"What are you wearing?"
I look down at my outfit: a version of the same cereal stained big-jumper-and-leggings combo I have been sporting for the last four weeks, and tell the easiest lie I will tell that day.
Interactions like this one – with another faceless softboi on yet another dating app – have become my drug of choice over the last year. Well, I’m not even sure it’s a choice anymore. More like form of habitual self-medication determined by market factors. A new batch of an old substance that has flooded the system, in the complete absence of any other new highs.
I, like other single women across the land, used to get my hits from other places. A fleeting look on a train held for a little bit longer than usual. A flirtatious interaction with someone (anyone) at the gym. It didn’t even have to be sexual in its intent. It could have been a colleague commenting on your new haircut, or a friend noticing the snugness of your new killer jeans, or that day you really just nailed your eyeliner flick. But what happens when you're suddenly alone for 95% of your time, and those fleeting moments of casual desire, those moments of being noticed by others, just...stop?
Over the last year of lockdowns, people have assumed that the hardest things about living alone and being single in this period are the loneliness, lack of ability to date and have sex without rules. And that has all been brutal. But for me, the void left where the usual quota of desire once sat has been worse. I don’t just mean my desire for others, although that is important. But almost more important is the opportunities to experience (or at the very least, imagine) other people’s desire for me.
Because desire can be about being intoxicated by how others see you. Seeing yourself reflected in their eyes as a sexual creature with the power to change their direction of travel with one movement. I don’t mean it in a narcissistic or arrogant way. That need is a basic human impulse. It is okay to want to be wanted, and equally as okay to suffer when you feel invisible.
When I asked psychosexual therapist Lohani Noor about why this feeling is so important to us, she explained, “What humans actually crave is connection, be that sexual, loving, emotional [or] intellectual. What we are actually seeking in many ways is a reflection of ourselves, a desire to be seen heard and held and the desire to do that for another being also, how else do we know that we exist?”
It is that feeling of not existing, of complete invisibility, that has been plaguing me, and the millions of others like me, since last March. Our normal lives provide, without us even trying, myriad opportunities for us to be seen by others. To rack up a surplus of desire credits by going out to bars, going on dates, being hilarious with our friends, being useful and needed by our families, interacting with our colleagues, that we can then bank for quiet Sunday evenings spent alone on the sofa. But this new world is sensorily flat. No smell, touch, taste or sight that goes beyond a screen. It is 2D in every sense, and every day is one long Sunday night.
In the first lockdown, I compensated for this drop-off in what I now like to call ‘desire touchpoints’ by amping up desire-adjacent things: I wore far too much makeup to the supermarket. I dug out a pair of 10-year-old cut-off tiny denim shorts and swanned around my local park eye-fucking anything with a Y chromosome and a pulse. I messaged men I had zero intention of ever meeting a multitude of filth on dating apps.
I wasn’t alone. Feeld, the dating app designed for couples and single people, saw a 50% increase in registrations during the first half of 2020, compared to same period last year. And there was a 1500% increase (no, that’s not a typo) in existing users indicating that they were interested in ‘sexting’ on their profiles. I’m pretty sure that if you could have harnessed the power of the sexual energy that was pinging around single-cyberspace between March-July, you’d have enough to refrigerate the world’s supply of vaccines.
Then, as the year went on, like a drip drip drip of a leaking tap, the thump of my own desire became a banging thud at my pulse points. I needed louder, more dangerous, more daring things to satiate it. The world opened back up again, and suddenly we could date, go to bars and restaurants, see friends outdoors. Living alone and not seeing any of my vulnerable older family members became a sort of blessing, meaning I could go about my life with as low a risk as the government restrictions would allow.
In those periods in between lockdowns, when restrictions were temporarily relaxed in certain areas, I noticed an escalating pattern of sexual impulsivity in myself and my interactions with others. Normally Captain Sensible and oh-so-risk adverse in my dating life, I became increasingly emotionally reckless. I stockpiled men the way other people bulk-bought loo roll, building collections of suitors I could go to when I needed that hit of dopamine. I tumbled into dates and fell hard for those I now can’t even remember the names of.
Looking back, I had nothing in common with any of them, but I convinced myself that I did because at any moment, the brush of someone’s leg against mine under a table, the scent of their neck as they leaned in to kiss me, could be taken away. It didn’t matter if I liked them, it mattered that they liked me. That they saw me, and validated my existence, if only for one night. When they ghosted me or ‘let me down gently’ after three dates, it hurt more then it ever did in the before time, because it confirmed what I’d already suspected: I’d been invisible all along.
Lohani likens human cravings for desire to those of food. “If you starve someone of food they will react in a couple of predictable ways,” she explains. “They may decide to push down feelings of hunger and ‘shutdown’. Others may scavenge food from others, taking all sorts of risks to get the food they desire. When food becomes available again some may be so shutdown that they continue to starve themselves or go on a binge.”
That is what I did. I binged men, and each feast left me feeling emptier and more alone than the last until finally, the government yet again cut off my supply.
In the end, it turned out this last lockdown has probably been the cold turkey I needed. It gave me an opportunity to step away from the hamster wheel of dating and the hit-high-crash triumvirate the desire vacuum had created. I am still talking to men, I am still dating and enjoying the odd frisson of desire it brings. But I am mindful that I no longer need them to see me, now that I can see myself so clearly.
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