Lockdown and social distancing are hard on everyone in various ways, but for the single who are interested in being active in the dating scene, and for those who are in a relationship, but not cohabiting, they are hard in some very particular ways.
Obviously, relationships can be started and sustained to some extent online. Millions of people around the world have been keeping their relationship alive by using WhatsApp, Zoom, and all sorts of social media to maintain contact, and even to go on a first and subsequent dates.
But while remote relationships can be fun and meaningful up to a point, they are obviously no substitute for actually seeing someone in person—and even though some forms of sexual behaviour can be enabled by technology, it’s not at all the same as meeting up to touch and enjoy one another’s bodies in an intimate way.
How does human behaviour change when dating online, as compared to dating in real life? Well, while we are all influenced by how physically attractive we find another person, there is much less nuance online. We can see their face and their overall body shape, and we can hear the tone of their voice, but we cannot smell them or feel the smoothness of their skin when we shake hands or hug for the first time. All of that makes a difference.
Online as well as in the real world, men tend to cast their nets wider than women, and consider a wider range of potential dates. Evolutionary biologists explain this by pointing out that, in theory, one man can impregnate many women, whereas a woman takes many months to gestate a child. According to this viewpoint, it makes sense therefore for a man to try to spread his genes far and wide, while it makes sense for a woman to try to select a mate who will be supportive of her while she goes through pregnancy. These hard-wired instincts are thought to continue to impact on our behaviour even when we don’t want children at all, because they are just part of how we are made.
Now that we are in a pandemic, many of us are forced to juggle a number of competing instincts. In particular, we have to weigh up the possibility that someone could infect us and make us ill with our desire for physical and intimate contact.
Research has shown that the threat of disease leads us to avoid contact with people who compromise our well-being and pose a risk of infecting us. Yet romantic behaviour is generally characterised by a need for physical intimacy and bodily contact which is very much at odds with behaviour motivated by the desire to remain free of disease. Dating behaviour could clearly be altered while concerns of an infectious disease continue to affect the way we live.
Some researchers think that the threat of disease may lead to women becoming less discerning about who they are interested in sexually, because genetic variability is an advantage in an uncertain world—in other words, a woman who has children with several different fathers may be “hedging her bets” in terms of the resistance to disease of her future offspring.
One potential benefit, for both sexes, of a lengthy period of courtship online, is that they have plenty of time to get to know potential partners before taking the plunge!
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Buss, D. M., and Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual Strategies Theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204-232.
Pawlowski, B., and Dunbar, R. I. M. (2001). Human mate choice decisions. In R. Noe, P. Hammerstein, and J. A. R. A. M. van Hooff (Eds.), Economic Models of Human and Animal Behaviour, (pp. 187-202). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dating in the age of Coronavirus was last modified: January 26th, 2021 by Dr Becky Spelman
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