e’ve all seen the memes. You know the ones: Game of Thrones characters preparing for battle, Homer Simpson with his arms in the air, maybe even Leonardo DiCaprio holding a champagne coup in The Great Gatsby. All are a nod to the same thing – a celebratory summer. A hot girl summer. A summer without social distancing or national lockdowns and the reopening of clubs and bars. In other words, a summer with lots of sex.
From Monday, people in England and Scotland are allowed to hug their loved ones for the first time since the pandemic began. They will also be able to spend the night at another person’s home, welcome news for single people who spent a year enduring a period of enforced celibacy. Indeed, the upcoming season has all the government-mandated ingredients of a “summer of love”, a time characterised by liberation and finally being able to express months of locked down lust. But will it be?
Historically speaking, the summer of love is about much more than sex. The term itself refers to a social phenomenon that arose in the summer of 1967 in the US, when roughly 75,000 people with flowers in their hair took to the streets of San Francisco for a bohemian bacchanalia of psychedelic drugs, acid rock, and glamour that would come to define the counterculture of the decade.
Given that we’ve been starved of so much culture in the last year, from nightlife to theatre and music, it’s no wonder people are predicting a similar period of social enfranchisement in the months ahead as live events return. In December last year, social epidemiologists also predicted a “roaring Twenties”-style post-pandemic period defined by “extensive social interactions” and a surge in “sexual licentiousness”. Whether it’s the Sixties or the 1920s, this desire to let our collective hair down will inevitably shape the way we want to date moving forward – at least in the short term.
The Match Group, which owns Tinder, PlentyOfFish and Hinge, recently announced its “stellar financial results” from the first quarter of 2021 due to a boost in activity, with the company expecting its revenue to jump to between $680m and $690m as we move into summer. Bumble is also predicting a flurry of activity, with its research finding that 70 per cent of single people see no issue with going on as many as four dates a week as restrictions lift, while almost half (48 per cent) said they would ditch a prior engagement with friends or family to go on a date. There’s also a growing appetite for lingerie around the UK, with global shopping platform Lyst reporting a 74 per cent rise in online searches for corsets and Pretty Little Thing reporting an 873 per cent spike in searches for matching underwear sets.
After an extended period of time being confined to our homes with nothing but screens and sex toys for company, it’s only natural that people want to make the most of their newfound freedom. “Having endured months of very limited social contact, single people are seeking intimacy, connection, and being able to share their experiences with other people,” explains clinical psychologist Daria Kuss. However, a summer full of meaningless flings won’t apply to everyone.
The contemporary dating scene was already fraught with complexities – see the long list of trends that manifest in the dating app world – and those won’t have been eradicated during the pandemic. It’s no wonder, then, that some single people are feeling slightly less optimistic about the months ahead.
There’s even a name for it: FODA, a fear of dating again. The term emerged at the start of 2021 as singletons contemplated the return of real-life dates. “Across the world, as different countries open up and different Covid restrictions relax, we’ve heard a lot of anxiety from our users about getting back out there,” said Logan Ury, a behavioral scientist and Hinge’s Director of Relationship Science. Research conducted by the dating app So Synced also found that, out of its user base, just 39 per cent of people were excited by the prospect of a summer of love, while 61 per cent said they were nervous.
“I think while everyone is raring to go, there’s a real pressure that comes with that,” says Rachel, 24, from London. “If it’s supposed to be super easy to get back into the dating scene this summer, but you don’t find anyone – what does that say about you?” These concerns are exacerbated by the fact that we’ve spent so much time in the comfort of our own homes, being able to look how we want without feeling the need to impress anybody.
“Lockdown life has offered the security of not having to ‘be beautiful’,” says clinical psychologist Marc Hekster. “There have been no places to go and no one to dress up for, so it’s likely that while single people are experiencing excitement and anticipation, they are also concerned that they may have lost the ability to attract another person in the real-life context of dating.”
Of course, people aren’t only anxious about the social aspects of dating again. There are still uncertainties when it comes to our health, leading researchers to say that the safest sex you can have is no sex at all. Written by Will Nutland, honorary assistant professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the online resource, How to Have Sex These Days: Navigating Covid When Horny, champions virtual sex above all other forms, stating that, if you insist on having real-life sex, the safest way is to do so with just one person (“find a f*** buddy” it reads) or reducing the number of hook-ups you have – something that directly opposes the promiscuity synonymous with a summer of love.
For some single people, whether or not you have a summer of love depends on your priorities. While the idea of a months-long period of casual sex appeals to some, it won’t to others. “Having an extended period without the opportunity to date properly definitely made me feel like I was falling behind in terms of finding love,” says Jade, 26. “So to go from that to a so-called ‘summer of love’ where I seemingly have plenty of options but potentially not actually make any connections definitely makes me concerned.”
The shift from wanting something casual to something serious is one that many single people have made in the last year. With the absence of physical contact, the pace at which people dated slowed right down, with dating app users making judgments on potential partners based on other forms of compatibility as opposed to just how much they wanted to jump into bed with someone. It looks like this might have a long-lasting impact, as data from OK Cupid found that 88 per cent of its users wanted to find a committed relationship within the year, while 84 per cent said they would be seeking an emotional connection over a physical one this summer.
But one of the most difficult things about the prospect of a summer of love is the expectations it creates. The phrase alone conjures up dreams of recklessness, debauchery, and unadulterated pleasure. But grappling with expectation and subsequent disappointment is an all-too-common experience in today’s dating scene, given the people we meet online don’t always match up. These feelings will only be exacerbated if you subscribe to the idea that you’re committed to a summer of no-strings sexual encounters. “It will benefit you psychologically to distance yourself from this concept,” says Kuss.
Taking a different outlook might not only benefit you mentally; it could also improve your chances of finding authentic romance, says Hekster, who calls the summer of love concept “idealistic”. “It is a utopian fantasy, though it isn’t unreasonable,” he says. “Perhaps a more realistic way of looking at it would be as a summer of recovery and adaptation. Love can happen more naturally in that context. It’s so easy to get hurt in the context of sexual abandon, and equally easy to hurt others.”
It’s important to remember, too, that for many people, the trauma of the pandemic won’t simply go away. Hence why it might not be as easy to dive back into the dating scene with force. “Dating often works best when you take things slowly,” says Match’s dating expert Hayley Quinn. “Having a date every night of the week can quickly become emotionally draining.” Instead, Quinn advises maintaining all of the activities that have kept you on track over the past year. “Remember the valuable lessons you may have learned from this time of self-reflection. Focus on quality instead of quantity.”