September is Sexual Health Month, and it’s the perfect time, especially with the current state of things, to figure out what sex and dating mean for us in the midst of a pandemic. Is it not a good time to try and build new connections? How does one safely get to know someone while virtually dating? And how much do you need to know about where a person stands on masks and social distancing during this time?
We picked the brain of one of our favorite sexologists and intimacy educators, Shan Boodram, to figure out the safe way to do it all in this current climate. She’s just the right person to speak with on such matters, as she has her series, Sexology With Shan airing every weekday on the subscription-based streaming platform Quibi right now. The best-selling author, currently pregnant with her first child, has been working in the sex education space since 2005, so she knows what she’s talking about. With that in mind, we asked her about how to make a meaningful first impression on a first virtual date, signs to keep an eye out for while quarantined with bae to let you know if your relationship is worth the fight, if sex can be safe right now, and the importance of giving folks grace and space during this time. She says this is the perfect time, dumpster fire of a year it may be, to make new connections. Find out how.
MadameNoire: This can be a very isolated and lonely time. If we’re trying to keep our distance from people and take care of ourselves, how do we go about dating? Some would say that’s not a priority right now.
Shannon Boodram: I would challenge anyone who says making connections is not a priority right now. I think that if anything, what 2020 has really emphasized is that if we don’t look out for ourselves and each other, nothing else matters. What matters most when all is said and done and the world is in complete chaos, is our intimate connection with ourselves and our intimate connection with those that are around us. Your jobs may not be there and it may not matter if you have an incredible outfit for next weekend if there’s nothing open next weekend. So what we really should be focusing on is our intimate lives. And although it’s not positive that it took this really crazy year for people to understand that or prioritize that, I do think it’s a positive thing if more people are starting to think more intentionally about their love lives. And as much as it is a historically bizarre and in many cases historically depressing year, I do think that 2020 is best case scenario for this to happen. What I mean by that is the amount of technology and options that we have for maintaining social connections and maintaining intimacy without having to be in the same room as somebody, obviously has never been more prevalent than it is today. Think about if this happened in 1999 or 2001, how much more isolating that these times would be. Although dating has to be different, it doesn’t have to be drastically dry and unconnected. OkCupid was saying they saw more messages being exchanged during the pandemic than they’ve ever seen before. A lot of people for example on Bumble are now using the video chat option they have. Whereas we used to be in this big rush to meet in person and advance the connection and maybe advance the sexual intimacy, now you’re forced to talk. You’re forced to actually create some time to bond. The decision of whether or not to meet in person obviously means something very different than it did a year ago. I would say to people looking to date right now, that’s a very positive place to be. Lean into that. I’m not going to tell you it’s easier out there as a single person, but all environments cater to some and they are catastrophic to others. So the previous environment that was easy access and tons of options, constantly going out, several first dates a week, having unlimited options, it was really positive for some people and it wasn’t that great for others. So I feel that people who didn’t actually enjoy the fast-paced nature of connection in 2019 can really greatly benefit from the way that we have slowed down and prioritized people and getting to know people in 2020.
Without the physical contact and because we’ve all slowed down, do you feel that allows for a time to get to know people on a deeper level to create more significant bonds and fruitful relationships?
Yeah, like I said, I think all things are true this year. I have definitely met people who have felt that connections do not feel that way and that it’s really hard to get to know people and people’s priorities are different. But I know some people who’ve gotten into relationships really quickly because if you meet someone you vibe with, you don’t take that for granted. You really do just want to connect. It might have been a while since you actually had a great conversation with someone you’re attracted to so the value and the prioritization is there more. I feel like people are less likely to give up on people because one thing isn’t perfect. Starting all over again can be extra harrowing now when again, it already is so lonely to begin with. Again, there are people who can thrive in this time and you can use it to your advantage if you know you’re someone for example where hookup culture is not what was attractive to you when it came to dating. A lot of free meals really wasn’t what your buy-in was. Instead, you were actually looking for people who want to invest some time and get to know each other as human beings. I do think that the dating environment is leaning closer to that then it was in previous years.
And if you utilize different apps and even spaces like Zoom or Google Meet, what’s the best way to go about making a good first impression when you’re getting to know someone through such an avenue?
I would say, don’t go extra lazy. This is advice I had to give myself even when it came to Zoom meetings. I already don’t have to drive somewhere. I already don’t have to park and find extra time to walk up. I could put a little time into just making sure my eyebrows are all combed in the right direction. I could just not get completely lazy, like, ‘I’m already home. Why should I bother doing anything extra?” I think, still, put an effort in. Part of what makes dates fun and exciting is the preparation. And that anticipation raises the stakes and makes you actually want to put your best foot forward on a date and to also get something out of it. You’ve put something in. You’ve invested something. Again, maybe it’s not parking or time or the money for a meal, but even if you just invest the time in researching topics that you want to bring up. Invest the time in making sure you’re wearing pants that coordinate with your shirt and aren’t just made of cotton. So those extra things that you can do to even mentally put yourself in a place where you’re acknowledging that this matters, will change the way you show up on your Zoom or Google Hangouts date. You know how you prepare yourself for success business wise? If you’re going for a business Zoom call meeting, there are benefits that you can have your favorite drink to the left. You can have a foot massage going so you’re completely relaxed without the other person knowing. The benefits are you can have your cheat sheet notes in a place that you can just glance at. So why not use those same benefits when it comes to dating to really take your dates to the next level and to make sure that you’re having an experience you’re curating and that you’re setting yourself up to be successful in?
This has also been a time where people have had some realizations about the relationships they’re in. There have been conversations about people getting divorces and breaking up with the person they’ve been quarantining with. So in terms of trying to get back out there when you’re coming out of a relationship in this climate, what advice do you have?
I know another popular relationship expert who was saying, if you see something negative about your partner during this time, take that as a positive thing that you’ve realized sooner than later and take your exit as soon as possible. And as much as yes, additional time together can bring about flaws or truths about someone that you didn’t know before. I think we have to also have grace and space for the fact that this is such an unprecedented time and it’s bringing out different sides of people. People don’t all cope with stress the exact same way. They may not even understand the individual stressors they have, even though we’re all going through the same things, the way it impacts people. Especially in the Black community, it can be a dramatically different impact. So don’t be so quick to judge your partner and say they’ve got such a short temper and I didn’t know that about them so I can’t be with them. Take a little bit of grace and space and acknowledge that their temper might be triggered by the mass amounts of stress in the world and the lack of certainty, and the pain, especially in the Black community, that has been happening this year.
Don’t get me wrong. If it’s not a healthy relationship for you, it’s completely toxic and you remove yourself and you want to get back out there, I would say, same rules apply. As much as it’s great to get back on the horse, it’s more important to realign yourself with what you’re looking for in a partner and what you want to see out of yourself. So even though it is a lonely time and getting back into dating right away seems like the greatest thing to do to distract yourself because you’re not driving to the office and having your regular distractions, I would still try to give yourself a healing period. It’s not about a fast fix, it’s about the best long-term solution for you. These are not going to be our circumstances forever. We’re going to get through it. So if you need to bump up your time having group chats with friends, do that. If you have to bump up your time talking to your grandma, do that. But don’t rush back into dating because you feel a void in your life that you’re trying to fill.
As you said, it’s important to give your partner grace in relationships during these times. But like you said, there are some relationships that aren’t so healthy and you try to make it work but it’s just not working. Do you have any advice for red flags people may need to pay attention to when deciding whether or not to step out of a relationship?
I think if you have noticed that you don’t like who you are in the relationship and the environment this person creates and the chemistry that you have together creates a scenario where you don’t even like yourself, let alone like your partner anymore, I think that’s big. I’m a big proponent of love, I think it’s important. But like is also very, very important. It’s okay to not like your partner in certain environments and certain stages. That’s part of the grace and space of being able to go to your partner and say,”‘I’ve noticed you’ve been a lot shorter than you usually are.” Or, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been indulging in some unhealthy habits that are unusual for you.” I think the word “unusual” is definitely the barometer for if something is something you should stick through or something you should leave. And so, if the person has always had a video game addiction or a drinking problem and you’ve only started to feel the effects of it because you’re around each other more, that probably is an indicator that this was never was going to be the right combination for you. But if your partner is starting to ramp up with those distractions because it is a stressful time and those are their coping mechanisms, I would try to work with them to find a healthy alternative. I would first try to be the partner you would want for yourself in those times to uplift them out of that. Or I would up and leave the relationship.
Lastly, what would you recommend that people keep in mind or do before engaging in a sexual relationship with someone they’re just getting to know in this pandemic? I know people have needs [laughs]. But we’re in a weird time in terms of being safe and healthy. So what advice would you give for that?
Man, I would just say that it’s got to be so super worth it. I’ve declined going to certain friends’ birthday parties. Everything I’ve done this year has really been, “If I got extremely ill, would I look back and say that was worth it to have attended?” I’ve weighed everything against that notion. Let me fast-forward, not to the next day, but to two months from now. Am I going to look back if things went really wrong and say that was worth it? If the answer is yes, then by all means, go ahead and indulge. I think you should also communicate with the people you’re being close with, what your decision-making process is during this time. The question we used to ask traditionally when deciding if someone was a safe sexual partner is, “When was the last time you got tested and do you know your sexual health status?” I think now, “Do you know your COVID status, and also, how are you social distancing?” are equally important to ask during this time. The most dangerous thing you could do according to the CDC is be within six feet of somebody in a closed environment. That’s literally describing sex. No matter how many condoms you put on or how much hand sanitizer you lube up with afterwards, it’s not going to change the fact that you’re exchanging airways in extreme close proximity with somebody and that is 100 percent putting you and that person at risk if either of you should be positive. So don’t try to deny that fact. Really examine it and then make your decision from that point on knowing, okay, this is a high possibility that it could happen if either one of us is positive. Would I be cool with that in three weeks because this experience is really something that I want?
So true. You just don’t know what everybody is doing and who they’re hanging around.
Yeah, there are people that are anti-maskers, people who are out there living their regular lives and kudos to them. But those are not people that I would be exposing myself to at this time. Again, I might have an awesome Zoom call with you. We might have a very hearty FaceTime, but based on your lifestyle choices and how you’re choosing to address the pandemic and how I’m choosing to address the pandemic, I don’t think that would be compatible for an in-person visit.