I would kill to have an orgasm, but I refuse to die for one. That’s my daily quarantine mantra. I whisper it when I get a Raya alert. I scream it while giggling wildly with friends. Eventually I text it directly to a film director—the kind who thinks if he slides into my DMs, I’ll slide out of my clothes. Of course, that’s a no-go during quarantine, but I’ll admit, it’s tempting to make an exception—especially when he texts back “You’re funny” instead of “LOL.” Just as Hamilton’s Angelica treasured “a comma after ‘dearest,’ ” modern women know the secret code of attentive lovers is a fully typed contraction.
Still, there’s no way I’m meeting a stranger right now, because (1) we’re still in a pandemic, and (2) as a spike in sex toy sales shows, sisters are doing it for (and to) themselves. If I get sick just because some dude can use words instead of emojis, I’ll die of shame before I die from COVID-19.
“Everyone I know is scared of being on a ventilator because of a one-nightstand,” agrees Serena Kerrigan, 26, the host of Let’s Fucking Date, a show vetting wannabe suitors via Instagram Live. Bumble sponsored one episode and may sponsor future ones in Season 2. Until then, Kerrigan is dating new people virtually (and having a low-key tryst with her neighbor). “One-nightstands are too risky right now. Instead, you get a COVID test, the guy gets COVID test, and you turn it into a one-month stand. It’s very practical. Lots of my friends are having them, too.”
Once called a “mini relationship” by eharmony and “a party for your commitment issues” by my mother, the one-month stand is an arrangement merging casual sex with temporary intimacy. If a one-night stand is, to quote sexologist Shan Boodram, “the microwavable burrito of sex,” then its four-week equivalent is the Blue Apron: convenient, curated, and marked—like all good food—with a clear expiration date.
“I see the one-month stand as an evolution of hookup culture,” says Helen Fisher, PhD, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and an expert on female sexuality. “Truly random sex is unlikely during a pandemic—you’re not bringing home a stranger from a bar, hopefully. Now there’s a prolonged courtship process happening, because everything starts at a virtual level.” As apps like Bumble report increased activity, video chat has taken the place of a first date…and a second, and a third. “When you’re ready to meet in person—a step that has added weight during the pandemic—it’s more of a done deal,” Fisher says. And because 2020 is a time of profound change, the usual concerns about “moving too fast” or “ending things too soon” don’t really apply. How can our friends or our own inner voices say, “This relationship isn’t normal” when the whole world is stumbling blindly toward a new normal?
But despite a changed world, some truths still hold, like how sleeping with someone doesn’t guarantee true love, even if the hookup lasts 24 days instead of 24 hours. According to stats from an annual national survey from Match.com, on average, 35 percent of respondents who had “friends with benefits” relationships progressed to a long-term relationship. Meanwhile, four weeks is a natural end point for casual sex, Fisher says, “because the dopamine rush we get from arousal often fades over [that] time.”
“That’s exactly what happened to me,” says Stevie,* a 39-year-old event planner from Brooklyn who recently ended her one-month stand with Ana, 32. “Initially, we bonded because of physical attraction, plus we’d both been furloughed. But Ana stayed hyperfocused on her career, and I said, ‘Screw it, I just want to go [mountain] climbing and be outside.’ We were both cool with it ending; it was just time.”
“People are definitely trying to configure new types of connection,” says Jean Yang, PhD, an MIT-educated computer scientist and the founder andCEO of Akita Software, whose quarantine experiment, JeanDate, has paired hundreds of couples by using human pattern recognition (she paired people together based on what she knew of them). “But the four-week mark is often when I hear from the women, ‘This is done; set me up again!’ If there isn’t a really deep connection, it just loses steam.”
A 37-year-old musician named Heather* learned that truth after moving from New York’s SoHo to South Carolina and having a one-month stand soon after. “Normally, my heart can’t take casual sex,” Heather says. “But I can’t even remember what day it is! Right now, a month of intimacy is all I have to give. We stayed friends, because after four weeks, there’s no bitterness. Ironically, I’ve had long-term relationships that were ‘serious,’ but this [one-month stand] was the healthiest I’ve experienced in a while.”
If this were a movie, the one-month stand would turn into a self-aware-but-still-earnest rom-com, the kind with a Lumineers soundtrack and a teary epiphany from Issa Rae. “People assume that for single women, lockdown means we need to lock down a mate, or else we’re just sad,” Kerrigan says. “In reality, it’s the opposite. We’re saving so much time weeding out people who aren’t worth our energy. To be real with you, even after it’s safe to casually hookup or date again, I don’t see the point in going back to such a broken system.”
Honestly, why would we? A one-month stand is a way to tackle the “pleasure learning curve” crucial to women’s sexual fulfillment, test a potential connection in crazy times, and walk away fairly unscathed if things run their course. The concept even dovetails with expert health guidelines—like those released from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment—that promote seksbuddies (which, yes, are exactly what they sound like). Studies even show that having sex on a regular basis helps raise antibody levels.
Back on my bed, the text messages continue: Come for a walk? asks the film director. A walk to where? I shoot back. The Dance of the Three Dots plays out on my screen as he types a potential response, erases it, types again, and finally hits Send. Let’s walk to the future. Next year? Next month? Maybe it’ll be better there. He has no idea.
*Some names have been changed.
This article appears in the October 2020 issue of ELLE.
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