​​Love in the time of Corona

ByMihir Srivastava

Nov 6, 2020
Internet dating, love, pandemic

Online dating has changed the way relationships are forged, while for many traditional holding hands is the way to cement a relationship

People are locked up inside their houses, outings are not very frequent and there’s apprehension about meeting new people. It remains true, however, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Corona has been a lonely time for many, and they feel a stronger need to connect with people who would “understand the longing and be a companion. It’s more about companionship than sex” says 34-year-old working woman Shallu, a spinster by choice and rebel by temperament.

She lives in shared accommodation with two other working girls in a three-bedroom independent house in South Delhi. The uncertainty of getting intimate with a stranger is sexually alluring to her. “I’m bored. I seek adventure. Pandemic makes it even more thrilling. A bad choice is also fairly interesting an experience.” Shallu’s flatmates find her intrusive and insensitive to others’ space for she is very “demonstrative about her sex life.”

During the initial months of the pandemic,  when uncertainty was destabilising for many, as they were trying to get used to the ‘new normal’, there were reports in the Indian and international media that dating and courtship will not remain the same.

For instance, Forbes came out with a detailed article pointing to the fact that ‘coronavirus is changing online dating—permanently.’ The article reported, “Dating apps are pushing users to meet for virtual dates, rolling out new video-based features, making it simpler to meet more people and staging meetups…Match launched a toll-free hotline for anyone struggling to figure all this out with the motto ‘Nothing is off-limit’.

“Grindr, the most popular gay dating app, has offered phone-sex tips, and the platform—not known for modesty—includes among its suggestions to be descriptive and indulgent with fantasies,” the article elaborated.

India is very much part of this technological revolution as numbers show—the revenue in the Online Dating segment is projected to reach $323 million and is expected to show an annual growth rate of 24.8%, resulting in a projected market volume of more than double by 2024, with user penetration of 3.6 %. And the projected revenue per user would be nearly a thousand rupees. The USA is the leader but India has the numbers—and therefore big potential waiting to be realised. There are no figures available, but it’s safe to conclude that younger people are more adventurous on online dating sites.

M Kajal, 43, a faculty member of a national university, lives alone in a big apartment in a housing society of Sector 100, Noida. She was very active in online dating sites. “I would have people over to my apartment and it was mostly fun. But now, with Covid—it’s too risky,” she says. She’d rather have known people, friends with benefits. Two of them stayed with her separately for a week before she gave them marching orders as she craved her personal space.

However, Rahul P, 27, a young executive in an online retail chain, who works from home, and shares his rented apartment with a college mate in Sector 137 of Noida says he is very active on dating sites, has two separate accounts and is fairly prolific. “I don’t like to be alone. The work pressure is daunting, you need to take care of yourself,” he says. He is glad that he gets to stay home and uses the opportunity to convince one of many of his online dates to come and stay with him. Some oblige.

Rahul P profile picture on a dating site

Like Mrinalani, who’s from Andhra and lives in the neighbourhood. “She is also working. And it was fun to be together. She was getting serious about it. I wasn’t so sure,” narrates Rahul. She often comes and stays over the weekend but Rahul is still active on the dating sites. Lately, he’s participated in online sex with another date of his. “I knew I was being watched and was performing for my unseen audiences, but I felt the thrill—that was about me, not others. Perhaps I’m an exhibitionist,” he thinks aloud.  A tall lad with a toned physique and big bulging eyes, Rahul grew up in Chennai and has been living in Noida for the last three years.

Sometimes, he’s solo on the live sex portal, trying to find new partners. “It’s so wonderful when you find people online, and within a few days, they are sitting with you, in your bed. I like this transformation, and all the uncertainties that come with it.” He also talks about a friend he met online from California—she stayed with him when she was here in India for a backpacking trip.

Rahul, however, feels that this may not go on forever. He will at some point in time settle down. Of course, this private aspect of him which is fairly public thanks to dating sites and live sex forums, will always remain alluring. “Many of the dating partners I have been with say that they prefer older men. So I guess I have a long innings to play,” he laughs. There’s an element of bravado in his candidness, which is, nevertheless, fairly engaging.

Swati is a medical student who resides in Sector 21 of Noida. She’s currently in Patna to be with her family and will return after Diwali. She was Covid positive for two weeks in May and was admitted to a local hospital after which she recovered, but for nagging fever and body ache that lasted a few days. In the Covid ward, she met a young man, Ritwik, a trader who had a viral load much higher. He was administered oxygen for two days.

Ritwik met Swati in a corona ward in Noida and are now looking to get married

“All the patients in the ward felt like a big family. We took care of each other,” she recounts over a WhatsApp call, “But Ritwik was special. I saw in his eyes genuine concern for me. And it was nice to have him around.” Ritwik was discharged from the hospital a week after her. While they were together in the ward, they didn’t interact much—it was just mutual admiration. “After I was discharged, I missed him a lot. And we started chatting and then we met online a few times before we started dating in August,” explains Swati.

“I’m a girl from a conservative family, and I don’t see myself having an affair. But all that changed,” she adds. She plans to inform her family about Ritwik and that they are determined to tie the nuptial knot soon.

Technology has a bias in favour of the rich which was clearly manifested when many schools started online classes. The same is true when it comes to dating. A huge segment of the population doesn’t have the luxury of employing technology to further their love life, though chatting, sending pictures and smileys as a practice is fairly democratised.

To be with a lover, those who live in small cramped houses with their families, either have to hire a room in a shady, cheap hotel for a few hours—which is rare—or just meet up in public places, mostly in​ parks and steal a few moments of intimacy. “Park management has become strict. It’s Covid times—they want to ensure social distancing,” says Rashmi, 21, a college student who lives in Savitri Nagar in South Delhi. She has been dating her college senior for the past two years, who now is a delivery boy with Swiggy. And they lead fairly busy lives, Rashmi has a full-time job assisting her father in his grocery shop.

Instead of meeting in parks, Rashmi likes to spend time with her boyfriend on the Delhi Metro Network. “The trains are empty during the day, we take the blue line and do a round trip, sometimes we take the yellow line to go to Gurgaon, hang out there for some time, and come back,” she explains. Masks act as a notional shield—their affair remains a secret.

“Metro is safe, my family doesn’t use it. I feel it’s less intrusive a space compared to a park,” she tries to explain in Hindi, “People are busy commuting and unlike a park where a passer-by would halt and stare at you, rather unabashedly, like watching a movie, as long as they want to.”

M Kajal and Rahul P come from two different generations, but they both agree that technology has had a profound impact on their sexual lives—there’s a term for it: online sexual activities or OSA. It could be isolated or social, but both Kajal and Rahul feel there is a tendency to “get habitual” for it performs a certain function. “There’s variety, and you can always find something suitable for you at that moment—sometimes you just need the visual gratification. And I often wonder—how real the notional world of the internet may feel,” M Kajal puts it poetically.

It’s not bad, mostly healthy

A study carried by www.frontiersin.org, the joint work of Juan Ramon Barrada, Paula Ruiz-Gomes, Ana Belen Correa and Angel Castro of Department of Psychology and Sociology, Universidad de Zaragoza, Teruel, Spain involved 1,147 university students of both sexes, aged between 18 and 26 years who had to reply to an exhaustive online questionnaire. The main findings of the study were that “When controlling for other online sexual behaviour, different types of online sexual activities (OSA) evaluated relate differently to offline sexual behaviour and to psychosexual well-being, and that most young people made healthy use and participation of OSA.”

The study points to three types of OSA use. The compulsive use—characterised by the lack of control ranged from 5.6 to 12.9% of the participants. Then the study drew a distinction between non-arousal or accessing sexual health information with solitary-arousal or viewing pornography, and last not the least, partnered-arousal or sending sexually explicit messages. Compulsive use, despite being the least prevalent of all three, is the one with the most negative consequences for individuals.

Needless to add, sexuality on the Internet differs depending on ​an individual’s gender, sexual orientation, and relationship status, but most studies conclude that men participate in more OSA than women, regardless of the type of activity. There’s also consensus that sexual minority people use more OSA; especially, they participate in more social activities—sexual chats, dating apps—than heterosexual individuals. That makes the internet a fairly egalitarian space not marred by a distinction based on identities.

Further, and more importantly, the internet is one of their main resources for finding a partner. Also, online sex is used not only by people without a romantic relationship, but also, many people use it as a complement to their offline relationship. Online sex has habitually been related to offline sex, especially from a negative viewpoint, concluding that the individuals who practice more OSA perform more risky sexual behaviour such as having sex with a large number of partners or using condoms inconsistently. That may not be true.

As other studies argue that having or not having a partner does not determine this use because many couples use it as a complement of, and even to initiate offline sex. Three main conclusions can be drawn. The first: Compulsive behaviour had positive and statistically significant correlations with the number of sexual partners. The second: the three types of OSA—compulsive, non-arousal and partnered-arousal—relate differentially to psychosexual well-being and stresses that not all OSA are the same. The third: most young people use healthy online sex, both solitary and social, as they are related –especially the latter– to psychosexual well-being.

(Cover: With the ongoing pandemic and increasing penetration of internet, finding love online has changed a lot Photo: Getty Images)

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