One Year Without Sex, Love or Dating

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Being single throughout the first lockdown might not have been so hard if I hadn’t begun 2020 still very much in a couple. I still remember the Christmas card he gave me and the message he wrote inside: “I loved spending 2019 with you, looking forward to more in 2020 and beyond”. I so wanted that to be the case. But a month later we were both sat in the bedroom of his flat, faces red with tears and my case packed to leave for the last time. “Can we still see each other?” he asked, his eyes glistening with the naive hope of an adolescent. Yet his 35-year-old rational brain surely must have told him the answer. He knew we couldn’t. The reason for the split was as simple as it was life shattering. He said he wanted children, one day. Children that I had never dreamed of myself nor could ever give him, even if I wanted to.

They call it a deal breaker – the ultimate one, really, as there is no hope and no compromise – yet the expression makes heartbreak sound like a boardroom negotiation. It would be more accurate to say the relationship had a terminal illness and I chose to assist its death with dignity rather than let it carry on to an inevitable, but uglier, end years down the line. To me, it was a cataclysm that left me confounded by grief. Grief that felt more like physical pain for months. Months that, unfortunately, happened to coincide with a pandemic, which turned the other aspects of my life upside down, too.

“Now’s the time to get really good at wanking”, my also recently single friend Gemma says matter-of-factly over Whatsapp voice-note, as if masturbation was a skill like kayaking or getting a soufflé to rise, before adding, “and phone sex”. It’s the end of March 2020 and pressure is increasing on Boris Johnson to put the UK into a full lockdown. In the six weeks since my breakup, coronavirus has become a growing global disaster. The advice is clear: do not leave home, do not touch anyone, do not date, do not fuck. 

Of course I can physically go without sex or dating – for the past six weeks I did just that. But I also told everyone that this was ‘actually fine’. Bragging constantly about a forthcoming summer of promiscuity was a lame attempt at a confidence trick on my own brain. In the immediate aftermath of my breakup, the idea of another man’s touch or his weight on mine truly seemed inconceivable and undesirable. Yet when this became officially illegal, I panicked.

In the year since the start of the first lockdown, single people have largely been ignored or erased in government communications about living with COVID restrictions. If, like me, you entered this pandemic single (or if you are in a couple where you don’t cohabit) sex has technically been illegal for most of it. There was a brief period where it was possible from July to October but any new relationship embarked upon during this time would need to have become exclusive and cohabiting within a matter of weeks to have survived the second wave. It’s safe to say most of us who went into this pandemic single still are and will be for some time to come.

Of course, no one actually thought it would go on this long. Most of the official advice a year ago wasn’t dissimilar to my friend Gemma’s - it was an era of Zoom dates, sex toys, phone sex and nudes, I was reassured by online magazines and sexual health charities all of whom sounded very upbeat about this new era of remote sexuality. Even a year ago, I sensed they were missing the point. Sex and dating, for the newly single me, were about reprising an old ritual of encountering other people in order to rebuild a coherent picture of myself as a sexual being.

It’s a common belief that any straight cis men who are titillated by the offer of sex with a transgender woman must be physically fetishising us. It’s an analysis I’ve always found tedious and reductive about what even the most casual encounters with strangers have taught me about people and about life. Some years ago, I anecdotally noticed that men on dating apps seemed much less bothered about the idea of being with a transsexual if they’d recently gone through a divorce or a long term relationship had ended. Their once imagined lives broken, they were hoping to see what a woman exiled from many heterosexual norms might have to teach them about their own failings. For years before I met my ex, I had gone “for drinks” with the sort of man who secretly hopes that by tasting my deviance, he’ll learn something more interesting about himself. It’s a vampiric exchange; a contract of heat and blood. I suppose last year I desperately hoped that the roles could be reversed. That, post breakup, with my own failed attempt at assimilating into heterosexuality, cis men might teach me about how to do normality better next time. That I would get to be the vampire.