationship, but I don’t think it will make or break relationships. If you already had problems, you might struggle even worse during this quarantine. Or perhaps staying together 24/7 will help you find each other again. But people are also acting differently now because it’s an extraordinary situation after all, and you can’t necessarily predict how you’ll respond to it. Just because you have problems in your relationship during quarantine, that doesn’t mean it won’t work after it ends. At the same time, we have also seen divorce rates rise in Wuhan after their lockdown ended, so that’s the other possibility.”
Thinking of dating apps such as Ashley Madison, which is an app primarily meant for people in a relationship that are looking for an affair, do you think the crisis stops people from cheating on their partners?
“This is a question I have asked myself: how do people even manage to cheat when they’re stuck in close quarters with their partner? Interestingly, during the corona crisis, websites like Ashley Madison and the Dutch version Second Love are seeing their membership increase, with more people being active on their platforms. So it seems that if you want to cheat, you will find a way to cheat and nothing is going to change that. But what is complicated is that if you find out that your partner has cheated on you, it is hard to manage it and respond to it when you’re in quarantine together. You don’t have your own space and you can’t just kick the person out right now. You’re stuck together for the time being, and that is difficult.”
What does the future look like for online dating after this crisis is over?
“I think the long-term effects of this crisis on online dating depend on how long it takes to overcome the crisis. It’s too soon to argue that it’s going to change the whole online dating culture when we are only seven weeks into lockdown. Nonetheless, if this situation drags on, I do think some things will change. We’re already experiencing changes, and in terms of online dating one of the changes I predict is something that also happened during the AIDS epidemic of the 1990’s: people engaged more in exclusive relationships when they were scared of catching the virus.”
”Before the coronavirus I talked to people who would go on possibly several dates in a week, but now I expect people to be less likely to do that if they realise that multiple human contacts are going to increase their risk of getting infected. So if you know that there’s a risk of catching the virus, you might prioritise one match over others, and only go on a face-to-face date with that one person, instead of meeting everyone on your Tinder.”
Elisabeth Timmermans is a postdoctoral researcher at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, and the author of the book Liefde in tijden van Tinder. Timmermans has been studying online dating for nearly six years, and she received her PhD from KU Leuven in 2017 for her research on this same topic. She also received the LEaDing Fellows scholarship for her postdoctoral research, and is currently conducting research on the impact of the coronavirus on online dating.