In Helen Fielding’s now-classic 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, we are introduced to the term "smug marrieds" by our heroine Bridget, who has committed the cardinal sin of being an unmarried woman in her 30s.
I’ve thought a lot about the idea of "smug marrieds" during the pandemic. Sure, being married during lockdown is not without its challenges — "Stop chewing at me!" is a thing I have bellowed on more than one occasion during This Time — but being single and dating during a pandemic is whole other thing, compounded by public shaming and judgment.
The "fundamentals" — distancing, masking, limiting contacts, staying home — are not exactly conducive to intimacy with someone you’ve just met. And this incredibly isolating time has been even more so for people who live alone and haven’t been so much as hugged by another human being in nearly a year. Indeed, it’s not just about sex; physical touch is vital to our health and happiness as human beings.
The “fundamentals” – distancing, masking, limiting contacts, staying home – are not exactly conducive to intimacy with someone you’ve just met.
Now, I don’t subscribe to the idea of the Suffering Olympics; as I’ve written before, no medals will be handed out at the end of this, and any conversation that begins with "at least you..." rarely ends in compassion and understanding. As we’ve seen over the past year, there’s plenty of room for all kinds of experiences — and, sadly, all kinds of suffering — in a global pandemic.
But the plight of those who are single and dating is a kind of suffering that isn’t discussed as much, perhaps because dating, in a pandemic, invariably means bending or breaking some rules. (It doesn’t come as a shock that any dating-amid-the-pandemic article is riddled with pseudonyms.)
I will cop to the fact that some shame entered my pandemic game. For me, my black-and-white, all-or-none thinking peaked during the December holidays, when tensions were running high; I was smug about my own adherence to the code-red rules. But, on reflection, it was also fairly easy for me to follow them. The rules, in many ways, were designed with people like me in mind — that is to say marrieds, smug and otherwise.
Indeed, a lot of our public health restrictions, guidelines and messaging are centred on the nuclear family — or, at least, a cohabitating couple. It’s pretty hard to "socialize with members of your household" when you’re the only member, the dog notwithstanding.
Diners have to live in the same household. That’s fine for families and couples who live together. It’s not so great for daters, or couples who do not live together. Two–person rules can also exclude single people, since many folks are electing to choose family members.
Take the restaurant rule, for another example. Diners have to live in the same household. That’s fine for families and couples who live together. It’s not so great for daters, or couples who do not live together. Two-person rules can also exclude single people, since many folks are electing to choose family members.
And so, people are left with trying to discreetly balance dating with following public health guidelines, fast-tracking a so-called "situationship" — a relationship that falls somewhere between a casual hookup and a defined commitment — so that it squares with public health orders, or taking an abstinence-only approach.
But the truth is, dating and hooking up have always carried certain health risks. Pre-pandemic, the public health conversation around sex and dating focused on preventing unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases through harm-reduction strategies. While condoms are essentially the ambassador prophylactic for harm reduction as it relates to sex, there are many ways to enjoy safer sex. Conversations around boundaries and consent also predate COVID-19.
It’s reasonable to conclude, then, that COVID-19 precautions can go (washed) hand-in-hand with safer sex precautions. In fact, in June, the New York City Health Department released a thorough guide to sex and COVID-19 that ended up going viral, both for its frank advice and for its simple acknowledgement that "during this extended public health emergency, people will and should have sex."
It wouldn’t have hurt to hear “if you do 'do it', here’s how to do it more safely.”
The BC Centre for Disease Control followed suit in July. Manitoba, to my knowledge, has never released such a document, which seems like a missed messaging opportunity.
Instead, we’ve repeatedly been told "don’t": don’t travel, don’t gather, don’t do anything.
It wouldn’t have hurt to hear "if you do 'do it', here’s how to do it more safely."
Tell me: have you been dating/hooking up during this time? What’s it been like? I want to hear from you for a future Free Press story. Please email me.