Trojans wear Trojans: Students navigate sex, dating and hookup culture amid the pandemic

(Arielle Chen | Daily Trojan)

Isabel Castillo was looking for some excitement in her life. It was February, the height of cuffing season, and she had just gotten out of a long-term relationship two months prior. Castillo, a senior majoring in journalism, had never tried dating apps before. But she figured: Why not give women-friendly Bumble a shot? 

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the online dating market was shrinking. However, as people were driven indoors in March, increased feelings of isolation led to a spike in online dating, with reporting that 82% of its single members have turned to virtual platforms for romance to boost their well-being. 

After a few weeks of swiping, Castillo wanted to meet a match she had been chatting with, but it was March and pandemic restrictions were already in place in Los Angeles. They agreed to what felt like a safe date — a socially-distanced, outdoor walk where they could wear masks the whole time. 

“Then we decided to hang out in his apartment,” Castillo said. “We kind of maintained social distancing. But obviously that didn’t happen [after] like 10 minutes.”

College has long provided an apt environment for young people looking to explore their sexuality, courtesy of the freedom afforded by living on one’s own. Closely situated dorm rooms and lack of supervision help make college campuses a hotspot for hookup culture, budding relationships and genuine reflection on one’s identities. 

Unlike the NYC Health Department, which became the first to issue guidelines for sex during the pandemic, and the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, which replicated the guidelines, USC Student Health did not issue anything regarding sexual health for students to adhere to during the pandemic. 

“We will look at it,” Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman said in a student media briefing Aug. 13. “It’s a tricky area because on some level it’s simple, right? That it’s just like everything else [in the pandemic], but on some level, it’s complicated.”

With the University’s lack of sexual health guidance amid the pandemic, students are left to circumvent dating and hookup culture entirely on their own, often relying on their comfort levels to gauge what is safe or not rather than looking to recommended guidelines. Students like Castillo have become more experimentative in the ways they approach sex and romance, both on and off their screens.

Navigating sexual health

According to NYC Health, everyone is their own safest sex partner — masturbation is often recommended in place of sex. However, should anyone choose to have sex, Co-Medical Director and Faculty Physician of Internal Medicine Dr. Kimberly Tilley recommended they limit their circle of hookups and have sex with only consenting partners who can talk through the risks involved in physical intimacy — both sexually transmitted infections and COVID-19. 

“Part of the human experience is having relationships and exploring sexuality,” Tilley said. “We need to do it just like we do every other part in our life [in the pandemic] and figure out ways to do it … I think you have to take into consideration what your risks are, and what amount of risk you can tolerate.”

As for navigating sexual intercourse, NYC Health recommends making sex a “little kinky” by being more creative with sexual positions that do not require face-to-face contact.

In accordance with NYC Health, Van Orman recommended students use facial coverings such as masks and avoid face-to-face contact as much as possible during sex. Additionally, Van Orman said students should generally avoid oral sex and use condoms and dental dams to prevent any risk of transmission during sex. According to NYC Health, using these during oral or anal sex can minimize contact with saliva, semen or feces, from which the virus has been detected in some COVID-19 patients. 

“There’s not a great answer, because by definition, sexual activities are close contact and really kind of put you at risk in terms of being in the same space with somebody,” Van Orman said at a student media briefing Sept. 24. “But that does seem to be the one kind of risk mitigation thing we can recommend.”

However, Tilley said if students understand and are OK with how many contacts their partners have in other aspects of their lives, she sees no need in taking these “kind of awkward” measures such as wearing a mask during sex. 

“If you’re having more sexual partners, or if for some reason you’re at higher risk for complications from COVID, then I think it’s reasonable to take some of those considerations into account,” Tilley said. “But there are no studies that show that a mask during sex is going to decrease transmission because clearly, there’s probably not physical distancing.”

According to Tilley, having and maintaining only one intimate partner brings “pretty low” risk. However, Van Orman said that intimate partners that do not live together in the same housing situation have to understand that their social “bubble” expands every time they arrange to meet.

“If I live in one apartment and my intimate partner lives in another apartment, those two households are linked,” Van Orman said Aug. 13. “So anything that happens to anybody in one of those households happens to people in the other households, so people need to think about that in terms of their exposure group.”

The problem lies in anonymous hookups, which Van Orman doesn’t recommend. When students have sexual encounters with partners whose names or contact information are not known, Student Health’s contact tracing efforts become compromised. 

According to Tilley, when Student Health first contacts a student who tested positive for COVID-19, staff will ask for all of the contacts that student interacted with in the past 48 hours. If the student doesn’t know their partner’s name or anything about them at all, then there is nothing Student Health can do, Tilley said.

Students can maintain a remote, online relationship and take the necessary precautions like getting tested before meeting in person, Van Orman said, but there is no perfect way to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.

Risky business

For Castillo, finding romance during quarantine was a happy coincidence as she had spent her days in her pajamas with chocolate “all day, every day” and wasn’t looking for anyone to disturb the peace. She also wanted to be considerate of her roommate, who is immunocompromised.  

“I was mainly concerned for her, not necessarily for myself — that was kind of more of an afterthought,” Castillo said. “My main thing is like I can’t get sick because I don’t want to get her sick.”

Similarly, while she’d normally be going on dates and having casual sex, Taylor, a junior majoring in industrial and systems engineering who preferred to use a pseudonym, said she hasn’t been on a date in months. Taylor came out as bisexual just three weeks before lockdown and looked forward to meeting new people and exploring her sexuality more. 

But socializing has been difficult: Taylor is immunocompromised and has only seen her roommate and three friends consistently during this school year. She vets potential dates on Instagram to see if they’re taking social distancing protocols seriously. If she chooses to go on a date, she said she’d need it to be outside, with masks on and socially distanced to protect herself — no exceptions. 

One dating app match invited Taylor to some virtual dates, but it didn’t work out. They didn’t have much to say, especially without the normal conversation topics that fill awkward pauses during an in-person date like comments about a movie or meal. 

But just because physical intimacy can often feel impossible doesn’t mean students have written off sexual intimacy. Instead, Taylor and other students have turned to sexting. 

“I was at this point where I was so lonely that it was my only way to kind of fulfill that certain desire,” she said. “And it ended up getting to kind of an unhealthy point of like I was getting texts from people and having no idea who I just sent a photo to or who I sent a dirty text to, and that’s very much not my character. That’s not how I’d usually go about dating.”

The struggle of spicing things up

The pandemic has also stalled Nicholas Guzman’s dating life. Guzman, a junior majoring in international relations, would normally be talking with guys on Tinder and occasionally meeting up for dates. 

In July, he decided to meet a match for a socially distanced date. They went on two walks, but the experience was nothing out of a Nicholas Sparks’ romance novel.

Guzman felt safe, because he knew they’d be outside, and due to the circumstances, at the goodbye mark, Guzman remembers saying: “I had a good time, I’m just not going to hug you.”

The pair decided to keep talking, but not romantically. If they had continued dating, Guzman said it would’ve been difficult to keep things interesting: “Are we really just going to go on little walks like 100 times?” Restaurants, movie theaters and other dating conventions weren’t an option at the time.

When you’re coupled up

But for some, like juniors Abi Thomas, who is majoring in creative writing, and Jayden Smith, who is majoring in political science, navigating dating during the pandemic has been a fun challenge.

Although they met a year ago, they began talking more seriously in mid-June, and road tripped back to USC from Illinois, solidifying their relationship before the start of the school year and at the height of the Memorial Day peak in coronavirus cases.

Their first date consisted of a takeout dinner in Thomas’ empty apartment. By apartment-hopping between their respective homes, venturing out for ice cream runs, taking long camping trips and drives through the winding Mulholland Drive, they’ve managed to still find fun, safe things to do as a couple.

“We’re both kind of homebodies,” Thomas said. “I guess the only thing is that we can’t go to a restaurant, which would be nice because that would be cool for like an anniversary or something.”

Megan, a sophomore majoring in computer science, and her boyfriend Sean, a senior majoring in computer engineering and computer science, have been in a long-distance relationship since March, around the time USC abruptly transitioned to virtual classes. For the past six months, they have been taking turns staying over at each other’s homes for around a week every two months. 

Every time they meet up in person, Megan said they have open discussions about the precautions they are each taking, such getting tested and wearing gloves and masks, and what risks could have been presented to them in the weeks prior.

“I try to get him COVID-tested before I see him, likewise the same for me,” she said. “It’s OK if we touch each other because we’re going to be breathing the same air the whole time is what we realized.”

During their visits, Megan said she and Sean acknowledge that they only get to see each other occasionally, so they try to make the most of their time together, usually by having sex multiple times throughout the week. The two have not adopted some of NYC Health’s guidelines such as wearing masks during sex because they have already taken the necessary precautions leading up to their time together, Megan said. 

With the pandemic, Megan said there has been somewhat a strain on intimacy; however, all of their interactions, whether they are in-person or online, have felt very intimate. 

“So it’s like, do we try to be intimate over FaceTime? Yes, we do,” Megan said. “Is that kind of weird and kind of feels like 21st century cybersexual? Yeah, it does. It’s very interesting to think about what in particular, what image I have of him that I’m sexualizing is really weird because so much is cyber.”

According to Megan, her relationship with Sean has progressed to more of a “nontraditional” college relationship, especially because it would accelerate significantly every time they visited each other. 

“Our relationship is sustainable overall just because of how open we are on the same page about everything, and how much time we take, emotionally dedicated to each other,” she said. 

For Castillo, online dating has allowed her to find a new best friend in the form of her partner, helping her navigate the emotional rollercoaster that is the pandemic. 

“We might not be able to go partying or go to bars, but we’d be having a nice picnic in the park and drink,” Castillo, who spends nearly every weekday with her boyfriend, said. “So it’s just like a different type of fun and I definitely think being in a relationship helps us get through this time.”

Disclaimer: Megan is the deputy online projects editor at the Daily Trojan

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Editor’s note: Two names have been edited from the original version in the above article.