The Joys of Frivolous Sex
The pandemic has brought out a nasty puritanism.
Ms. Nolan is a writer and critic. She is a columnist for New Statesman, where she writes about culture and politics, and the author of the forthcoming novel “Acts of Desperation.”
LONDON — In early lockdown, I spent most evenings in the front room of my mother’s house, drunk, staring at a computer, reeling at the prospect of my body being deprived indefinitely of touch. In those days, there was a sense that all the things that make up life really might be permanently destroyed. My father, who is a playwright, speculated with sanguine acceptance that he might never see or work on another theater production. Leaving Ireland, where I grew up and where my parents live, seemed like a remote possibility, even just to return to Britain, where I am a resident.
Only weeks earlier, I was in New York for an extended visit, recently single and pleasantly crazy with the desire to date far and wide. My romantic and sexual value seemed higher then and there than it had ever been anywhere else. I thought it would suffer by comparison to all the extra special and extra beautiful people, but it turned out that mildly manic exuberance and a complete lack of interest in anything resembling commitment made up for my physical shortcomings, and I imagine my Irish accent didn’t hurt either.
I felt almost nauseated by the overwhelming knowledge of how many attractive people were out there. Even when my dates were with guys I would never see again, I usually found something in them or the evening that I would remember happily, like the one who looked fondly down at me in a hotel room and inexplicably exclaimed, “I love New York!” at the sight of my body.
And then in March came the shutdown. Because there was no way to tell if my newfound isolation was going to last five weeks or five years, I was urgently trying to recast the concept of pleasure as something that could occur without other people. I failed completely, and was even somewhat glad of this failure, the better to confirm my long-held conviction that the point of life is simply to be with other people as abundantly as possible.
I made the mistake in this period of suggesting in a Facebook post that single people, especially those living alone, could not be expected to go an unlimited amount of time without socializing or close contact. Some people reacted to this as though I had proposed an orgy on every street corner, pandemic be damned, but that wasn’t what I meant. What I meant was that human beings can’t be expected to endure the sudden and total loss of social comfort. For some people, that social comfort comes from dating or from having sex with strangers.
In Holland, officials advised coming to an arrangement with a sex buddy. Denmark’s health chief said: “Sex is good, sex is healthy. As with any other human contact, there is a risk of infection. But of course one must be able to have sex.” Whether you agree or disagree, at least these countries were capable of addressing what was a serious concern for many of their citizens.
But these countries seem to be exceptional. Mostly, the government here in Britain — as in many other places — pretended that sex doesn’t take place except between cohabiting couples. When public health advocates have brought themselves to allude to the existence of sex, the advice is usually unrealistic and inadequate, instructing couples who don’t live together to meet up outside and not touch. News releases from sex toy companies began filling my email inbox, advertising remote-controlled vibrators, as though the loss of physical connection was purely about missing an orgasm.
There has been no serious effort to confront the particular challenges of what it is to be single — to be alone — in 2020. There have been no major harm-reduction initiatives, just the deluded implication that all of us who failed to partner up by March 2020 should live without meaningful connection until there is a vaccine.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out a nasty puritanism in some people, who luxuriate in the ability to police the way others live. One doesn’t even need to actually break a rule to earn their disgust, only to express dismay over things they consider unimportant or, worse, hedonistic. To even complain about what it feels like to live alone and not be able to date right now is regarded as unseemly, dismissed as trivial. After all, some haven’t been able to visit vulnerable elderly relatives all year. Couples have it hard too, with many working from home in cramped quarters — not to mention those living with small children.
The complaints of a single person don’t begrudge or contradict the pain of the harangued parent or the anguished daughter missing her sick father. Our struggles are not undermined if society also concedes that there are people who once got substantial meaning from interacting in ways that are now impossible — through dating or casual sex. We are also going through something painful, without even the socially approved validity of the nuclear unit to back us up.
Most of society does not really believe that casual, nonmonogamous encounters can actually hold meaning, rather than simply serve as crude ways to blow off steam. I know that they can. Living as a purposefully single and promiscuous person was one way to know others, one way to find joy in the world, and it’s gone for now. Single people have lost something important, and should be allowed to bemoan it. I don’t have to want children to sympathize with families; you don’t have to share my priority to accept its validity in my life. There are not a finite number of ways to have felt pain this year.
A friend asked me a few months ago whether I didn’t perhaps regret having ended a long-term relationship in early 2020, at such a particularly bad time in history to choose to be alone. I won’t pretend it didn’t cross my mind that life would have most likely been far more pleasant if I had been with my ex during the worst of lockdown. Not only would it have been good to have company in general, but I also missed him, specifically. I loved him; I still love him, which does not mean that it made me happy to be in our relationship.
I left because I identified that my desires and needs were not being best served by monogamy. This would have been impossible in my earlier life, when I was crippled by need, leaking out of me onto every passing man who looked like he could fill a boyfriend-shaped gap in my life. Back then, I could no more have turned down the offer of companionship and love than I could water and air.
Now, I need differently. I need very little from individuals, but I am greedy for the world. And why not? Why shouldn’t I be? It’s a reasonable and good-natured greed, one fueled not by desperation but by a tremendous love of the world and the people in it. How could I be ashamed of that? That this impulse was thwarted in 2020 does not make it a malign one.
Some single people are not living in constant wait for the relief of a marriage to put them out of their misery. The restrictions of this year happened to suit couples and families best, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us were getting life wrong.
As we move into 2021, I know now more than ever that I was right to do what was best for me. I won’t be pretending that I want things that I don’t for the sake of temporary comfort. I’ll be waiting until the life I do want — trashy, frivolous and shallow as it might seem to some — is possible again.