Melissa Vitale spent months isolating herself in order to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
During the height of the pandemic in New York, the publicist would only leave her house once a week to mail packages for clients and pick up groceries. It was a far cry from normal for her, considering her social personality and her events-driven job. There were times that she felt so alone that she admitted she wouldn't have minded if someone punched her in the face in order for her to feel some human touch. She worried if the dark thoughts inside her head would take over.
"I would go a week without seeing anyone other than my cat," Vitale said. "When it got warmer, I could see my neighbor two houses down from me, and that was like my human contact."
Today, she's feeling much better. She's meeting up with friends at the New Society for Wellness, NSFW for short. The private members club focuses on teaching about sex and cannabis, bringing people together in new ways.
"It's a sex club," founder and chief conspirator Daniel "Saynt" Santiago explained while laughing.
Social distancing orders during the pandemic have kept many people alone during a difficult time. Now things have slowly begun to open up, people are venturing outside, and intimacy might be what it takes to heal a terrified nation.
"It's really depressing," he said. "But there's a counteract to it. There's a way to still feel like you have something you want to get dressed up for, to still feel wanted."
Dating and hooking up now bring a new host of issues, though. New York City's Department of Health issued recommendations to keep everyone safe, including more masturbation, limiting group sex partners, sexy webcamming, and even glory holes. It's still very unclear what is safe or not.
It's also why talking about what is acceptable behavior is more important than ever.
"Now with [coronavirus], it's so much more important because consent is not just about not having a good experience or a comfortable experience or a pleasurable experience, but it's actually a matter of life or death in this situation," Vitale said.
The New Rules of Dating
The phenomenon of people seeking companionship is widespread. A study from Indiana University's Kinsey Institute found people during the pandemic with high stress and loneliness were more likely to venture into sexting and cybersex, acting on sexual fantasies, and, to a lesser degree, hooking up with someone they met via a dating app.
Match Group said in its latest quarterly earnings on Wednesday activity was up across its dating apps, especially among women and younger users. Ship, which is owned by Match Group and digital media company Betches, started noticing spikes in people making connections as soon as shelter-in-place orders went in effect.
"It's a particularly lonely time to be single, and we see that people really want to have these connections," said Ship's head of marketing Stephanie Danzi. "So they're messaging more, and they're matching more, and with Ship, they're using it as a way to stay in touch with their friends."
More than half of Ship's users have gone on a virtual date, and 45 percent have gone on a socially-distanced outing. While people are waiting until the fifth or sixth date on average to kiss, more are getting into a monogamous relationship sooner rather than later in order to feel more comfortable getting physical.
"A lot of people said they are getting creative in doing things that they had never done before, Danzi said.
Ship allows friends to weigh in on potential daters or recommend people on the app. During the pandemic, it found ways to try and adapt to the new normal. It introduced "Ship Party" which allows people to video chat together to discuss profiles while they can't meet up in person.
It also added a "date from home" badge, which was a user pledge that they would stay safe, date virtually, and shelter-in-place while local orders mandated it. Users that had the badge were more popular. In fact, heterosexual men who agreed to the terms had a 14 percent higher chance of finding a match, Danzi pointed out.
That doesn't mean people aren't having sex, however. A quarter of Ship's users admit they've broken quarantine rules to hook up with someone. It's forcing daters to talk about what level of contact they are comfortable with.
"It kind of parallels when condoms were introduced, and there was this new discussion of what does safety mean and how are we going to be participating in it," Danzi said.
Due to the nature of NSFW activities, enthusiastic consent — making sure your partner or partners clearly agree to the terms — has always been one of the main principles of the group.
"When it comes to coronavirus, that is so much more necessary and so much more important and we have to be aware of whose consent we may be violating because of our actions," NSFW's Daniel Santiago said.
NSFW master Daya Dare agrees. Last year, she was a "consent fairy" who helped attendees navigate what they were comfortable with, acting as a neutral party to guide people through their experiences. She was at the clubhouse during the pandemic for Femme Night, where female-identifying people could explore their sexuality in a safe space. She also hosts workshops focused on female bodies and female pleasure.
"It's been really hard but communities like NSFW and other fem groups I'm in, other kink groups I'm in have made it better," Dare explained. "Both that I feel connected to other people in a party, and now that the city's opening up a little in creating a space that we can create art together still in a safe way."
NSFW has issued guidelines to keep its members safe. In the past, events could bring in 150 people. However, once the pandemic arrived, social distancing was encouraged and play parties were limited to a maximum of 20 people. More recently, Santiago canceled in-person gatherings to protect member health, focusing on virtual events of up to 200 with only a few performers in the clubhouse hosting. There's still thrill to having hundreds of people cheer you on while having sex even if it's over the internet, he said.
If you do enter, temperature checks are required, and masks are recommended. Hosts encourage people to remove outside clothing, so most enter the clubhouse in their underwear. There's hand sanitizer everywhere, and cleaning supplies are easily found. NSFW currently has a rule of "bring your own partners" — meaning no new sexual partners — but Santiago admitted rules are more suggestions.
"We are not advising for 100-people orgies," he said. "We are advising for people to assess their risk and make decisions."
Santiago reminds people that while following health guidelines during the coronavirus is important, intimacy is a basic human need as well.
"Sex, in particular, helps you remember that we are connected, helps you remember you are wanted and you are loved, and you have someone who wants to care for you and please you in a certain way," Santiago said. "I think that that emotional power is very, very important where it feels like everyone is just dying."