Health

So, Is a Pandemic Baby Boom Actually Coming?

At the beginning of the pandemic, people predicted we'd see *a lot* of babies in nine months—but it now looks like the opposite may be true

Raise your hand if at least two people you know have announced they’re expecting amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Raise your hand again, if, even if someone you *personally* know hasn’t made the exciting announcement, it feels like every single celebrity has? From Emily Ratajkowski and Hilary Duff’s recent bump reveals to Cosmopolitan Beauty Director Julee Wilson’s announcement that she and her husband literally made baby number two to the sweet, sweet sounds of a D-Nice Instagram Live set, it feels like legitimately everyone is preggo. And the aphrodisiac has been quarantine. But, then again, we predicted this.

In March of this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic was really taking off in North America, many people both online and IRL began joking that with everyone sheltering in place, more time at home with partners would lead to a spike in births nine months down the line. (What else is there to do once your sourdough starter is in the oven and your Zoom cocktail hour is done?)

So, seven months out from the internet’s predictions, we have to ask: Is that pandemic baby boom *actually* coming? The answer, surprisingly, is…probably not. While anecdotally it may seem like everyone you know is making the decision to get pregnant during the pandemic, statistically it turns out that people have actually been getting *less* busy—or at least have been extra careful about using contraception while getting frisky over the past several months.

According to a June 15 paper released by Washington, DC-based The Brookings Institute—and based on economic studies of fertility behaviour as well as data presented from the Great Recession of 2007–2009 and the 1918 Spanish Flu, which saw a downturn in birth rates—COVID-19 will lead to what the institute calls “a large, lasting baby bust,” with the paper predicting that there’ll be between 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in the United States in 2021.

“As economists, we focus on the underlying decisions that drive behaviours and ultimately outcomes, including having children,” the paper notes. “It is important to recognize the critical role that economic conditions play in fertility choices.” Which makes sense, considering that the pregnancy announcements we’re currently being inundated with are mostly from celebs, who arguably aren’t feeling the financial burden of the pandemic in the same way us regular people are. (Need we remind you of KKW’s recent display of what “normal” life looks like for her inner circle?)

And while experts say that Canada won’t see as steep of a birthrate decline as our neighbours to the south (this is due to our overall smaller population but also the fact that the pandemic has been managed differently in both countries), a 2020 survey by Leger has found that about three in four (76%) of millennial Canadian women (between the ages 18 and 40) who’ve used contraception in the past six months, say it’s now more important than ever to prevent an unplanned pregnancy—meaning Canadian women are taking control of their reproductive decisions now more than possibly ever.

ICYMI, people were predicting that there would be a massive baby boom—and it made logical sense

While jokes about an uptick in baby making were meant to be funny, at the time it also seemed plausible. While experts say that the way people’s libidos react to stressful situations really varies depending on the individual, with some people’s sex drives going down during stressful periods, like say, a pandemic; the reality is that, in times of stress, some people actually do engage in sex more, as means of coping. “For some people, heightened stress will heighten their arousal response,” Canadian sex and relationships researcher Dr. Kristen Mark, director of the sexual health promotion lab at the University of Kentucky told FLARE in an April 2020 interview. “In times of uncertainty, it can be helpful to experience the calming effect that sexual arousal and orgasm has.” This phenomenon has even been dubbed as the “apocalyptic hornies” by Men’s Health.

Horniness aside, there are several *other* reasons we imagine people may be deciding to go ahead with their family planning during the pandemic. With our lives effectively put on hold over the past eight months, with stalls in travel, relationships and career, it’s safe to say that for many people their carefully planned timelines have been thrown for a loop. With that in mind, it’s not farfetched to think that perhaps those who were putting off having children due to career and travel goals would decide to throw caution to the wind and have a baby now, while we’re not able to really do anything else. Because honestly, what even is a timeline anymore?

Read this next: Shay Mitchell on Why Millennial Women Need to Talk About Motherhood

But the tanking economy has created a different reality

While the recent stats from Leger may come as a shock to some, we shouldn’t actually be that surprised that people are more heavily weighing their contraception options and their decision to have kids. Because there’s a lot to be uncertain about at the moment. Namely, the economy. According to Statistics Canada, the national unemployment rate almost doubled between February and April (the heart of the pandemic in North America), landing at a staggering 13.7%. With service industry professionals largely out of work due to the shut down of non-essential services, many Canadians took a large economic hit thanks to the pandemic. While it’s important to note that as of September there has been a recoup of lost jobs in Canada, with the pandemic still ongoing into the winter—and recent rollbacks in provinces like Ontario—there’s still a lot of job instability and uncertainty across numerous industries.

“I wasn’t surprised by that statistic,” Dr. Kristina Dervaitis an Ontario-based OBGYN and contraception specialist says of Canadian millennial women hoping to postpone unwanted pregnancies. “Of course there’s never a good time for an unplanned pregnancy, but particularly during a pandemic when there’s so much uncertainty, patients are looking to make sure that they’re in control of their reproductive futures and their lives.”

Lack of regular access to healthcare is another factor in the decision to delay

In addition to families’ uncertain economic situations as well as fluctuating job security, Dervaitis points to limited healthcare access as another reason some people are delaying getting pregnant. “Whether [a pregnancy] continues to term or whether or not a patient decides to terminate a pregnancy, having access to those services that are necessary became limited during the lockdown portions of the pandemic,” she says. (In fact, for a large portion of the pandemic, people giving birth in many Canadian hospitals had to do so alone and while wearing a mask, due to restrictions around COVID).

Not to mention the fact that, as she says, there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to access to healthcare in the future, as COVID continues to place a strain on our healthcare system. “There aren’t any sort of warning bells to say that we should be advising patients not to get pregnant during the pandemic, but there are obviously still question marks that we’re trying to answer about the effect of COVID on the pregnant woman and on developing fetus. So lots of uncertainties; so now more than ever I’m seeing my patients, say ‘I don’t want to have an unplanned pregnancy during this pandemic and how can you prevent this?'”

In fact, Dervaitis says that a significant change she’s seen in some patients when it comes to contraception is the decision to seek out more long-acting reversible contraception, like IUDs—which provide contraception coverage for five years and are in essence, “pandemic proof.”

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“Patients are really drawn to that sort of long-term control,” she says. “Five years of worry-free contraception. Once an IUD is inserted, there’s not really anything to remember to do each day, which is why it is one of the most effective contraceptive options available at a less than 1% chance of pregnancy.” And, as it is reversible, IUDs (some of which can provide coverage up to 10 years), can be removed anytime, meaning “that patient has control over her reproductive future and can remove an IUD at any time and go forth and start trying to conceive right in the next cycle without any concern for future fertility.”

Another reason patients may turn to this type of longterm, reversible contraception is due to accessibility, especially in comparison to other means like monthly birth control pills. “Typically in the past patients would would get a prescription [for birth control pills] for three months at a time,” Dervaitis says. “During crops of the pandemics,  several pharmacies elected to dispense only one month at a time for fear of future drug shortages; which again is a potential concern in terms of access and keeping oneself covered from a contraception standpoint.” (Cutting back on visits to the pharmacy also cuts back on risks of exposure to COVID-19, Dervaitis notes.)

For some, there are other milestones that need to come first—and those have been postponed

Like many of Dervaitis’s patients, 31-year-old Amanda Bernardo also decided to delay her decision to have kids due to the pandemic. While Bernardo says there was a definite boom in pregnancies among her own friend group, with four friends due at the end of 2020 and six due in 2021, the Ottawa-based woman and her partner of nine years decided to postpone their family planning journey because it’s directly tied to their *other* decision to cancel their October 24 wedding ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m Catholic, so just based on my religion I want to get married first in order to start moving ahead with family planning,” Bernardo says. When the pandemic first started making waves in North America, back in March of this year, Bernardo says that she and her fiancé—like many people—didn’t think it would affect their planned October wedding in Burlington, Ont. (Remember when everyone thought quarantine was only going to last two weeks? Simpler times). “I was holding on to the very last minute before I needed a decision to postpone,” she says. The couple made a back-up plan for their wedding in April, but with the pandemic seemingly only ramping up, and with Bernardo’s extended family in Italy planning to fly in for the wedding, “[we] pulled the plug in July because our hall and our vendors needed at least three months notice.” The couple have postponed their nuptials until August 2021.

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Bernardo’s decision to postpone her wedding—and inevitable family planning—is complicated due to her health. She was diagnosed with endometriosis and PCOS when she was 25–something she’s written about extensively on a blog; a diagnosis that means Bernardo has to actively come off her medication (it helps with pain management) in order to re-start her period and which also means she could potentially have difficulties conceiving. These are all factors she’s taken into making her decision to postpone her wedding.

“When I was first diagnosed I was very, very depressed because I was 25 and was being hit with the information that [I] might not be able to conceive and all these different problems and challenges could arise,” she says. “And so that’s still with me today; and I think it’s really hard to plan and to even think about having a baby with so much uncertainty, compounded by COVID-19. It was really difficult to imagine moving forward.” While Bernardo says part of her does wish she’d just gone ahead and had a small civil ceremony—and then planed a big party with her extended family after COVID—so that they could move forward with her pregnancy journey, another part of her is nervous about starting to try to conceive before the big wedding in case her complications cause her to feel unwell. “If [the pregnancy] journey was not easy, I also want to be happy on my wedding day,” she says. “And I knew how impacted I was from my original diagnosis, [so] if I had to start IVF or if there were complications, I didn’t want to have to have that in the back of my head on my wedding day. I really wanted that to be a happy time in my life.”

And as for what will happen if COVID-19 continues on the same track, postponing the big wedding Bernardo wants even further? “We made the decision we would postpone only once, and that would be it,” she says. “If thing’s don’t look like they’re improving, we’ll just go ahead with the small wedding and call it a day,” she continues. “That decision is very much related to family planning; I’m 31 right now, I turn 32 in July, so I don’t want to keep waiting and delaying my life.”

For others, the impact of the pandemic is indeed speeding things up

Ashlyn and Alison Remillard know the challenges of bringing a young child into the world during the time of COVID. The couple, who work and live in Atlanta, Georgia have an almost one-year-old son, Nash, who was born in November 2019. “We were actually just coming out of maternity leave when the pandemic hit,” Ashlyn says. Back to work in their respective fields  for only two weeks, the couple, who recently celebrated their second wedding anniversary, were using a nanny as they waited to get a spot in an extremely competitive daycare. When everything shut down, the couple were left without any childcare. “We were raising a four-month-old while working two full-time jobs and lots of video conferences and just [were] sort of two ships passing in the night,” Alison says. The lack of help took a toll on them.  “My family is based in San Diego and they haven’t been able to even see Nash since December [2019],” Alison says, pointing to how the community aspect of parenting is completely gone during the pandemic. “That’s a really hard part about parenting during the time of COVID when you’re trying to be as safe as possible for yourself and  your little ones, it makes it really hard to have that community as the parents.”

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Still, taking all these challenges into account, the Remillards have actually *accelerated* their decision to have a second child. As a same-sex couple in their mid and late thirties who have chosen to undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF) (Alison carried Nash via IUI and the plan is for Ashlyn to carry their second, using the same sperm donor, via IVF), the pair knew that age was always going to be a factor to consider when trying to conceive, and it’s the reason why they decided 39-year-old Alison, as the eldest of the couple, would carry their first child, Nash. It’s also why they they then decided that 34-year-old Ashlyn would use IVF. “When we were putting our plan together, knowing that Alison was going to go first  based on her age, we wanted to take the IVF approach for my body so that hopefully we would be able to freeze eggs, knowing that age is such a large factor in women’s fertility.”

In February of this year, Ashlyn began her first IVF cycle (the process through which Ashlyn takes injections and doctors would look to retrieve an egg from her body to be fertilized). But the retrieval was cancelled due to COVID. The couple say that when they initially started the process, they felt they were early, with Nash only a few months old. “[But] then just psychologically being told ‘no’ [and] having that cycle cancelled [as well as] the lack of information around fertility that we had, we started to panic a little bit,” Ashlyn says. “Like look at all this time that we’re wasting, we’re only getting older as this [pandemic] goes on.”

So once services and clinics re-opened over the summer, the Remillards dove right back into the process. “I think ultimately the pandemic allowed us the opportunity to speed up,” Ashlyn says. Specifically, she says, the work-from-home set-up allowed the couple to attend the numerous medical appointments required when going through an IVF cycle. “In a traditional working environment, if you’re going into an office every day, that would make [these appointments] really challenging.”

“So while we were put on hold in the beginning part of the pandemic, we were able to pick back up once things started to open up a little bit more,” Ashlyn says. In June, the couple had their first egg retrieval.

Read this next: Is Equitable Parenting Even Possible?

Regardless of whether individuals plan to move forward with growing their families, in much the same way that young people have started factoring issues like climate change into their decision to have children, the pandemic has emphasized one important point: The decision to bring a child into the world—especially the world we’re currently living in, with a burning climate,  rampant racism and medical uncertainty—is complicated. “The decision to have a child and to bring a life into this world is not to be taken lightly whether or not in a pandemic or just in general in 2020, without considering the pandemic,” Dervaitis says. “As life gets more complex, patients are thankfully putting more thought into their childbearing and their reproductive futures. The pandemic adds yet one more thing to consider in the very complex decision making process and the tremendous responsibility of bringing that child into the world.”

Sex & Relationships

Why Are People Jumping On the #MessyTikTok Trend?

Users are sharing their relationship drama on TikTok—at the risk of looking like "the other woman" (or man)

It has been a particularly messy month on TikTok. Beyond privacy concerns and threats of a ban in the United States, TikTokers are exposing cheating partners via the #MessyTikTok hashtag, a viral social media trend that encourages users to get personal in a very public way.

Set to an original sound from TikTok user @Kr0yalty, first posted on August 31, TikTokers sing along to the lyrics “I like you; I don’t give a fuck about your…”—before the sound switches to an automated voice— “girlfriend. Actually, why don’t you tell her?” Though most #MessyTikTok posters do not actually tag the offenders in the video, this format still allows TikTok users to call out cheaters publicly, backed up by “receipts” in the form of photos, videos and text chains. 

North Carolina native Alyssa Stalica, 21, participated in this online trend. A few weeks earlier she’d learned that the guy she was seeing already had a girlfriend. After hanging out for just a week, the guy’s sister knocked on Stalica’s door and told her that he was cheating. When confronted, he told Stalica his previous relationship was over, and he and Stalica continued seeing each other—until Stalica saw his girlfriend’s car in his driveway overnight. On September 3, she posted a TikTok featuring footage from her doorbell camera, which had captured Stalica and the man kissing on her porch. 

@alyssastalica2Welcome to messy tik tok, the vibes are immaculate😌 ##greenscreen ##greenscreenvideo ##fyp ##OnlineSchool ##foryoupage♬ original sound – Kr0yalty ✨

Stalica’s TikTok now has more than 20 million views. “I just wanted to expose him as a liar,” she explains. “I never expected so many people to see it. Even though it shocked me, it didn’t feel real, because although so much was happening on TikTok, my [real] life hadn’t changed at all.” The comments on the video—all 37,000 of them—were both supportive and cruel, as many people called her out for “homewrecking.”

#MessyTikTok is just one of many trends that encourage users to bare all for their followers. Another popular example is the #putyourfingerdown challenge—basically a shareable version of the drinking game “Never Have I Ever.” Throughout August, the #itstheforme challenge had friends roasting each other with increasingly savage insults, while the recent #HurtMyFeelings challenge, set to a clip from La Roux’s “Bulletproof,” has users publicly share their most upsetting memory. The hashtag has more than 3.5 billion views.

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TikTok is like one big game of Truth or Dare at summer camp; no one, it seems, can resist throwing their wildest stories into the ring. And interestingly, exposing oneself appears to be just as popular as exposing others (CC: TikTok star Dixie D’Amelio, who outed her ex-boyfriend for cheating on the app). But what makes users so comfortable sharing such intimate details about their lives on TikTok?

People with certain personality traits are more likely to share on social media

Dr. Tara Marshall, director of the social psychology program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, investigates which personality types gravitate towards social media. She explains that, both online and IRL, people develop a sense of intimacy with others through self-disclosure. “That’s how you form an emotional bond,” Marshall says. With face-to-face relationships, self-disclosure tends to occur naturally as intimacy develops; on social media, connections between strangers can be made with a single post.

This is especially applicable to people with neurotic tendencies and social anxiety, who often turn to social media for the connections they lack face-to-face. Known as the “social compensation hypothesis,” this is particularly important for people with stigmatized identities, including those who identify as LGBTQ+. “If you feel like you have to hide a part of yourself in offline relationships—because your parents, family members or religious groups won’t support your stigmatized identity—then you may find a group of people online that accept you and support you,” Marshall says. 

Real-life extroverts also tend to share more online, using social platforms as another means of self-expression. Narcissists are also prone to oversharing; attention is a powerful motivator. “People love getting likes, retweets [and] comments,” Marshall explains. “It’s social validation—getting that little hit of a dopaminergic rush each time someone likes one of your posts.” And TikTok is the perfect platform for these people to get that rush, as the most downloaded app of 2020 so far and with more than 850 million active users worldwide. 

Another reason the #MessyTikTok trend may be taking off is demographic. TikTok skews incredibly young; according to internal data from March 2019, close to half of all users are between 18 and 24 years old. Dr. Jacqueline Nesi, psychologist and research fellow at Brown University, notes that self-disclosure is especially satisfying for young people on social media, as “they’re still in the process of developing their identities.” She also explains that younger generations who have grown up with social platforms are likely more comfortable sharing online, whereas older generations who have not always had this immediate and public access to others may be more wary of sharing with strangers.

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Neuroscientists estimate that people under 25 years old are still developing their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, judgement and decision making. Because of this, Nesi explains, teens are particularly sensitive to social rewards. “So, on TikTok, that might be things like views [and] shares. Any kind of positive reinforcement, particularly from peers, can be really reinforcing,” Nesi says. 

TikTok’s unique algorithm makes it even easier for users to reach a wide audience. On a user’s “For You” page, curated videos appear based on the user’s profile, location and preferred content. Any interactions—including liking, sharing or even watching a video all the way through—influences the kind of content that pops up next. Not to mention the fact that follower count doesn’t impact whether or not one’s video is promoted. This means an account with only a few followers can reach millions if their video is engaging enough. In other words, TikTok is *incredibly* easy to access and use, and even easier to go viral on and reach a wide audience. These factors all lend to its appeal—especially for Gen Z.

The desire to cultivate an authentic—if messy—online presence is real 

Kirstie Lovelady, a 29-year-old musician from Nashville, Tennessee, jumped on the #putyourfingerdown trend in July. Five years ago, while she was waiting for a friend at a restaurant, Lovelady discovered her father had a secret family.

Beginning with the phrase, “Put your finger down if…” Lovelady retells this harrowing experience in 60 seconds. Overnight, she gained at least 10,000 followers and the video itself has over four million views. “It’s been really overwhelming and life-changing in a positive way,” Lovelady says. She received thousands of reassuring comments from strangers, and many reached out to share their own similar experiences. “It’s just a really beautiful thing for people to hear broken stories and be able to relate.” 

@kirstieloveladyit’s fine, i’m in therapy about it now😅 ##putafingerdownchallenge ##fingerdown ##putafingerdown ##storytime ##TodayYearsOld ##IceCreamDay♬ original sound – kirstielovelady

Like so many others, Lovelady joined TikTok during quarantine, and felt particularly comfortable sharing on TikTok since most of her followers were strangers. Eventually, however, someone sent Lovelady’s video to her dad. “He is not the happiest with me about it,” she says. “But I’m not doing it for him. I’m just doing [it] from a place of sharing my story.”

In recent years, social media users have turned away from posting self-enhancing content. These days, Dr. Marshall explains, people are more interested in cultivating an authentic online presence—even if it puts one in a negative light. “You may get more likes and reactions if you are posting sympathetic content,” she says. “People like people who are flawed, that they can relate to.” 

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But there are dangers to oversharing

Yet, oversharing poses its own ethical risks. “If you’re posting something that goes public and it violates a partner’s privacy, that can be a major relationship transgression and could potentially end a relationship,” Marshall says. Plus, once a video is posted online, it is incredibly difficult to delete. Social posts have the potential to spread far beyond their intended audience.

This is particularly concerning for those in same-sex relationships that are not “out” in real life. A number of #MessyTikTok videos involve individuals cheating on their partners with someone of the same gender, including a viral post from TikTok user @ryanandhermo, which received more than 29 million views and 200,000 comments. Many fellow TikTokers expressed concern that the video outed a closeted man. Though @ryanandhermo posted a follow-up video confirming that this video was a joke, these comments raise a genuine problem—whether posted maliciously or accidentally, social media has the potential to out people before they’re ready.

@ryanandhermooops lol ##messytiktok ##foryou ##gay ##fyp ##greenscreen♬ original sound – Kr0yalty ✨

Beyond her initial #MessyTikTok video, Stalica has continued to update followers about her relationship drama. “A lot of people were asking questions or making assumptions, so I wanted to clear the air,” she explains. Though Stalica’s flame contacted her after the TikTok went viral, he is now back with his girlfriend, and Stalica confirms she and him no longer speak.

Stalica’s story is long and winding, but her followers are invested. In her most recent update, Stalica ends with: “I’m not mad that they’re together, I just think they look like clowns. And it should be known not to fuck with me when I have receipts.” 

Sex & Relationships

Bachelor Contestants Fall In Love In Two Months—How Realistic Is That?

We asked some experts

After a rocky start, The Bachelorette has seemingly wrapped filming its 24th season, with host Chris Harrison sharing an August 30 Instagram Story that hinted he was back home. (ICYMI, after postponing the season due to COVID-19, the season 24 lead Clare Crawley, was re-cast after she found love *super* early during filming). Which is all fine and dandy—until you do some math. With current lead Tayshia Adams having stepped in for Crawley at the beginning of August, and the show wrapping filming around August 30 (and that’s being generous), that means that Adams has met, dated and found the love of her life all within the span of a month. Take into consideration also that Crawley reportedly quit the show after falling in love with one of her contestants in 12 days (!!) and we have some seriously accelerated relationship timelines on our hands. And while we know reality dating franchise is far from *actual* reality, we have to wonder: Can you *seriously* fall in love in a month or two?

Well, it kind of depends on who you ask—and what you want from your relationship.

It’s important to know the difference between lust and love

“Research shows that those crazy fast relationships that happen so quickly and intensely usually don’t last,” says Lee-Anne Galloway a dating coach and matchmaker based in Toronto. “It takes a little bit of time for you to assess if a partner is right for you. And [that] doesn’t mean that there’s no passion; it doesn’t mean that there’s not that excitement. It’s just is a bit of a slower build.”

Which isn’t to say that you can’t fall for someone IRL within a two-month or even a 12-day timespan. Actually, lots of research supports the idea that the “can’t eat, can’t sleep, reach for the stars, over-the-fence world series kind of stuff” feeling you got when you lock eyes with a stranger across the room or came home buzzing from a great date is 100% real. (Women’s Health actually found that men wait 88 days to say “I love you” compared to an average of 134 for women). According to research published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2010, physiologically, it only takes a fifth of a second for your brain to produce the chemicals dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine that give you that Beyoncé and Jay-Z-level “Crazy In Love” feeling. These substances—which increase when you fall in love, and are referred to by some as “the internal elixir of love“—create feelings of euphoria, restlessness and preoccupation. These feelings are often associated with being in love.

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Which is lovely, but Galloway wouldn’t recommend jumping into an engagement or marriage (see: Love Is Blind) immediately upon feeling them—most likely because what you’re experiencing in the first few weeks and months of a new courtship is *actually* lust.

“Generally, we in the relationship world suggest six months to a year before you decide to get engaged, because in that first six months especially, the love chemicals are just taking over,” Galloway says. “The lust is what happens first; that comes first for all of us,” she continues. “You feel so great and elated, maybe you’re not eating and [your relationship] is all you can think about.” And while it’s A-OK to be wrapped up in this feeling and this person, as Toronto-based dating coach and author Laura Bilotta says, it’s important that people understand the difference between love (a more emotional attachment) and lust (physical attachment), “as they can often be mistaken for one another.” Which isn’t only confusing, but can also cloud your judgement during an important period in your relationship. “That’s the time where it’s harder to evaluate if this person is the right person for you,” Galloway says of this infatuation period. “So if you’re not  paying attention to the things you should be looking for (editor’s note: like shared values and actual compatibility—more on this later),  sometimes it can cause a disaster and [the relationship] won’t necessarily last.”

“You have to be very conscious of the things that are going to keep you together in the long run, because the chemicals are 100% gonna blind you. The whole ‘love is blind’ saying is totally correct.” And, she continues, that feeling of always wanting to be with someone 24/7 isn’t going to last forever (it’s not called a honeymoon phase for no reason). “So what’s going to happen when all of that wears off?”

Remember Too Hot to Handle‘s Francesca Farago and Harry Jowsey? The couple that couldn’t keep their hands off each other, left the show a couple, got engaged over Zoom only for Jowsey to unceremoniously dump Farago once the show premiered? Yeah, sounds *kind of* familiar.

There are some pros to finding love on an accelerated timeline

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any positives to an accelerated love timeline like the one found on reality TV. In regards to The Bachelor specifically, the element of no outside factors (considering contestants are sequestered in one location together without access to phones, books or the world beyond their love bubble) allows partners to be in the moment and focus solely on the other person. “You might actually gain a little bit more trust during that time,” Galloway says. With contestants perhaps going on six dates over a two-week time period (as opposed to the IRL standard of, like, two every two weeks), “maybe now you’re sharing and disclosing more, and then you’re able to build trust more quickly. And trust is one of the biggest things you’re going to be looking for in a relationship.”

Another way in which finding love on a condensed timeline may be beneficial is that it forces potential partners to see how they handle conflict much quicker than normal—which can be telling for how they’ll work together in the long-term. “Especially on a show like The Bachelor—where there’s other players in the game—does jealousy show up and how do you handle that?” Galloway asks. In many cases, she continues, partners in the lust stage might be hesitant to address or confront conflict directly, for fear of losing their new partner. “When you’re in love, you don’t worry about that,” she says. “You know that you’re going to be able to confront that conflict and get through it.” But during an accelerated timeline, partners may be more willing to address issues as they appear instead of putting them off. “If you notice that every time you have a conflict [in the lust stage] the two of you blow up and you’re fighting and yelling at each other,  you’re more than likely not going to last. So, the accelerated time could help you in that way, because if the two of you face conflict head-on together and get through it, that could be a really great sign.”

Read this next: I Met My Husband the Love Is Blind Way (Sort Of)

But ultimately, it takes time to find out if someone is right for you—whatever that looks like

Bilotta agrees that an accelerated timeline *can* be beneficial in forcing potential partners to be more upfront about what they want and need in a relationship—and posits that a genuine connection in two months *is* possible, as everyone is different but says: ” I do feel two months into a relationship is a little early [to get engaged]. At two months, you’re very much in the honeymoon phase. Everything is exciting, and you start to fall in love with the idea of being in love with this new person. It’s more about possibility than reality at this point, since it’s still the beginning.” Not to mention the fact that while, as Galloway says, you may face conflict at a similarly accelerated pace, at two months, “both parties are still on their best behaviour. You may not really know this person fully.” This can lead to red flags later on, once the rose-coloured glasses are removed. “You need time to be able to see these things, which is what will help you determine whether someone is the right fit for you,” Bilotta says.

But it’s also important to note that what may be the “right” amount of time to be in a relationship before getting serious can look different for different people. For Dr. Natasha Sharma, creator of The Kindness Journal and The 8-Hour Therapist, establishing a connection and knowing whether or not it’s a good fit is more about the quantity and *quality* of actual time spent together getting to know one another, rather than a specific timeline. “If you only saw a person once per month for a year, that would not be as significant as seeing someone once per day for 30 days,” when it comes to fostering a connection, Sharma says. “It’s not about a ‘timeline’ per se,” she continues. “The recipe for understanding the potential for any relationship is quantity + quality of time together (no matter the period of time). If this happens over eight weeks, so be it! If it’s eight months or three years, also fine.” In addition, Sharma also notes that the speed at which you can determine if a relationship is a fit for you also depends on an individual’s self-awareness. “If you have a good sense of yourself, your needs and your relationship goals, you’ll know what type of person suits you best, and this of course should expedite the process.”

And it’s all about making sure you and your partner are on the same page

Ultimately, whether you’re engaged two months or two years into a relationship, it’s about making sure that you’re on the same page as your partner when it comes to what’s important to you. “Generally, you want to make sure that you are on the same page with the major values,” Galloway says. “Do you have the same beliefs around money and finances? What is your family life going to look like? Are you on the same page, spirituality-wise and health and fitness?” For any clients that could potentially come to Galloway, ready to throw themselves fully into a brand-new relationship, the matchmaker and dating coach would have them evaluate the relationship realistically. Often when couples break up, if you said “look back to the beginning, could you see that [conflict or red flag] in the beginning?” they say yes, according to Galloway. “People are going to show up and show you who they are, but you have to be honest [with yourself]; are you willing to see those flaws or those cracks or those things that don’t work?”

Read this next: Did Co-Quarantining Make Me Co-Dependent on My Partner?

For anyone who’s currently in their own whirlwind romance—or wondering why they can’t have a 12-day wooing like Crawley, Bilotta has some advice: Don’t rush. “I would encourage them to take things slow,” she says. “Take your time getting to know this person. Talk about the things that are important to you, and really work to keep communication lines open. Be vulnerable, but also keep your eyes open. And don’t lose yourself. People often want to spend every waking minute with a new partner, but I encourage people to remember to focus on themselves. Prioritize your needs, go out with your friends, do the things you love and still work towards the person you want to become.” And most importantly? “Remember to just have fun! Dating is meant to be enjoyed and savoured—so enjoy the honeymoon phase.”

TV & Movies

The 12 Sexiest Movies on Netflix

We found one for every level of horny

Ah, summer: the perfect time to get…goddamn depressed that you are stuck inside, all horny and with nowhere to go. Why not live vicariously through cinema’s lovers? We rounded up the 12 sexiest movies on Netflix for you, listing them in ascending order of horniness so you can pick and choose based on how debauched you’re feeling. Happy watching!

12. The Age of Innocence

Hot people present: Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis

What is it about? Uptight Newland is engaged to sweet May—but he’s thirstin’ for her cousin, the scandalous divorcee Countess Olenska.

Horny highlights: Martin Scorsese called this movie “the most violent film I’ve made.” What’s hotter than watching people have sex? Watching people who are desperate to have sex and absolutely cannot have sex. In the age of innocence, a stolen kiss on the wrist is far, far hornier than the most graphic smashfest.

Get a li’l taste:

11. Legends of the Fall

Hot people present: Brad Pitt, Karina Lombard, Julia Ormond

What is it about? Three strapping corn-fed brothers deal with the fallout of World War One and get entangled with the same winsome Englishwoman.

Horny highlights: Brad Pitt is at the height of his mid-nineties power here, playing the wilful middle brother Tristan (yes, even his name is hot), all windswept long blond hair, bashful smiles, and thick, thick thighs guiding his steeds: Pitt’s iconic, hat-tipping entrance is an instant pantie-destroyer.

Get a li’l taste:  

Read this next: How Outlander Reinvented My Sex Life

10. 40 Days and 40 Nights

Hot people present: Josh Hartnett, Shannyn Sossamon

What is it about? Dashing fuckboi Matt challenges himself to give up sex for Lent, which proves difficult when he meets Erica, a spirited…cyber nanny. #2002

Horny highlights: The lovers spend the night together, only touching each other with a flower. Sounds cheesy, but it’s surprisingly…<<furtive pervert eyes>>.

Get a li’l taste:  

9. Crazy Stupid Love

Hot people present: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei

What is it about? A separated sadsack gets dating lessons from a dead-inside PUA—who is obscenely good-looking.

Horny highlights: Emma Stone initially rebuffs Ryan Gosling, only to change her mind when faced with the grotesque fate of being wed to Josh Groban forever. She does the patented journey-through-the-rainstorm to get to Gosling, culminating in a passionate clinch and one of cinema’s cutest hookups, complete with Dirty Dancing lift and Stone’s goggle-eyed delight at his Photoshop-level abs.

Get a li’l taste:   

8. Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Hot people present: Winona Ryder, Gary Oldman, Lucy Frost, Keanu Reeves, Monica Belluci

What is it about? Immortal creeper with a penchant for two-foot-tall wigs is horny for the doppelgänger of his long-dead bride, but uh-oh—she’s engaged to his hunky young lawyer!

Horny highlights: Everyone is horny in this movie. Everyone. Women have sex with fanged hairy beasts, vapour, shadows, and, most disturbingly of all, a mustachioed m’lady in a top hat and tiny granny-glasses. Dracula uses a bevvy of babes to keep poor Keanu imprisoned, and famously licks blood off a straight razor with the gusto of someone s-ing Armie Hammer’s dick.

Get a li’l taste:  

Read this next: Are Hook-Ups OK Now That Covid Restrictions Are Lifting?

7. The Road to El Dorado

Hot people present: cartoon Kevin Kline, cartoon Kenneth Branagh, cartoon Rosie Perez

What is it about? Two bounders embark on a quest to find the famed mystical city of El Dorado.

Horny highlights: A large portion of this film’s rabid fandom are convinced that this film is actually about a) a chic queer couple, and/or b) a (potentially also queer) throuple. This animated feature is so randy that it spawned a Facebook group 25,000 strong entitled “The Road To El Dorado Hornyposting.”

Get a li’l taste: I mean…

 

6. Dirty Dancing

Hot people present: Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey

What is it about? Sheltered feminist teen Baby crushes on sentient beefsteak/dance instructor Johnny Castle during one fateful summer at a Catskills resort.

Horny highlights: SLOWDANCING TO SOLOMON BURKE’S “CRY TO ME.”

Get a li’l taste: 

 

5. Little Children

Hot people present: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson

What is it about? Frumpy (ha!) mom Sarah and neighbourhood DILF Brad embark upon an illicit affair.

Horny highlights: Sarah ogling Brad’s tanned, chiseled bod at the pool, or when they finally, furiously hump on the washing machine, Brad moaning, “Does this feel bad? I feel bad.”

Get a li’l taste: 

 

4. Magic Mike

Hot people present: Channing Motherfucking Tatum, various other torsos

What is it about? One man works toward securing a small-business loan for his burgeoning industrial furniture business.

Horny highlights: …while moonlighting as a stripper. Worth it for the approximately three minutes of sweaty, wondrous gyrating by Tatum and his merry band of glistening gigolos. Even the greased-up McConnaughey has a certain puss-tingling charm here.

Get a li’l taste: 

Read this next: The Best Sex Toys to Romance Yourself with

3. Duck Butter

Hot people present: Laia Costa, Alia Shawkat

What is it about? A pair of queer gals spend 24 hours together to see if they really actually like each other.

Horny highlights: Well, they like each other enough to fuck. Like, a lot. A lot a lot. The sex in this movie is genuinely horny-inducing: it feels authentic, raw and real, complete with mutual masturbation, and tons of vigorous hand stuff. Hot. Very hot.

Get a li’l taste:

 

2. God’s Own Country

Hot people present: Josh O’Connor (a.k.a. Prince Charles from The Crown), gorgeous newcomer Alec Secareanu

What is it about? A closeted farmer starts to open up, thanks to a week spent lambing on the moors with a gorgeous new farmhand with the kindest eyes.

Horny highlights: That first tentative stroke of the arm. DAMN.

Get a li’l taste: 

 

1. Below Her Mouth

Hot people present: Erika Linder, Natalie Krill

What is it about? An engaged straight fashion designer is surprised to find herself falling for a queer roofer with commitment issues.

Horny highlights: Not really a “highlight” now, is it, when 95% of the movie is hardcore lesbian pounding? The jamboree starts well before the credits are done rolling. All hail Canada—truly a nation of covert perverts—for putting something this smutty in wide release (even if the movie itself kinda sucks). Special shout-out to the hugely erotic extendo bath-faucet masturbation scene.

Get a li’l taste: 

 

Need more recos? Try these!

She’s Gotta Have It: Horny—and extremely stylish—Brooklynite Nola Darling prioritizes pleasure and juggles three (annoyingly useless) dudes in Spike Lee’s first feature film, inspiring non-monogamous folks everywhere. 

The Boss’ Daughter: The titular BD is horny for the drool-inducing factory foreman. Yum. 

Newness: Pretty (boring) urbanites are quite horny and subsequently fornicate their way through half of Los Angeles and a spate of non-monogamy.

Aquarius: Fierce 60-something Latinx queen Sonia Braga (a.k.a. Samantha’s GF Maria from Sex and the City) copulates with pieces half her age and fondly reminisces about bygone bangs. 

The Incredible Jessica James: 2 Dope Queens co-host Jessica Williams spars with Chris O’Dowd…and the banter is even hotter than the sex. (Although the sex is also pretty hot.) 

The Beguiled: Horny gaggle competes for bedridden Colin Farrell’s d with deadly results. 

Friends with Benefits: Mila Kunis is peak babe here in a rom-com about two amigos who sate their horniness with each other, no strings attached (not to be confused with the Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman movie No Strings Attached, which is about the exact-same thing). Even Justin Timberlake is tolerable!

Far From Heaven: Fifties housewife Julianne Moore is horny for her gardener. Her husband is horny for cock. Zoinks!

Bugsy: Warren Beatty and Annette Bening got horny for each other IRL on this movie (and are still going strong three decades later)—and it’s all on-screen, baby. 

Amar: You know who’s really horny? Teens. Especially Euro teens. Like, this Spanish film opens with a casual pegging!

FILED UNDER:

Sex & Relationships

Did Co-Quarantining Make Me Codependent on My Partner?

We asked some experts

Two months into our co-quarantine, my husband did something unusual: He went somewhere without me. By the time he left our Toronto apartment in mid-May to retrieve some things from work, we’d been self-isolating together for 68 days—that’s 1,632 consecutive hours. After 10 years together, including five years of marriage, the honeymoon phase is long over; we do not need to be together constantly. So, far from dreading his departure, I was eager to indulge my bad TV habits and watch 90 Day Fiancé without his commentary. Instead, I felt anxious. I was suddenly and unnervingly alone. In the “Before Times” (read: pre-COVID), separate friends and interests meant we had regular solo outings, but that independence had been interrupted and replaced by constant proximity to one another. 

That my husband’s quick trip to the office made me uneasy was alarming and frankly very unlike me. It made me wonder if other couples were feeling the same way and whether pandemic-imposed isolation has forced cohabiting couples into a kind of pressure cooker for unhealthy attachment. 

As provinces progress through the reopening phases and household bubbles expand, couples will find themselves apart more often as they reintegrate into the world as individuals—it’s like the coronavirus version of conscious uncoupling. And it will be an adjustment. During a lockdown, couples don’t have much exposure to other people or the outside world. Routines are disrupted, including work, events and community connections that can provide fulfillment and shape identities. We’re left feeling disoriented and introspective with only our partner to fill the void as substitute co-worker, personal trainer and therapist. These may be symptoms of a pandemic, but they feel eerily close to the isolation tactics used by cults, which begs the questions: Could being cooped up foster that same cultish dependence on a partner? 

Read this next: How to Break-Up with Someone During a Pandemic

“Codependency” has become a pop-culture term, a catch-all for clingy displays of affection or jealous insecurity. And though there is a spectrum for these kinds of behavioural traits, severe codependency assumes an almost pathological devotion, “which usually means insecure or anxious attachment,” says Renata Kulpa, a Toronto-based psychotherapist who specializes in codependency. Kulpa’s codependent clients are mostly women who are married or in a relationship, though not always. Codependency can be associated with any significant person, like a close friend or a therapist, and is marked by an overwhelming need to please that negates one’s own identity, often without realizing it. This compulsion to care for others can also manifest in a need to have control over a loved one’s whereabouts. “They worry endlessly about where their significant others are,” Kulpa says.

But while codependency can include a need for control, Kulpa says the cult analogy doesn’t exactly translate. “I don’t see a direct relation,” she says, explaining that codependent behaviour is usually established long before adulthood. It tends to emerge at an early age and often stems from fears of abandonment, so it’s unlikely that codependency would develop due to heightened proximity during self-isolation. However, for those who already have codependent tendencies, the isolation could exacerbate them and lead to increased anxiety over, say, the whereabouts of family members. (In fact, Kulpa has seen a rise in client intakes, with “two or three [requests] a day from people who are codependent,” since early March—in other words, since lockdown started). On the other hand, lockdown could also lead to positive self-reflection. Many of Kulpa’s new clients tell her that fewer external variables have meant that they’ve had more time to notice their own behaviour, recognize it as problematic and seek help. “Every one of them said, ‘Now that I’m under quarantine, I want to use my time to work on what’s important to me.’” 

Read this next: Should First Dates Go Virtual Permanently? 

And as for my moment of surprising anxiety, brought on by a brief separation? “You just experienced separation anxiety in a normal situation—if we can call [the pandemic] normal.”

But how much time together is “normal” or even healthy? Certainly my husband and I hit our limit around hour 1,500, when we fought about how to cook a frozen pizza. (The instructions were on the box.) Couples have reported spending more than 20 extra hours per week with one another as a result of physical distancing, according to a survey conducted in April by wedding publication The Knot. To use the word of the year, this amount of time seems unprecedented. Dr. Rami Nijjar, a Vancouver-based clinical psychologist, says there’s no need for couples to impose a limit on the amount of time they spend together “if there’s a healthy degree of interdependence and each has different interests and feels secure.” However, inconsistent dynamics—if one person is avoidant, for instance, leaving the other to compensate by being more affectionate—“limit the amount of time that feels healthy for each person.” A cycle of distant behaviour, anxiety and reassurance can alter brain chemistry. “It can give one intermittent hits of dopamine,” Nijjar explains, which might cause an addiction to a partner and increase stress over time. 

But the opposite is also true. In pairings where both partners are consistently available, emotional and physical intimacy can ease tension and “provide a buffer between our stress and the world—like our situation with the pandemic.” (You know you’ve found someone special when they help regulate your nervous system during a crisis).

Read this next: Are Hook-Ups OK Now That COVID Restrictions Are Lifting?

With all of that partner-induced dopamine in our brains, surely those in healthy relationships could also face withdrawal when this is all over. “Couples will likely experience a bit of a shock when they come out of this,” Nijjar says. “They’ll have to integrate into other relationships. They’ll have to leave the safety and security of having that one other person in their lives. And, sure, anxiety will increase.” But she expects that any post-pandemic separation anxiety for couples will be temporary. “Will it have a lasting impact? I’m not sure it’s that bad.” 

Since no one knows what the world is going to look like going forward, she advises couples to pay closer attention to their relationship now. The best strategy for a situation we can’t predict is to build up internal reserves by working on our capacity for recovery, both as couples and individuals. Nijjar lists increased communication, mindful listening and boundary-setting as well as discussing the preferred amount of physical intimacy and personal space as ways to achieve this. (We’re about to get a lot more personal space.)

“We can’t predict the future,” she says. “We can only foster resilience now.”

FILED UNDER:

Health

How a Borderline Personality Diagnosis Helped Me Understand Years of Heartache

Turns out I'm not just a "hopeless romantic"

Trigger Warning: This article contains mention of self-harm and suicidal ideation.

Has anyone else binged High Fidelity while in quarantine? I recently purchased a subscription to Amazon Prime exclusively for this purpose. Not only is the original John Cusack film (2000) one of my favourite movies ever, but Zoë Kravitz’s character hard-core resonated with me in just the two minute-trailer of the television spin-off. I spent a day watching all ten episodes, and let me tell ya, Robyn Brooks a.k.a. Rob (played by Kravitz) and I have very similar coping mechanisms for romantic rejection. We even tell stories about them in a similar fashion. 

The series follows Rob, the owner of an NYC record shop, as she recalls her top five heartbreaks of all time. Rob consistently responds to these breakups with distress, at times desperately trying to convince ex-partners to take her back. Then she turns to the camera and recounts these events in a seemingly detached manner, as if her behaviours had belonged to someone else and were now exclusively being used for the audience’s entertainment value.

The thing about Rob and I is that we’re both in love with love; we thrive off being in it and telling stories about it. I’ve always thought of myself as hopelessly romantic. That is, until recently when I received some professional medical insight that suggested my tendency to romanticize was more dysfunctional than just dramatic. In fact, my doctor feels that my fear of romantic rejection is better explained by something called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a mood disorder that CAMH describes as “serious, long-lasting and complex mental health problem,” adding that individuals with BPD have “difficulty regulating or handling their emotions or controlling their impulses” among other characteristics. 

To explain how I found myself on a diagnostic mental health journey in the first place, I’ll have to tell you about my own top five heartbreaks, in chronological order, starting with my first: *Ben Monroe.

Read this next: How to Break Up With Someone During a Pandemic

The breakups

Ben was my first teenage boyfriend, a kind, athletic boy who took me on mini putt dates near the local movie theatre in the eleventh grade. He broke up with me over the phone after three months. When I finally hung up the phone that night, having spent a good hour trying to convince him to change his mind, I collapsed on my knees in my parent’s bedroom, sobbing uncontrollably. My mom jumped out of bed towards me, likely assuming that someone had died, such was my hysteria. My parents soon realized that I was experiencing nothing more serious than a slightly melodramatic emotional breakdown.

I sunk into a depressed state in the weeks following, until lo and behold, I found another boy to transfer my affections onto. Ben who? I fixed my attention onto the new guy all at once and decided that he’d be a healing balm for all my romantic woes. Meet heartache number two: Lucas Feldman. Unlike the short-lived scenario that preceded it, this relationship spanned seven months and introduced me to the true anxieties of my romantic insecurity. I would cry at the slightest indication that he was less invested in the relationship than me, and then launch myself into panic attacks over whether or not he would break up with me. 

Of course he did, a month before the high school prom. While I descended dateless into another depression, I began sneaking shots of whiskey in the morning before school. I told my friends in tearful text confessions that I “couldn’t do this anymore.” My diagnosis has since helped me realize that that kind of threatening statement was characteristic of BPD, but at the time it felt very real. My friends staged an intervention for me, approaching my parents first, and then me, with their growing concern. I recall being touched by their support, but it didn’t make a difference to the central fact that I was still single; and it felt like that fact alone contributed to my sadness. Then, in the week before prom night, I improved, almost magically, as if the previous breakup had never happened. I had started seeing another boy, my best friend’s ex-boyfriend, Mike Richards. My best friend was hurt, and delivered an ultimatum to me—her or him. But she couldn’t give me what I wanted, what I thought I needed: the professions of love and physical acts of affection that seemed most meaningful in romantic scenarios. I gave up my four-year friendship with her in a heartbeat.

That inevitable breakup came four months later, after I left for university the following fall. Mike had told me he loved me many times previously, but resolved that I wasn’t likely to be his lifelong partner and didn’t want to waste more time. I prolonged the breakup conversation for as long as I could, and had sex with him after, holding back tears so he wouldn’t be turned off. When he finally left my student apartment, I felt more alone than ever. In the collegiate environment, people seemed more inclined towards casual sex than relationships so I couldn’t find a new romance to distract my broken heart with, which had been my habit all the times before. I settled for one-night stands and make-out sessions instead. My depressed states grew longer and more frequent and I desperately continued to seek romantic and sexual attention to relieve them.

Read this next: How I Moved on After Breaking up with Someone I Thought Was “The One”

Are you starting to see a pattern? 

Heartbreak number four was my most brief relationship, and also the ugliest: Simon Kent. I dated him for three weeks in the spring of my first year of university, and had three times as many panic attacks. One night, I drunkenly snuck into his room in the student living complex that we both inhabited, and approached his bed crying because he’d seemed distant that day and I thought that meant he was going to dump me. I don’t remember what I said to him, only that I was desperate to not be alone. He ended the relationship soon after but I remained delusional enough to keep sleeping with him.

I consider that dorm room interaction the lowest point of my dating life. However, that boy gave me the name of his therapist, who became my first therapist soon after. He knew of our relationship, and took the opportunity to propose the following: He said that since we were both his patients, he could get my ex-boyfriend and I back together. I declined, uncomfortable with that suggestion, and wasn’t told until two years later that it had been a cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) technique, intended to draw a reaction from me.

Unfortunately for my mental health, my refusal of that CBT technique-related offer actually led my therapist away from the diagnosis—and explanation into my relationship patterns—that I’ve only recently arrived at. With this therapist, we had only discussed the possibility of a mood disorder and identified the common trigger as romantic pursuits, namely rejections. BPD never came up. 

The mention of BPD brings me back to my most recent breakup, number five, the patient and kind Jack Fields. We only dated for three months and broke up this past February, but he sat with me for hours while I cycled through immediate breakup symptoms and the usual feelings of abandonment and loneliness were alleviated by his support. Usually, my first instinct when being dumped is to panic, and then subsequently become depressed because “I’m alone again.” I repeat this thought cycle methodically, but as I approached the feelings this time around, I was interrupted by the clarifying observation of their familiarity: Hadn’t I said these same things to myself many times before? 

In Jack’s comforting presence, my emotional mind reclined and my rational mind began churning. I began to question why I’d previously experienced these emotions so severely, regardless of how long I’d been with the person who was breaking up with me, or how serious the relationship felt. I knew that it was normal to be upset about the loss of a relationship but surely what I’d been experiencing—the anxiety attacks, the fear of being alone and the paranoid vigilance of waiting for an inevitable impending break up—was unhealthy. That week, I made an appointment for a psychological assessment at my school’s counselling centre. The doctor rarely looked up from his notepad while he conducted his assessment, other than to hand me a tissue box when I began crying. His line of questioning seemed irrelevant to what I was feeling, until he started on my history with romantic relationships, and my behaviour surrounding them. Within five minutes, he felt confident that I was experiencing BPD, and put me on a waitlist to meet a psychiatrist. 

Read this next: Where to Find Free & Accessible Mental Health Care Across Canada

The breakthrough

According to a psychiatric resident at the Ryerson University Medical Centre, Dr. Colibasanu, 1.6 to 5.9% of Americans are diagnosed with BPD and 75% of those diagnoses are made in females. While symptoms of BPD behaviour can arise in adolescence, they are most persistent in young adults. On top of that, they become increasingly likely when coupled with other mental health inflictions such as anxiety and depression, and often exist simultaneously. I inhabit all of these criteria, though I might add for others curious about the factors that predispose a person to BPD, a person is five times more likely to develop it if a parent struggles with a similar diagnosis. Pending my diagnosis, my psychiatrist assessed me using a list of nine symptoms outlined in the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The manual, published by the American Psychiatric Association, is used throughout North America to help medical professionals determine diagnoses. It is the source of the aforementioned statistics referenced by Dr. Colibasanu. According to the DSM-5, a person must have persistently identified at least five of the nine symptoms of BPD, which includes frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment and chronic feelings of emptiness, by early adulthood in order to meet the criteria for diagnosis. 

Dr. Colibasanu clarified that it would be okay to experience some of these feelings if they didn’t interfere with one’s day-to-day life and therefore cause some sort of social or physical impairment. It’s at that point that the combination of these behaviours becomes a disorder. This new identity is what I’m grappling with now. At certain points in my young adulthood, I’ve met up to seven of the criteria. Consistently, I experience five. I might even call myself high functioning, though my ability to rationalize myself out of emotionally distressed states lessens when I’m triggered by the immediate presence of a potential or developing romance. 

Turns out, I’m not just a hopeless romantic, but a hopeless romantic with a rather serious mood disorder. Nonetheless, I’ve experienced a huge wave of relief in being able to identify some of my behaviours and feelings with my BPD diagnosis. Associating my dysfunctional relationship history with a plausible explanation has allowed me to stop considering those behaviours as my own personal failure and, for the first time in my dating history, stop blaming myself for the end of a relationship. 

Read this next: I Didn’t Think I “Needed” Therapy—Then COVID-19 Happened

Now with the help of a new therapist, I’m learning strategies for spending time with myself, and for eventually participating in healthy interactions with romantic and sexual partners. While I’m acknowledging a need to be alone, this isn’t a profession of strength and independence. It’s more like I’m an addict who’s finally admitted their addiction, hoping that someday in the future I’ll be able to consume responsibly. I’ve begun by immersing myself in all the professional and educational resources I can. Dr. Colibasanu has told me that the most effective therapy treatment for BPD is Dialectical Behaviour therapy (DBT), a form of psychotherapy developed by psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan. The treatment uses four main skill sets to help Borderlines cope with and progressively unlearn dysfunctional behaviours: emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance and mindfulness. Though I haven’t had the opportunity to formally begin this treatment, I have started practicing these skills at home, while actively avoiding dating scenarios in order to focus more energy on myself and platonic relationships.

The future

While I don’t foresee any interruptions in my sobriety,  I’m not going to punish myself if one happens. Two steps forward, one step back, as they say. I will, however, try to use my newly learned skills to regulate the impact of these interactions. If I meet an attractive stranger and find myself in a conversation with him that could be perceived as flirtatious, my “action urge” (to use DBT language) is to become anxious under the weight of his potential. My mind plays a b-roll of the next few years of our non-existent but possible romance. The DBT skill I’ve been using here is called “opposite action,” meaning that I acknowledge what my action urge is to a certain emotional stimuli, and I rationally decide to act in a different way. In this case, I’m trying to walk away from these interactions altogether, so as to teach my brain that I will be okay if such an attraction doesn’t develop into anything further.

My recovery from dysfunctional romance requires me to spend a lot of time with myself, consciously rationalizing any emotions that come up in my life. I foresee it being a long journey, but one in which I have the vocabulary to stop blaming myself for dysfunctional behaviour. For me, Borderline Personality Disorder is a personal history, an explanation, and above all, a plan for an alternative future.

Fortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it easy to avoid dating. I’m going on 130 days, sex- and romance-free, with the aim of abstaining from any romantic interactions until I’m able to reduce the way they impact my ability to feel fulfilled and functional. When I shared this with my psychiatrist, he said he hopes my abstinence from romance isn’t a permanent avoidance of an experience—of loving relationships—that can be very gratifying in life. I told him of course it isn’t, after all I still love love, but I do want to be able to love it in a healthier way. 

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity

Sex & Relationships

Are Hook-Ups OK Now That Covid Restrictions Are Lifting?

Some experts are advocating for a 'harm reduction' approach to sex

I was settling into work one day when my best friend, who is single, called me in the throes of an ethical dilemma: Now that Covid-19 restrictions are lifting a bit, she asked me, was there a way to safely have sex with someone over the summer?

This friend is a busy single mom and it had already been awhile since the last time she’d been able to have sex when Covid-19 broke out. How realistic was it to potentially wait another year? And yet—how could she consider hooking up with someone when it might put the people in her life, including her two-year-old and her sixty-something parents, at risk?

I’ve heard the same question in different iterations from just about all of my single friends lately. (Dating during Covid is not exactly easy.) I told them what I thought seemed like a reasonable approach: We’re all human, sex is a need for most of us, and as long as they have some trust in their desired partner, it isn’t a wild thing to be considering at all. Were I single, I confessed, I probably would have already met up with someone.

But then I felt guilty, offering advice when I’m not a medical professional, so I called some people who know better than I do. Chief public health officer of Canada Theresa Tam said during a press conference on July 3 that, as with all things right now, it’s important to be cautious, aware and considerate.

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“Like anything to do with social interactions in the Covid era, I would say think through everything to reduce your risk,” she says. The way to approach dating and sex, according to Tam, is slowly and carefully—and definitely to avoid hooking up if you’re sick. Tam stresses that she’s no dating expert, but she says it’s probably a good idea right now to start with dating virtually, where there is no risk of contracting or spreading the virus. Then, if you want to progress to meeting in person, plan to meet somewhere outdoors, where transmission of the virus is lower and distance can be maintained. Build trust from there.

Tam advises keeping your dating pool small right now, as with social circles in general. Covid-19 is known to spread through respiratory droplets and saliva, so hooking up with someone is a risky act. “This is a serious social contract with someone,” she says. “If you kiss someone, they’re now in your bubble. To me, that’s something to be taken seriously.”

And before even dating one person or small numbers of people, Tam stresses it’s crucial to assess your medical status and the status of anyone else you’re already close to. If you or someone else in your life are high risk, the decision becomes weightier.

However, realistically, not every hookup is going to be one that includes deep trust and emotional connection. Sometimes sex is a little more utilitarian, or it might be a service someone is providing to someone else. Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health in New Brunswick, says it’s possible to apply the principles of harm reduction to dating and sex in this time.

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“Sex is a very normal part of life. It’s good for mental health, and taking a holistic approach is very important. We understand these are very normal parts of life that humans need to engage in for their wellbeing.” For many people, a prolonged period of abstinence just may not be possible or even healthy. So how do you mitigate risk?

“We have to normalize testing,” Russell says. Similarly to having regular tests for STIs, getting tested for Covid can reassure your partner that you take their health and safety seriously. Russell says even having one symptom, like a cough or fever, is reason enough to get tested.

In cases where sex is an exchange outside of an exclusive relationship, it’s a good idea to consider new ways of doing things, even breaking out some full-on PPE. Monica Forrester does outreach and runs a program for Indigenous workers with Maggie’s, the sex work action project in Toronto. This has been a challenging time for sex workers, she says, but they’ve been innovative as ever through this crisis.

“Many sex workers have found other ways to work such as online shows, camming and selling nudes,” she says. Client work has slowed down for these folks, partly because of increased policing on the street, but with the clients they do see many workers are taking precautions like a no kissing rule, sanitizing and mask-wearing throughout the session.

Russell says precautions like these won’t remove risk entirely, but they can help lower it. So can shortening your encounters, since less exposure means less likelihood of transmission. And Tam cautions people not to get “too enthusiastic” in this time of lifting restrictions and forget about the usual safety measures like condoms.

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A recent study found the virus in semen, and while it’s not clear whether semen can actually transmit the virus, using a condom is always best practice. As far as we know right now, some acts may be safer than others. While the virus hasn’t yet been found in vaginal fluid, for example, it’s known to exist in feces. Rimming, then, may not be a super desirable act right now—but if it’s something you really want to do, dams are always an option.

In addition to taking the appropriate precautions, Russell suggests making sure you have a way to contact people you’ve had sex with, even if it was very casual or for work. This helps with contact tracing efforts: If one of you gets sick, you can at least warn each other and, by extension, your families and other loved ones. We’ll be living with Covid for a while, so it’s important that people make good choices with the freedoms they have now.

Ultimately, my single friends are figuring out how to navigate dating and sex in ways that work for them: They’re starting to date (one is even falling in love!) but they’re taking it slowly, getting to know each other outside in the sun, and making sure their partners are trustworthy. Maybe these are the changes the dating scene has needed for a while.

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What To Do If Your Book Club Is Cancelled

Immerse Yourself in the Soothing Joy of Romance Novels

Your guide to the most delightful new romance novels to read all summer long

I love romance novels—truly, madly and deeply. It took me a while to feel comfortable saying that out loud and without hesitation. On any given day, I turn to a romance novel to relax, de-stress or alleviate my anxiety. My diet includes generous helpings of authors like Talia Hibbert, Mhairi McFarlane, Helen Hoang and Sally Thorne. The books from the genre are comforting companions—a fictional sigh of relief. These days, when the news cycle is relentless and infuriating, they’re my steady IV drip. It’s not just the escapism they offer, although that’s nice too. Nor is it just about the levity they provide or the steadfast certainty of a Happily Ever After when everything is so uncertain and in flux. Romance novels, at their core, are joyful and celebratory. During a time when moments of glee seem so far and few in between, they’re a precious balm to the soul.

When you choose a book, you become invested in these characters and their lives. For the next few hundred pages, you follow their journey, experience their failures and obstacles, and revel in their success and happiness. But if you seek diversity in your romance, you know that many of these characters have often been historically denied the Hallmark variety of a happy ending in those very pages. With the latest crop of novels about love, that’s slowly changing. And there’s immense joy in seeing characters exist in spaces that you thought were never made for you.

Now more than ever, romance is the genre we deserve and need. And if you’re looking for a summer romance, there are plenty of blissful new books to add to your reading list. 

Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory (June 23)

best romance books 2020

$22, adifferentbooklist.com

Olivia Munroe doesn’t have time to date. She just moved to Los Angeles and she has things to do, like running her own law firm. One day, she meets a handsome stranger at a hotel bar and the two hit it off right away. He turns out to be U.S. junior senator Max Powell. Can she handle being in a very public relationship?

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert (June 23)

best romance books 2020

$19.99, notability.ca

When a video of Danika Brown being rescued by a handsome security guard and former rugby player Zafir Ansari goes viral (#DrRugbae), he asks if she’s willing to fake-date to help raise his charity’s profile. She accepts because she just happens to be looking for a Friend with Benefits. Being in a faux relationship seems simple enough, as long as they can keep their budding feelings for one another off the table.

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Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (June 30)

best romance books 2020

$34.95, mcnallyrobinson.com

While it doesn’t technically fall under the romance genre, the hotly-anticipated follow-up to Kevin Kwan’s blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians trilogy still gets a spot on the list. Loosely based on E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View, the novel follows Lucie Churchill’s relationship with George Zao who she meets during a lavish weekend wedding in Capri and encounters once again a few years later in New York. 

Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev (May 26) 

best romance books 2020

$19.99, queenbooks.ca

Sonali Dev takes Jane Austen’s Persuasion and tweaks the recipe. Chef Ashna Raje is desperate to save her restaurant so when she’s asked to join the cast of Cooking with the Stars, a hit reality show that pairs chefs with celebrities, she accepts. Until she’s paired with FIFA-winning soccer star Rico Silva, her first love who also broke her heart by ghosting her when she needed him the most. 

Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner (May 26)

best romance books 2020

$22, massybooks.com (Vancouver)

When Emmy Award-winning television writer and show-runner Jo Jones is photographed making her assistant laugh on the red carpet, it makes for perfect tabloid fodder, sparking rumours about the two being an item. With Jo’s film project approaching, as the two spend more time together, they realize that maybe there’s truth to the rumours after all. 

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You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria (August 4)

best romance books 2020

$19.99, chapters.indigo.ca

Jasmine and Ashton, each one a soap opera and telenovela star respectively, are cast as the leads in a new film. As they try to make movie magic, the lines blur between their on-screen and real-life chemistry. Which wouldn’t be so bad except for the obstacles constantly thrown their way, thanks to some intense media scrutiny. 

The Marriage Game by Sara Desai (June 9)

best romance books 2020

$22, kingwestbooks.com

Layla Patel moves back in with her family in San Francisco after disappointing setbacks. Her well-intentioned dad offers her the office space above his restaurant to help her get started on her business and sets her up with a dating profile. Sam Mehta, the CEO of a corporate downsizing company, moves into the same office space, which he’s forced to share with the owner’s daughter who threatens to ruin his peace and quiet with her parade of suitors.

One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London (July 7)

best romance books 2020

$20, chapters.indigo.ca

After body-positive activist and plus-size blogger Bea Schumacher goes viral for criticizing a reality dating show for its lack of body and racial diversity, she’s suddenly cast as the next leading lady. She’s ready to criticize the show, but things get a bit more complicated once she’s in front of the camera. 

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The Heir Affair by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan (June 30)

best romance books 2020

$15 ($24.99), chapters.indigo.ca

In the follow-up to The Royal We about an American named Rebecca Porter and Prince Nicholas, the heir to the throne, the couple goes into self-imposed exile following their disastrous wedding day. Soon, they’re forced to return to London and face the fallout from before their big day. 

Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall (July 7)

best romance books 2020

$21.99, mcnallyrobinson.com

Luc O’Donnell is the fame-averse son of a rock star. When his dad decides to make a comeback after two decades, Luc needs to clean up his image now that he’ll be back in the public eye. Enter Oliver Blackwood, a perfectly normal albeit uptight barrister. The two agree to date each other as a publicity stunt, which ends up being much harder than they thought. 

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What To Do If Your 'Hot Girl Summer' Is Cancelled

Here's How People Are Dating Right Now

We spoke to 10 Canadian women to find out how they are maintaining—or starting—relationships during COVID-19

To put it simply, dating is hell. It’s only complicated by apps and today’s “there’s always something better” mentality. Throw in a pandemic and, suddenly, it all seems entirely impossible. Dating no longer looks like sitting down to dinner at a restaurant, going to the movies or coming over for a drink. In an effort to continue pursuing romantic interests amidst COVID-19, however, people are getting creative and, as a result, getting more personal.

Karen B.K. Chan is a sex and emotional literacy educator based in Toronto. “Any restrictions or limitations—and these days are full of them, not just in terms of physical distancing, but also the freedom and the pressure to be in the world, to be busy, to be socially connected—can inspire creativity,” she says. “And creativity is one of the best ways of being yourself, being open and getting to know someone, growing closer to them and building a relationship.”

For many of the women I spoke to from across Canada, finding new ways to connect has led to a whole lot of video-chatting. On either side of the screen, there are still sit-down dinners, movie marathons and cocktails happening. The distance narrows when dates get personal, which seems inevitable as they connect from their apartments or childhood homes, and have less to worry about when it comes to dressing up (waist down, at least) or catching their train. Comfort and communication are on the menu now, on the very first date.

“Yes, it sucks to be dating at this time, but it’s also a great time to be dating,” says Chan. “To talk on the phone, to Skype or Zoom, to go for distant walks, to show each other your homes via a screen, to talk about all the things you would like to do with each other one day…Distance is what passion, desire and sexiness are all heightened by.”

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It might seem like yet another obstacle to connect at a time when it feels as if the world is working entirely against just that, but Chan says these are circumstances you should be taking advantage of. “That intensity is what many people crave after the initial fire dims,” she says. “Slowing down at the beginning of a relationship and delaying physical intimacy can be one way of really drawing out that delicious part—focusing on the emotional, sexual, intellectual intimacy.”

Here, 10 women on how they are navigating their relationships and the dating world during social distancing—for better or worse. Plus, keep scrolling for 10 tips for staying safe—and still having fun—while dating during a pandemic.

“It was our six-year anniversary and we couldn’t celebrate”

“At the start of March Break, I was spending a long weekend at my boyfriend Joshua’s place. Those four days together were surreal because the situation [with COVID-19] was unfolding rapidly every day. It helped that we were together because otherwise we would have been freaked out (more than we were). I definitely felt some guilt leaving Joshua at the end of the weekend for home because he was going to be alone. However, I would have felt guilty not being with my parents, and it helps that he knows I need to be with them.

“Normally, we would see each other twice a week. We’re used to the space but now it’s definitely starting to affect us. We were living in separate countries for two months one summer (I was in Sri Lanka) so this situation isn’t necessarily new to us. Video chats help because we can see each other. We’ve decided to do more of these even though both of us hate cameras. We usually talk every day for an hour or so, which hasn’t changed. We’re doing more activities together now, like crosswords and movies.

“The not touching hasn’t been a major issue (yet), because we’re not entirely based on that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely hard not being able to hug or cuddle. However, the other stuff in our relationship is strong enough that if it disappears for a while, it’s OK. It was our six-year anniversary on April 3 and we weren’t really able to celebrate. We were both stressed and anxious. That’s the reality of it but we know that we will be able to celebrate together once this is all over. It also puts things in our relationship into perspective; we can’t sweat the small stuff anymore because all we want is to be together. Nothing else seems to matter.”

— Ranuka, 31, high-school teacher, Edmonton

“It’s a lot cheaper than a King West bar”

“I relocated to my parents’ home recently but, just before, I was on Hinge, Bumble and Tinder. I was shocked by the amount of messages I was getting! It certainly kicked up once lockdown kicked in and I was still getting asked to hang out, which I was rejecting. Apparently social distancing doesn’t apply to men asking to Netflix and chill, but what do I know? Since then I’ve turned my apps off; I can only handle so many pictures of men holding fish dressed head to toe in camo.

“I have still been speaking to a match I made before I moved, who I had to unfortunately cancel a date with just before this all started—I had thought I would be back home for a week or two but not a month or more! So we’ve decided on digital dates: We grab a drink and chat for a few hours, usually before bed. It’s a lot cheaper than a King West bar, but a little more delayed with my weak wifi. We’ve also been watching each other’s favourite movies at the same time, and play games like Draw Something and Trivia Crack.

“As an avid rom-com fan, I feel like this all sounds like something out of a movie—if it ends up going as well in person as it has on FaceTime.”

— Brianne, 28, blogger and freelance writer, Georgian Bay

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“I don’t know if this will go anywhere after all of this”

“There was a woman I was seeing on and off for months before we all started to self-isolate. I thought that it was over, and I had lost interest. And I wasn’t really looking for anything long-term. I even kind of thought heading into all of this that, in this part of my life, maybe it could be a good thing, like maybe I could stop thinking about if I even want a relationship for once. I deleted my dating apps, I just stopped thinking about it all.

“But then that woman and I started to text a little more each day. We’re both isolating on our own, and I know for me it’s because I feel kind of lonely. It’s nice having someone reach out to ask how you’re doing or if you’re cooking chicken for the fourth time this week. And we’ve started to have deeper conversations, first just about the pandemic and what’s been going on. But then she was telling me all these personal things about her family. I told her about how I’ve kind of been questioning my career lately. It’s getting personal in a way I never expected with her and it probably wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t isolating.

“She asked me the other day if I wanted to video-chat and, I guess in this new world, it felt too intimate? Like now I have to work my way up to that! It’s funny, but I think I’ll do it. I don’t know if this will go anywhere after all of this, but right now it’s nice just having that person.”

— Jamie, 34, lawyer, Vancouver

“We’ve had to put our timelines on hold”

“I was hopeful that quarantine would provide a unique environment for connection and would foster real conversation on dating apps. It soon became clear to me that is not the case. App users who prefer to meet up quickly and go on dates aren’t great at engaging in small talk online. On the other hand, people who do enjoy speaking online are anxious and it’s hard to sustain meaningful conversation beyond the pandemic. It’s understandable, but it’s frustrating.

“People are connecting with their immediate communities and don’t have the same emotional capacity to create new connections during the pandemic. I’m wary of trauma bonding during this unusual time. Connecting over a shared anxiety or trauma isn’t a healthy foundation for a relationship even though it does signal a shared compassion and empathy. Can it be sustained outside of the trauma? Without knowing what our new normal is going to be, it is unlikely that these types of connections will have a strong foundation.

“Everyone is grieving multiple losses during this pandemic. A very significant loss for single people is the time we would spend dating and meeting our match. We’ve had to put our timelines on hold and that means pushing off not just romance, but starting a family. Biological clocks are a reality for everyone. Through the pandemic and this freeze on my own dating timeline, I am deeply hopeful about meeting someone when restrictions loosen. I hope people will be more willing and eager to meet one another and allow their walls to come down. I know I will be bolder and braver.”

— Kaley, 31, podcast host, Toronto

“Online dating is still dominated by the most selfish and unenlightened men”

“I had two digital dates recently with the same man. I moved our conversation from Plenty of Fish to video chat because I learned a while ago that I don’t want to spend weeks chatting with someone via text and get excited only to meet them and be disappointed. Online chats do not equal real life chemistry and attraction; I can have the most amazing chats with a man I would never kiss.

“During our first FaceTime date, he drank quite a bit. It was Saturday night and he admitted he was nervous, so I gave him some leeway. During our second FaceTime date, he drank again, and this time grew rude and argumentative. I was drinking tea and relaxing on the couch taking in his behaviour. Apparently I had said something he didn’t like and so he told me he wanted to ‘punch me in the throat.’ Over several hours, he became more graphic and aggressive, and tried to invite himself over to my house. I let him know that would not happen—even if there were no pandemic. At that moment, I had a picture of who he was and I wasn’t interested.

“Conversations with men on dating apps are tougher now, in a way, because they’re bored, killing time. I had hoped that the pandemic would have men being introspective and wanting to have a meaningful connection. Unfortunately, from what I and my peers have seen, it has just led to men focusing on how much hornier they are now. So many are ready and willing to hook-up ‘on the sly’ in spite of the virus. Online dating is still dominated by the most selfish and unenlightened men in the city, it seems.

— Natasha, 38, night auditor, St. John’s

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“Quarantine and chill?”

“This is the longest I’ve had Tinder on my phone. I usually delete it after a week maximum, but I’ve had it for almost a month now, because what else is there to do? Many of the profiles I saw at the start of the pandemic had cheesy new pickup lines, like, ‘looking for my quaranqueen’ or ‘quarantine and chill?’ But all they wanted was to jump straight to sex. I’m not opposed to hookups but, personally, as someone who has long awaited a true romance, I’d reply with a swift ‘no thank you.’

“Once the pandemic grew more serious, and the 14-day social distancing period went into effect, my matches had changed their profiles almost entirely. They added more wholesome photos, and their bios were more affectionate. They’re engaging in deeper conversation, and speak as if we’re long-term friends. Of course, everyone wants someone to talk to during these times, so conversation is flowing. Because we can’t see each other, many of my matches ask for my Snapchat or Instagram so that we can video-chat right off the bat. Most of us are at home, so our true selves are coming out during these dates; you can really see what a person is like.

“While I still prefer making connections in real life, I do have a FaceTime date planned, which is exciting. I’ve never done it before, but I suppose there’s a first time for everything. At least I don’t have to worry about what to wear or what time I have to leave to make it in time. We can just set up a time and talk!”

— Reyanna, 20, student, Toronto

“Communication is the key”

“Dating during this pandemic has been an adventure. Men have been more responsive when replying to messages on dating apps, yet most still want to meet up, so I write them off.

“But I have matched with a few men on Tinder and Hinge who I have had some sort of connection with. I FaceTimed recently with a man I had been speaking to on and off for months. We had a wine night, ordered sushi and watched Clueless (since he had somehow never seen it before and it’s my favourite) at the same time so it felt like we were out at a restaurant and at the movies together. I also had a virtual dinner date with someone I matched with on Hinge, which went surprisingly well. I’m usually really nervous when talking to new people, but both dates went great.

“I personally don’t find having to build a virtual connection or relationship to be weird or out of place. In fact, I met all of my closest friends online. With each of them, we found each other through social media, chatted for a few months, and when we met we built these unbreakable bonds over time. So it is possible. Communication is the key in any successful relationship, and since self-isolating, I’ve found it to have dramatically improved with men I’m speaking to.”

– Michelle, 23, student, Montreal

“Everything is suddenly reminding me of sex”

“I met my boyfriend Stephan on OkCupid almost exactly a year ago, so it feels as if we’ve gone back to the beginning of our relationship. We typically see each other every weekend, so this has been an adjustment for us. The longest I hadn’t seen him was when I went on a trip for a week over the summer, and he couldn’t handle that time away. So for us, communication is everything. We video-chat and make sure we say ‘I love you’ every day, we send each other memes, silly videos. We’ll have tea time, choose each other’s outfits, give each other challenges. The first week I was at home due to being laid off, he put on his Blue Jays sweatshirt, I wore my Blue Jays T-shirt and we FaceTimed and pretended we were going to the home opener. For a good five minutes, we acted as if we were in the stands cheering on the team, and I felt so much better.

“I don’t get any alone time at home since I live with my family. So if we’re in the mood we’ll send each other nudes or provocative videos. There was one day when my mom had to head into work and my sister went to get groceries that I managed to have some alone time, and we had phone sex. Otherwise, I feel a sense of withdrawal; I’m hornier than ever and everything is suddenly reminding me of sex, from the banana on the kitchen counter to the seagulls cawing outside my window in the morning. It’s crazy though, because we were intimate with each other merely once a week before quarantine, but because I can’t ever physically be around Stephan now, it makes me want him more. Sometimes I feel an urge to break the rules, jump on the train and go see him. Still, I feel connected to him every day because I talk to him every day. It’s all made me realize how important human connection and touch is.”

— Karen, 29, teacher, Toronto

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“We said ‘I love you’ on our fourth night together”

“Jon and I began isolation in our own homes, video-calling each other for five hours at a time. It became torturous because we really missed each other even though we were still kind of strangers, in a romantic sense. We first met in August but it was uneventful. After months of false starts, we re-connected in early March over a mutual personal issue, and ever since then everything changed, and he asked me to be his girlfriend.

“We started to worry about what might happen to our relationship as it had just started. The isolation was killing my soul despite all my digital interactions with him and my friends. We messaged online, we did improv shows over Zoom, but it was insufficient in lieu of real-life socialization.

“Finally, on March 25, he said I should come over. I cycled from my East York apartment to his North York house, with a duffle bag full of only essentials. We both felt unprepared: How long will the isolation last? How long will I stay? Will this ruin us? We took the risk. Time feels like it’s moving quickly now. We feel so emotionally comfortable, despite only going steady for a few weeks. We’ve learned each other’s habits, which have also changed because of the circumstances: I’m in bed at 5 a.m. because I’m a night owl and struggling with my depression and limited motivation. He’s started to match my rhythm and sleep in with me. We’re having sex a few times a day but it’s already become secondary to communication.

“We said ‘I love you’ on our fourth night together, which I realize sounds insane. But, emotionally, we were there. And we said, ‘happy one-year anniversary’ to each other two nights ago, just because that’s how close it feels we’ve gotten. I feel that amount of experience in a phenomenally developmental way, as if we might be teenagers; a year of maturation and growth basking in youthful energy.”

— Zoe, 27, actor and comedian, Toronto

“I miss being in the same bed”

“Let’s just say there’s a whole lot of sexting going down. Does anyone still say ‘cyber sex?’ Because now I understand that concept. My girlfriend and I have been together for two years, and this month so far is the longest we’ve ever been apart. On the one hand, we have faith in our relationship, we’re not worried about any kind of strain it could have on us. But we miss each other, I miss being in the same bed or even just having my grocery buddy (and her car, I’ll be honest). You start to realize how that person fills in those little spaces in your life. We’ll FaceTime while we take walks so it feels like we’re next to each other on the sidewalk.

“It sounds so corny, but you get corny thinking about this stuff, and you think about this stuff a lot when you’re without that person for so long. We were talking about moving in together recently and during all of this we’ve decided it’s official, we’re doing it when this is all over. Why waste any more time? If something like this ever happens again, god forbid, I wanna be together. She’s with her family right now, so sometimes I feel guilty about thinking that, and I’m glad she’s with them. But I don’t have mine to go to in that way, so if we’re together, we can build that for ourselves. That would be nice, I think. Corny, but nice.

— Aja, 26, illustrator, Vancouver

Top tips for dating during a pandemic

  1. The basic rules still apply: “Although we still recommend virtual dates as a first step to connect with someone new, we know that as we move into summer, singles will want to meet in person to see if those sparks are there,” says Toronto-based dating expert and matchmaker Shannon Tebb. “Masks are still advised, as is consistent hand-washing. And social distancing at two metres should continue to be practised. Which means it’s all about the smize.” Even a mask can’t hide a flirty glance.
  2. If your Zoom chats are starting to feel boring, give your virtual date nights a theme, and dress up (or don’t dress at all!). Or find new activities, like a virtual escape room, a book club or cooking a dish together neither of you have made before, by propping up your phone and connecting to FaceTime in the kitchen to cook “side-by-side.”
  3. Go on a socially distanced date. This could be a walk through the city, grabbing takeout at your favourite restaurant and going on a picnic, or exploring new hiking trails together. For a date that would make Lorelai Gilmore proud, head to a drive-in. There are still over 30 across Canada, and if you bring your own snacks, you can catch a movie in your cars side-by-side. It’s even better than going to a regular theatre.
  4. We may not be living in the 1920s, but that doesn’t mean snail mail has lost its romance. In fact, it’s gained in appeal, having become something of a relic. Taking the effort to write a love letter by hand and seal and stamp an envelope is dedication in 2020. Bonus: Letters can make for pretty special keepsakes.
  5. Learn how to sext. Seriously, if you haven’t started yet, now’s the time. Here’s a guide to doing it safely.
  6. As the country slowly reopens, so does patio season, so you can actually—gasp!—meet for a drink. While patios may only offer limited and distanced seating, being outside (as opposed to indoors at a bar or your apartment) is safer during the pandemic, where risk of virus transmission is relatively lower.
  7. Get active. Certain low-contact sports have been A-OK’d so get out and play a few rounds of tennis, outdoor ping-pong, hit the driving range, take a frisbee to the park or bike along a waterfront.
  8. If you’re showing symptoms of any kind, stay home. “Don’t feel pressured to meet someone outdoors,” says Tebb. “While this might feel like an odd time to develop a relationship with someone, it’s a great opportunity to build a stronger emotional foundation and limits people from serial dating, meaning you are their priority to get to know.” Take advantage of this time to really get to know your new partner—and what you both want and need.
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Sex & Relationships

How to Be a Better Friend to Black Women

For starters, don't touch our hair

Being a Black woman is great—have you seen how we age?—but it comes with a one-two punch of racism and misogyny, covering everything from micro-aggressions to murder. Let me throw some stats at you, courtesy of the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.

  • The unemployment rate for African-Canadian women is 11 percent, compared to seven percent for the general Canadian population
  • African-Canadian women make 37 percent less than white men, and 15 percent less than white women
  • While six percent of white Canadian women live below the poverty line, the number quadruples—and then some—to 25 percent for African-Canadian women
  • African Canadian women and girls are reportedly targeted by the police and are increasingly in contact with the criminal justice system as one of the fastest growing prison populations

That’s some dire shit. So how can you help? Straight up: support Black women. Treat us like individuals, not a monolith. Listen to our stories, hell, *pay* for our stories. Respect our bodies. You know, general behaviour that women of all shapes, sizes, orientations and beliefs deserve. But let’s get to the specifics—read on for 15 ways you can make Black women’s lives easier.

A quick hat tip to my inspiration is required: thanks to Dani Beckett and Kesiena Boom over at Broadly, who wrote 100 Easy Ways to Make Women’s Lives More Bearable and 100 Ways White People Can Make Life Less Frustrating For People of Color, respectively. And one final note: In no way do I want to dismiss or diminish the experiences of other women of colour. I can only speak to my experiences as a Black-presenting biracial woman and those of the Black women I know, admire and respect all over the world.

1. Don’t touch our hair

Just. Don’t. Feel the urge? Consider your relationship to the woman you (should be) asking to touch. Is she your friend? Your wife? Your niece? Probably cool. Did you just meet? Aw, hell no.

2. Stop fetishizing us as “exotic”

We are exotic to you because of the Euro-centric beauty ideal. Or you just don’t know that many Black women. You should probably fix that.

Read this next: Why Every Black Woman Should Watch Set It Off in Their 20s

3. If you can’t pay us as much as white men…

…at least pay us at least as much as white women. (Remember those stats above? We make 15 percent less.)

4. Don’t question our education, experience or expertise

It’s not astonishing that we went to a “good” school, have an M.D., run a robotics lab, research AIDs, restore old houses…

5.  When creating fictional characters, ditch the “sassy Black friend” caricature

We don’t all act or sound the same way, nor do we have the same mannerisms.

6. Allow us to be vulnerable about our mental health needs

In an article for Chatelaine, journalist Tayo Bero spoke with six Black Canadian women about tackling mental health taboos. She writes, “…for many Black women who struggle with their mental health, taking care of themselves is still a political act and a matter of radical self-preservation.”

7. Don’t say things like, “I don’t think of you as Black.” Or, “I don’t see colour”

The truth is that we are all different colours, and the colour you are impacts your life. Saying you don’t see it dismisses the struggles that come with having more melanin. How lucky that you can’t see it, I live it every single day.

8. Read more Black women writers, from all over the world, and especially from home

Award-winning Calgarian author Esi Edugyan won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her third novel, Washington Black; No Crystal Stair by the late Montreal journalist, activist and CBC personality Mairuth Sarsfield, is quickly becoming a CanCon classic.

Read this next: Get to Know These 20 Black-Owned Beauty Companies

9. Support organizations that benefit Black women

Think of groups like the Black Health Alliance—which supports health equity across Canada—or Power to Girls, a non-profit focused on empowering Afro-diaspora girls in the Greater Toronto Area.

10. If you’re a parent, read books, buy toys and watch TV shows starring Black girls…

….with your daughters and your sons.

11. Seek out art created by Black women

And I mean seek. it. out. because it’s not always easy to find. A 2015 study by Canadian Art revealed that just three per cent of solo exhibitions held at major Canadian art institutions between 2013 and 2015 were by non-white female artists. (No surprise: white artists made up 89 percent.)

12. Don’t ask us to explain slang to you

And don’t say ‘bye Felicia,’ we’re not even saying that anymore.

13. If a Black woman is offended, hurt or angered by something you say or do, listen to her

Accept her feelings and apologize. Do not tell her that you didn’t mean it *that way,* because it still came out *that way.* Learn from her.

14. Support your Black female colleagues

Allow them space to talk and acknowledge their contributions. If her opinion is being dismissed unfairly, stand up for her. If there are no Black women, or Black people, at your work, ask why.

Read this next: What I’ve Learned About Black Love from Photographing It for Two Years

15. Understand that Black women come in all shapes, sizes and colours, with a wide variety of interests and experiences

We cover the sexual spectrum. We are liberal and conservative. We can be anyone, do anything, but we are not perfect. Forgive us. Let us heal.

Sex & Relationships

Should First Dates Go Virtual...Permanently?

Pandemic-style Zoom dates might have reason to stick around for a while

In terms of nerve-wracking life events, first dates are right up there with job interviews. The pressure of what to wear, what to talk about and how to present yourself as a person who’s just casually pursuing something (whether that’s a romantic relationship or a career) when you’re actually a person who is really f#%ing pursuing something is…intense. Mercifully, the virtual preliminary job interview has been a thing for years now, allowing candidates to secretly sweat it out in the comfort of their own homes. But the idea of the virtual first date has lagged behind, probably because in the pre-lockdown era it was seen as impersonal. How do you gauge chemistry through a screen?

But with our window to the outside world now reduced to the size of our laptops, virtual chats with friends, colleagues and family have kept us from feeling completely disconnected. And for singles stuck inside and not willing to put their dating lives completely on hold, Zoom, FaceTime and the like sit atop a very short list of options. Surprisingly perhaps, this brave new world of virtual dating seems to be functioning fairly well. So well, in fact, that it might be something we should consider continuing well after self-isolation ends.

Ashley, a thirty-something retail associate who’s been locked down at home with her ex while trying to negotiate the dating world and the COVID-19 crisis, says that her virtual dates are something she’d definitely do again even after we’re all released from this coronavirus cage. “There’s no commute, you can have a more relaxed approach to your makeup/outfit/grooming, you’re more likely to be comfortable in your own personal space, and if you hit it off well enough you can plan an IRL second date. Otherwise, if you’re not feeling it, you can escape or find an excuse to end the date much more easily.”

Read this next: How to Have an Actually Great Zoom Wedding

In the very least, a first date done virtually lowers the stakes in terms of the investment in time and emotion, but the biggest benefit, especially for women, is the element of safety—particularly at a time when we’re using semi-anonymous apps (hey, Tinder) to introduce us to potential dates and/or hookups. “I’ve met so many people online (whether it was for dating or not) throughout my life and I’ve been fortunate to have never felt unsafe,” says Ashley. “But I’m thinking more cautiously lately. The one date I went on before lockdown, I made sure to text a friend before and after, and stuck to a neighbourhood bar.”

A first date done through Zoom can change the dynamic in a positive way, says Claire AH, the Hamilton-based owner of the matchmaking and relationship coaching service Friend of a Friend. AH has been recommending virtual dating to her clients throughout lockdown and says she’ll continue to do so even after social restrictions are relaxed, because it ups both the safety and the accessibility factor of a date. “The feeling of like, ‘OK, I am in my space, if I really feel uncomfortable, I can end the chat’ is empowering,” she says. “It’s also cheaper and more accessible. So for people who have a chronic illness or disability, you don’t need to figure out transportation. You don’t need to figure out a place that’s going to be accessible for you. You don’t need to worry about how comfortable you’ll be sitting or walking around for however long.”

And while on-screen dates may not always be the ideal, they definitely have more than one or two things going for them: “I think obviously there are drawbacks to not being in the same space with somebody,” says AH. “You miss a certain type of chemistry. You’re not 100% getting the full sense of someone’s body or someone’s body language. But being in your own space, it makes people feel a little more comfortable…they’re a little more at ease to divulge a little more, which leads to conversations where people get to know each other better.”

Not every COVID-era dater is willing to sacrifice the all-important test to see if sparks fly in real life. “I like to test physical chemistry within the first few dates so that’s why I’m not into meeting new people right now,” says Whitney, a university librarian in her thirties. “Especially if I weren’t immediately visually attracted to them but I liked their personality, it’d be a risk to either give up on them without having the chemistry test, or to keep talking to them for months and then it’s not great when you finally meet in person.” Which is the major issue with dating during a lockdown that has no definitive end date. When will we get to meet up face to face (and body to body)? And what about sex? (Remember sex?)

But people are finding ways to make it work in the meantime—and, again, there are some benefits to trying things out virtually first. “The video sex has been so hot that I think I might have missed my calling as a camgirl,” says Ashley. “It’s felt empowering investing in new sex toys and lingerie and to feel desired and to tell one another what we’d do if we were in the same room. We’ve had a chance to be really open about our likes and dislikes, turn-ons and turn-offs.” Talking about sex can often be difficult for couples, especially new couples, so moving things online, at least to start, can help to break down that barrier and lead to more open conversations about preferences, safety and more.

Read this next: Your June 2020 Horoscopes Are Here!

There is, of course, a different security concern here: “There are a lot of things about online privacy and security that people need to be aware of,” advises AH, so those are definitely things to consider before embarking on  a video sex adventure.

Setting up one or two brief and casual chats is a good way to at least test the virtual dating waters. If that’s where you’re at, AH offers some tips: “The number-one piece of advice is that it’s not that different from an in-person date. A lot of instincts are still valid. It’s a little bit of an adjustment, but it’s not as daunting as people think. Be intentional, show up looking good. One thing people say is, ‘Oh, you don’t have to wear pants.’ Well, we’ve all seen that one news correspondent in a suit jacket and underwear.”

Beyond the potential embarrassment factor, getting ready like you would for an IRL date will help set the mood and make you feel confident. “Just because someone can’t smell your breath doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to not brush your teeth,” says AH. “A lot of these things signify to us, even on a subconscious level, ‘I’m showing up, I’m prepared, I’m feeling my best.’”

To the same end, it’s important to treat virtual dates as more than just a chat. “I would encourage people, especially in this COVID time right now,” AH suggests, “to be a little creative with dates because there is that concern that it will default to being like an interview. Find the ways you can do that over video: Do a cooking demo together. Do a Netflix party. Check out a virtual gallery. Find things that are enjoyable to you and also enjoyable for your date doesn’t have to feel gimmicky. A date can be something that isn’t just a conversation.”

Sex & Relationships

I Met My Husband the Love Is Blind Way (Sort Of)

ICYMI, participants of the Netflix show have a week of speed-dating to get engaged to a relative stranger. It sounds a lot like my own engagement.

Spoiler alert: This post reveals key plot points of Netflix’s Love Is Blind.

By the end of our first date, my now-husband and I both knew we’d met the person we wanted to spend the rest of our lives with.

We had only met the week before, and not in person: the first part of our relationship happened over the phone. Those initial conversations went way beyond the usual “what’s your favourite movie?” or “what kind of food do you like?” We tackled big issues from the get-go: where we wanted to live, how many kids we each wanted, and our general expectations of a partner. That immediate honesty opened the door to a deep emotional connection, allowing us to share our deepest secrets, our hopes for the future, and our biggest fears. By three weeks in, we had already said the “L” word.

So the premise of the Netflix series Love Is Blind didn’t seem all that crazy to me. If you haven’t been sucked into binge-watching the show that has taken the internet by storm, you’ve probably at least heard of it. The dating experiment brings together 10 men and 10 women who claim to be ready to find forever love, and gives them just a week of speed-dating to connect with and get engaged to a relative stranger.

The twist: during the literal blind dates, each person is in an enclosed “pod,” able only to hear the other person. Couples don’t see each other or physically interact until after one has proposed and the other has accepted. After the engagement, they live together for just three weeks before walking down the aisle, where they ultimately decide whether to say “I do.”

Read this next: How to Break Up With Someone During a Pandemic

The usual reaction that I get trying to explain the concept to someone who hasn’t watched the show is that it sounds absolutely ridiculous. To me, though, it sounds a lot like my own engagement.

Like the couples on Love Is Blind, my husband and I were introduced solely for the purpose of considering marriage. It’s common for many modern Muslims, for whom the road to matrimony looks something like this: upon reaching an age where you’re ready to settle down and start a family, you put the call out to family, friends and even community matchmakers, who might suggest suitable matches in their networks.

In my case, I was introduced to my now-husband after my mother ran into an acquaintance at our mosque who had heard that I had become Canada’s first hijab-wearing TV reporter and wanted to congratulate her.

“Yes, we are really proud of her,” my mother replied, before jokingly adding, “now we just have to find her a husband!” That acquaintance is now my sister-in-law.

Unlike the couples on Love Is Blind, I did get to see my potential spouse’s photo before deciding to pass along my phone number. But just like the TV couples, my husband and I secured our initial bond in only a few conversations. So as I watched sweet Lauren and quiet Cameron profess their love for each other after only a week (during which they’d never seen each other), I knew many viewers must be rolling their eyes, but I wasn’t.

As Muslims in a Western society, our methods of meeting and marrying are often met with incredulity and criticism. Most people my age are dating casually, moving in together and then considering whether they might want to permanently fuse their lives. Our traditions are often seen as backward, and trying to explain my relationship to my non-Muslim friends and colleagues was admittedly difficult. I ended up telling most people that we were “dating” and that he was my “boyfriend” because those were ideas they could wrap their heads around, even though neither was really true. The experience was more like a 15th century courtship: while there were no chaperones involved, our dates were always in public spaces like restaurants, coffee shops and parks. And we were only talking—as with many religions, in Islam physical intimacy is typically reserved for after marriage. That piece of info often made people’s heads spin, so I kept it mostly to myself.

Read this next: “COVID-19 Cancelled Our Wedding, So We Exchanged Vows Alone”

The man who is now my husband wasn’t the first person I had been introduced to in this way. I had been set up with many eligible bachelors in my twenties, but no one ever made it past a third date. Some wanted me to be a stay-at-home mom, others expected me to move to another city. Some didn’t have career prospects or a stable job. I was happy with my life—I had a successful career, a full social circle, and I was living on my own, financially independent from my parents. I didn’t need a man to complete me. I wanted someone who was going to add to the life I had already built.

What I loved about the way my husband and I got to know each other is that all of our cards were on the table. A relationship based purely on conversation meant we let our guards down and had to be honest with each other about what we needed in a partner. And he checked all the right boxes right from the start. He was incredibly selfless, quietly confident, and wasn’t intimidated by my ambition and outgoing personality.

When we finally did meet in person, I thought that he was even better looking than in his photo, although maybe that was because I’d already fallen for his personality. And by the time he presented a ring, our families had already met and approved of the union. His official proposal came eight months after our first date, but truthfully we knew we were ready a lot sooner. We were really just letting an acceptable amount of time pass so people wouldn’t think we were rushing into something crazy. As I watched Love Is Blind, I could relate to Barnett and Mark as their friends and family eyed their new fianceés, Amber and Jessica, with skepticism—I fielded those same dubious looks from friends and colleagues when I announced my sudden engagement.

Read this next: Ask Donté Colley: “What Do You Do If You Love Someone but Distance Is in the Way?”

Our ideas of what is normal, in romance and otherwise, is very much shaped by media. I’m thankful that a cheesy reality program has shown that love can happen in different ways, and that what might seem unconventional can actually be successful. I believed the participants when they said they were able to forge an unbreakable bond with a stranger in just days, in part by removing the distraction of their looks or their skills in bed. They got to know each other on the inside first, which often made them feel especially connected when they finally got to interact physically. The final reunion episode revealed that some couples are still married more than a year after their TV weddings, and one couple that didn’t tie the knot is still dating. Even the Love Is Blind producers eventually revealed that they were shocked by the show’s results, telling contestants they were expecting one or two engagements, but got seven.

Of course, there is no foolproof way to ensure marital success. Many people, from every culture, end up in marriages with the wrong person. There are family pressures, societal expectations and, for women, constant nagging to mind our biological clocks and marry a nice doctor who comes from a good family before it’s too late.

It’s a scenario we saw play out in one of the most entertaining (and infuriating) storylines on Love Is Blind, when 34-year-old Jessica admits that she ran into the arms of a man she knew wasn’t right for her because the one she wanted chose someone else. She just didn’t want to be alone. Another sad story was that of Carlton and Diamond, for whom a major omission in early conversations, along with the inability to let go of ego, derailed something that could have been beautiful. What the show proved is that honest communication, vulnerability and humility are key to building a strong foundation for a relationship.

The sooner you can be your true and honest self with your potential partner, the better your chances of success might be. I wouldn’t change anything about the way I met my husband. So far, it’s worked out for me.

Sex & Relationships

How to Break Up With Someone During a Pandemic

Breaking up has never been *more* hard to do...

In the 1994 movie Chungking Express, a man breaks up with his girlfriend and suddenly everything in his home reminds him of her, but also seems to be just as depressed as him. “Ever since she left, everything in the apartment is sad,” he says, noticing his sad little bar of soap has gotten slimmer, that his towels refuse to dry, that his underwear has been hiding, that his food tastes sour. “I have to comfort them all before I go to sleep.”

Now imagine if there is no escaping that apartment. And most things inside it are a memory not only of the relationship but the moment you broke up—over Zoom, probably, on that couch in that corner by that window under that itchy blanket. Or worse still: You’re quarantined together.

Break-ups suck. Always have, always will. But if you’re breaking up during a pandemic—which, as China’s rising divorce rates suggest, may be a common experience—it’s especially painful. So, we spoke to an expert to figure out how to navigate this messy territory as best you can.

Step 1: Get clear on your feelings

Yes, this is a difficult, unprecedented and straight-up bonkers time. But, consider it a moment in time where you might also be experiencing more clarity than ever.

“In times like the ones we’re living in, where it feels somewhat catastrophic, significant things are called into question, like foundational beliefs, world views, who we are as people, the meaning of life,” says Benita Joy, a Toronto-based therapist and founder of the Toronto Relationship Clinic. “Priorities get sharper and you achieve a level of clarity around what’s truly important right now. That can mean asking if this is the person you want to be doing this with. It’s the answer to that not-so-unfathomable-anymore question: If you were stuck on a deserted island, who would you want to take with you?”

If you’re not sure, now’s a good time to do some serious thinking. Particularly, you need to tease out whether questions about your relationship are due to bigger issues of compatibility or whether you’re simply arguing more due to the increased stresses this pandemic has loaded on all of us. It’s definitely not unusual right now to want to literally throttle your partner over a sink full of dishes. That doesn’t mean you actually hate them, though.

Read this next: Pandemic Making You Horny? Here’s Why

“Connect to your intuition,” advises Joy. “Ask yourself: Am I having this argument because this moment is crappy or because this relationship isn’t working and hasn’t been for a while?” As different as times are and as much of an emotional impact as it’s having, if you feel your relationship no longer works, a break-up probably occurred to you and/or your partner well before this hit. It might just be that the slowed pace of life is giving you a chance to pay attention to those signs.

Those signs could be big—like you find you have different philosophies on how to handle this period, or you’re not emotionally available for each other in the way you need right now—or small—like you find yourself aggravated by your partner’s habits, you’re constantly in each other’s way, or you’re communicating less. Listen to that voice in your head or that unsettled feeling in your gut. She’s on to something.

Step 2: Banish guilt

With so much to juggle right now, including a world-wide health crisis, potential job loss, maybe a lack of child-care, it wouldn’t be unusual if you also feel a sense of guilt at the thought of breaking up with your partner in such a troubled time.

“When there’s guilt, I would pause and think about where it’s coming from,” says Joy. “If there’s an extreme amount of guilt in terms of letting the other person go, that might mean that wasn’t a healthy relationship to start with.” For example, it’s worth considering if you and/or your partner have set too high expectations for what your role is in the relationship, and whether that’s a practical standard, or even worth fulfilling. Sometimes that can look like feeling responsible for your partner’s pain and future, which is an unhealthy marker of your dynamic. Guilt can often function to make you, the person who wants to leave, feel like the bad guy. But you have to prioritize your future.

If those feelings of guilt persist, remember that prolonging a split will only cause more pain for both of you. “In the long run, the folks that are honest with themselves and each other are going to be able to bounce back so much better,” says Joy.

Step 3: Get face to face

Even a pandemic doesn’t make a text-message split OK. So whether you’re quarantining under the same roof or set up a video call, it’s crucial to speak to your partner face to face.

In either instance, take some notes before you begin to collect your thoughts and plan what you want to say. Then, put your phone away and focus on your partner. While starting off with some pleasantries is good, don’t get too caught up in chatter. Address the awkwardness of the situation (“Don’t be afraid to say, honestly, ‘Yeah, this sucks,’” says Joy) and then be direct, explaining why this is something that is important to you right now, and can’t wait until the pandemic is over.

Read this next: How Are People Dating Right Now?

Be careful not to get too caught up in discussing “what could have been” if COVID never happened—this leaves room for hope that you might be able to get back together later and is unfair. Also avoid “attacking, blaming or throwing old incidents in each other’s faces,” adds Joy. “Be understanding and patient. It’s just: ‘This is where I’m at and this is how I feel.’”

If you’re doing this over video, schedule the call with your partner without disclosing that this is going to be a “serious talk” about the state of your relationship—there’s no need to set their mind race until then. Choose a time that offers space to unwind for you both, likely after work hours or during the weekend.

If you’re living together, have the conversation in a space where you typically might get together to talk about your day, whether that’s at the dinner table or on the couch. Note that it will be crucial to discuss how you will be navigating your living space as single people cohabiting, and suggest a time for another discussion a few days later to hash it out. After your conversation, build some distance, whether that’s by taking a walk on your own, or calling up a friend to debrief in a separate room.

Step 4: Start moving on

Post-break-up, as bored or lonely as you might feel while self-isolating, it’s important you fight the urge to reach out to your former partner as much as possible, because at that point it becomes exclusively about comfort and convenience, and that’s not fair to either of you.

If you’re living together, and can’t safely relocate to a friend or family member’s home, create physical boundaries. For example, avoid sleeping in the same bed. Decide which space in your home belongs to who for the time being, and which spaces are communal. Make a list of chores or errands, and decide who will be taking those on for the week and how you’ll be paying for them. Have your meals separately and at separate times. More than anything, try your best to avoid discussing the break-up. And maybe don’t go on a virtual date with someone new right in front of or in earshot of your partner. All the while remembering that, while this certainly won’t be a fun period, it will be temporary.

Whether you break up in person or over video, it’s important afterward to find support in friends and family, and talk to them about what you’re experiencing. “Tell your friends, ‘I’m going through something, and this is a way that I would love for you to support me,’” says Joy.

In many ways, the healing process might not look all that different from what you’ve been doing since the pandemic began—watching Netflix, snacking, napping, just overall Bridget Jones-ing—but that doesn’t make it any less important to indulge in that “me time.” Where you can step it up is by reaching out to a virtual therapist, starting a journal to help process your feelings, going for walks, and reading books about moving on. Get a healthy amount of sleep, have a routine, and find some control by creating daily to-do lists.

Read this next: “COVID-19 Cancelled Our Wedding, So We Exchanged Vows Alone”

Reframe your breakup and treat it like a restart button. This can be a time to get to know yourself, your attachment style, who you are in a relationship and what has changed for you since it began. “Feel all the feelings,” advises Joy. “Because there’s going to be grief, there’s going to be sadness, there’s going to be loneliness. There’s going to be a part of you that says, ‘Maybe this was the wrong decision.’ Be patient with yourself as each of those thoughts comes up. Do your own personal work with all this time you have, and realize that the moment to start preparing for any and all future relationships is today.”

FILED UNDER:

Sex & Relationships

Now’s a Good Time to Learn How to Sext

A field guide to sending nudes *safely* while physical distancing

It’s late, you’re feeling yourself and, more importantly, you’re feeling the person you’re texting. Things are getting hot, so you decide, why not? You remove some clothes, check your angles, and—click!—you’re sexting. Sending a sexy pic can be a rush—and there’s raw power in taking control of your sexuality, feeling beautiful and sexy enough to share proof with your partner. And to be clear, there is nothing wrong, bad or dirty about sending or receiving a consensual sext. (Sext-shaming is just as negative as slut-shaming.) But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk to sexting. So, how can you make sure you’re protecting yourself? And what even happens to your saucy pics once you hit send? Here’s what you need to know about safe sexting.

I’m a newbie. What is sexting?

Sexting is the act of sharing intimate or explicit images featuring nudity or sexual acts via digital distribution. Not to be confused with phone sex, which is talking through sex acts (yes, actual talking on the phone), sexting can vary from sending a peekaboo nip slip to an ejaculation video, and everything in between. The important thing to remember is that, like all sexual acts, sexting must be consensual between two adults to be legal. It is illegal for minors under the age of 18 to send nude images of themselves, even to other minors—under the criminal code, that’s considered child pornography—and it’s illegal for anyone to knowingly share intimate images of another person without their consent. (That’s been law in Canada since 2015.)

Just because it’s illegal, however, doesn’t mean people aren’t doing it (obvs). And whether or not you are the sexting type, it’s important to be informed. Read on for tips on how to protect yourself and your images.

Read this next: Pandemic Making You Horny? Here’s Why

Crop out your face

That’s it. That’s the rule. Always.

Trust your gut–and lay down your rules

It’s important to have a conversation about expectations and deal-breakers when sexting. It doesn’t have to be formal; a simple, “This is for your eyes only, no screen grabs, please delete” goes a long way. You should trust and respect the person you’re trading sexts with, and the feeling should be mutual. And don’t drink (or otherwise imbibe) and sext. This can be a tough one—for some, being tipsy is the only way sexting makes sense. The confidence that can come after a night spent flirting, drinking and dancing is potent. But from a privacy perspective, you don’t want anything to compromise your judgement. Nor do you want to accidentally sext the wrong person!

Turn off iCloud or Google Photos

If your camera automatically backs up over wi-fi, turn off the wi-fi before sending a sext, especially if you share a Google Photos account. True story: Someone I know sent a string of hot af photos to her boyfriend, only to have them immediately upload to her family’s shared Google Photos account. Her grandpa sent her a text telling her! I died from embarrassment-by-association.

Read this next: How Are People Dating During the Pandemic?

Know how your apps work

Using an app to sext is very common, but do you know what apps save what, and where? What’s App automatically saves to your camera roll; Snapchat and Instagram inform you when someone takes a screen grab of your photo, which is very good to know. You can deactivate all these options easily in the app settings. And check your phone’s settings as well.

Delete the photo’s metadata

EXIF metadata is saved to every image and video you create with your phone’s digital camera. EXIF is an acronym for Exchangeable Image File Format, which is all the photo’s unique info such as size, aperture, camera make and model, etc. It also contains the time, date, place (if you have Location turned on) and your IP address—the latter is what links the picture to your phone. If you’re concerned about being tied to an explicit image, use an app like Scrambed Exif or Photo Exif Editor to scrape your images before sending.

Read this next: How Outlander Reinvented My Sex Life

Make sure your phone is secure

This is important for anyone who use has a mobile phone (so, like, just about everyone). There are two simple things you can do to combat the potential of hackers getting their hands on your nudes: Keep your apps up to date and change your password often. I know, we all have too many passwords, but luckily there’s an app for that. Password managers keep track of your passwords and auto-generate new ones so you don’t have to stress over adding one more $#@* to a word you’ll never remember.

Sex & Relationships

6 Creative Ideas For Celebrating Mother's Day from a Distance

Even though you can't celebrate IRL, you can still spend time together on her big day

Mother’s Day is May 10, and with quarantine and COVID-19 still very much a thing, chances are that many people won’t be celebrating with their mom or mother figure IRL. Which, let’s be honest, kind of sucks. But just because you can’t celebrate in person doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate mom at all. There are tons of ways to not only show your mom that you’re thinking of her on Mother’s Day (with a super thoughtful and chic gift), but to spend time with her as well. For those who choose to or are able to celebrate, here are some great options for letting mom know you love her—from a distance, of course.

Watch your favourite movie together

Admittedly, the idea of trying to fire up Steel Magnolias at the same time as your mama sounds like a daunting and frankly not-worth-it task. But, fear not, because the days of labouring to ensure you’re both hit start at the exact same second (only to have Mom, naturally, mess it up) are over. Netflix Party is an extension any Chrome user can install that allows you to to synch up your movie *and* chat in-app with friends while you watch the same film. Meaning you *can* watch Steel Magnolias (or the aptly titled, seminal 2016 film Mother’s Day, if that’s more your vibe), sob at the same scenes and then chat about it in real time.

All you have to do is download the extension (and have your fam do the same), have everyone sign in to their respective Netflix accounts and play the same film, and then invite everyone into your specific “party.” (FYI, the Michelle Obama Netflix doc Becoming drops on May 6, just in time for Mother’s Day).

So, the only other thing you need? Popcorn!

Have flowers delivered from a local shop

Especially during tough times, flowers are always a lovely pick-me-up; and even though a lot of shops and services are currently closed, across Canada, flower shops are still open for business—online at least! Many floral shops are still offering delivery (contact-less, of course) or curb-side pick-up, with the option to choose your flowers and plants online—either on their websites or Instagram pages.

Read this next: 16 Canadian Mother’s Day Gifts That Ship Locally 

Let your mom know you’re thinking about her by sending her a bouquet of her fave flowers, or a nice plant to tend to while we’re inside.

Cook a meal together

Nothing says quality time like cooking together! And all it takes is a little bit of planning. Food delivery services like Chefs Plate make it super easy. Order the same meal kits for you and Mom by May 6, and they’ll be delivered just in time for Mother’s Day. Then, day of, all you have to do is fire up Zoom, Google Hangouts or House Party, alongside your grill and you can chat, cook and eat together!

Plus, ordering a meal kit helps avoid having to grocery shop and meal plan (which are, TBH, two of the less exciting parts of cooking).

Gift her a book from her fave bookstore

With nothing but time on our hands right now, it’s the perfect time to gift mom that book she’s had on her list forever (or scandalize her with Sally Rooney’s Normal People). Just like flower shops, independent bookstores across the country are also offering delivery or curb-side pick-up. Not sure where to start? Reach out to local bookstores in her area, or check out this Google Map, which highlights independent booksellers across Canada who are operating online and offering delivery or curb-side pickup (put together by Don Gorman, the Victoria-based publisher of Rocky Mountain Books).

And if you’re looking to *really* connect with Mom on the big day, order the same book for yourself and start a fam-jam book club! They’re *all* the rage right now, thanks in part to celebs like Reese Witherspoon, Emma Roberts and Kaia Gerber starting virtual clubs and communities of their own, so why not make an exclusive one just for you and your favourite person? Not only is it a super lovely way to connect while apart, but will give you plenty of content to discuss on your next Zoom call, and give that cursed “end-of-the-world” COVID-19 convo a break.

Read this next: Being a Tiger Mom Is An Act of Love—and Necessity 

Have a digital high tea

A staple for many people on Mother’s Day, or just a nice treat for anyone who’s a fan of yummy tea and cute finger sandwiches, high tea is always a good idea for the big day. And although you might not be able to *physically* have tea together (ie: dress up, leave your home and head to a cute AF tea house or restaurant with mom), that doesn’t mean that the activity has to go down the drain all together. Because honestly, the best place to have tea is in your home! Take this opportunity to dress up, brew up some of your fave tea and sit down for a nice afternoon catch-up with your mama via a video sharing app! Finger sandwiches and wide-brimmed hats are optional but highly recommended.

And the best part? Going digital means you can choose a fancy Zoom background for your hang, getting you virtually into the most exclusive venues. High tea at Buckingham Palace, anyone?

Help her with her manicure issues

Chances are that by the time Mother’s Day rolls around, those of use who like to have our nails professionally done will be seriously hankering for a manicure—and that includes mom. Because we won’t be able to spend this mama’s day *in* our fave nail place, why not support them? Across the country, local salons are offering customers the chance to purchase gift cards/vouchers, to be used once we’re all able to safely start re-frequenting our fave nail spots. Not only does purchasing a gift card for businesses like Tips Nail Bar, Lily & Roo and Barbarella help those businesses out now, but can also give your mom something to look forward to.

Read this next: “I Don’t Think I Was Meant to Have a Mom”

Alternatively, if mom just can’t wait for those nail beds to be buffed? Send her an at-home kit! Salons like Toronto-based Naked are sending out at-home packages for patrons to do their nails. Or send her one you’ve put together yourself: some cuticle oil, your favourite nail polish colour and a nail file and you’re good to go!

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Health

My Vagina Has Anxiety

I found out the hard way that stress-fuelled muscle tension isn’t just for your neck and shoulders...

As I’m leaving the specialist’s office, I text my boyfriend something I hope none of his coworkers see: My vagina has anxiety. He replies “lol,” which is a completely warranted response to something that does, admittedly, sound ridiculous. But it’s true. I’ve been stressed, overworked and suffering from anxiety for years, and all that tension has manifested in an unexpected place—my vagina.

“It’s called dyspareunia,” said my physiotherapist, giving it a more scientifically accurate (and harder to pronounce) name. Lauren Campbell is a pelvic specialist who co-founded Advanced Pelvic Physiotherapy in downtown Toronto, and her office was the third and final stop on my journey to figuring out why sex was causing me so much pain.

The problem started about two years prior, and that alone is an embarrassing thing for me to admit. I’m the type of person who pushes aside pain and powers through, probably from years of competitive dancing, which included jumping on shin splints and tendinitis. But, unlike dance injuries, this pain, which happened anytime anything entered my vagina, wasn’t just affecting me. It was also affecting my relationship.

It’s hard to talk about something you can’t explain

When I started dating Josh eight years ago, I would turn red when my friends asked me anything about our sex life, and I rarely took part in the usual sex-based conversations you’d expect a bunch of 20-something women to be having. Sex isn’t something we talked about in my family a lot, either, and although I was never kept in the dark about things like puberty or spared the awkward “being safe” talk, it was a topic we all managed to avoid for the most part. Josh and I talked about sex, because we were having it, but when it became painful, those conversations went from being super fun to super stressful.

The pain was sporadic at first, which led us to believe that it was just a situational issue—I wasn’t in the right mood, we didn’t clock enough foreplay, the lube we were using had something in it I was allergic to, etc. We’d stop, and try again the next night, and things would be back to normal. But it progressed, and we got to a point where if anything penetrated me, no matter the circumstances, it hurt like hell. That “hurt” is difficult to describe. Stinging or burning were the descriptors I went with, and it lingered even after nothing was inside me. We got to a point where sex would be Josh watching my face, me cringing, him pulling out and me immediately crying from a combination of pain and frustration.

Read this next: What Does a “Normal” Vagina Look Like, Anyway?

As I’m sure you can imagine, that is not a recipe for a healthy sex life, or a healthy relationship. Even just the mention of sex gave me anxiety, and we were down to attempting it once a month, if that. Luckily, Josh is super patient and he also pushed me to figure out what was going on instead of letting me stick to my stupid plan of waiting to see if it went away—because it was not going away.

Getting diagnosed wasn’t so straightforward

My first stop was my GP. She referred me to the only gynecologist in Toronto who specialized in vulvar health, and her office informed me that my appointment was for March of the following year. It was February, and I could not keep living the way I was for another 13 months, so I had my GP refer me to a regular gynecologist.

Stop number two. The gynecologist asked me a bunch of questions about my sexual history, my current sex life and what my pain was like. She examined me and prescribed me an antifungal cream that I was required to massage into my inner labia and vagina every day to treat what she deduced was an infection. I did this for two weeks, and nothing changed. After several follow ups with her, I was finally referred to Campbell.

I had no clue what pelvic physiotherapy was. It sounded kind of hippie-adjacent to me, something that was for people who went for reiki treatments and believe in the healing power of crystals. But I was getting pretty desperate, so I tried to have an open mind. Campbell immediately made me feel comfortable, explaining that I wasn’t alone, and that we would be able to fix my problem. After examining me digitally (inserting two of her fingers into my vagina and pressing in various spots), she determined that the muscles in there were too tight. She explained that pelvic floor muscles can either be weak, causing you to pee a little when you laugh or cough, or tight, which can cause burning vulvar pain. “Think of a tight muscle in your neck or shoulders,” she said. “This is exactly what’s happening in your pelvic floor muscles.” Then she asked me if I had a stressful life, or if I was prone to anxiety.

Worrying about job security in my role as a fashion and beauty editor, facing things like self-doubt on the daily, and general catastrophizing about the health of my family were business as usual for me. Add that to a relationship situation like not being able to have sex, and you’ve got a solid set up for tons of stress and anxiety. “Some people’s anxiety manifests as migraine tension headaches. For others, it manifests as burning vulvar pain or pain with sex,” Campbell explained.

Read this next: Pandemic Making You Horny? Here’s Why

She then described exactly what was happening inside my vagina. When the muscles and soft tissues don’t relax properly because of tension, pain can be the outcome. This is because the connective tissue layer that lies superficial to the muscle is tight. For muscles to relax, the tissues supporting them need to stretch. When they can’t, you get that burning sensation. That becomes a vicious circle, because you start to anticipate the pain and you tighten further in that expectation. “That is exactly me,” I told her.

Treating dyspareunia is a lot different than general anxiety

I’ve had muscle pain in the past, and my solution was always to pop a pain killer, like Ibuprofen, to deal with that. Could I do the same for this, I wondered. “Pain is an output of the brain 100% of the time, so if we look at what drives a person’s pain experience, there can be a tissue component that can contribute to that,” explained Campbell. That means anti-inflammatory drugs can work, and cause an immediate change in symptoms if there is a lot of inflammation. But, when it comes to pain with sex, there is a lot more going on. “[We can treat] it with an anti-inflammatory or a numbing agent, but the person has already had that pain,” she continues. “Even just thinking about it and there’s nothing touching you, you are already experiencing that pain because you’re having that replay of what’s about to happen.” To actually treat this, my overall outlook needed to be adjusted, including getting over the fear and anticipation of pain.

So, no, I couldn’t simply turn to meds to treat my dyspareunia. Instead, my calendar became filled with weekly visits to Campbell’s office, where she would massage my vaginal muscles, pressing on certain areas inside me to see what hurt, and ask me if my homework was helping. Homework was using a dilator kind of like a Russian doll meets a dildo—the main part of it has a girth of about two inches, and you can layer larger and larger parts on top of it until it reaches a girth of about five inches. My nightly task was to insert the dilator into my vagina, moving it from side to side, in and out, and when I got to a place where that didn’t hurt, I could graduate to a wider girth. Campbell called this “practising your accommodation techniques,” and, like all homework, it was not fun or sexy. It was stressful, annoying and sometimes painful, and I locked myself alone in the bedroom with Netflix while I did it. We were also barred from having penetrative sex for a month, or until I could get through at least two of my dilator upgrades without pain.

Campbell also had me doing hip-opening yoga poses, which helped lengthen the muscles and soft tissues in my pelvic floor. She wanted me to focus on the frame-of-mind and restorative parts of yoga that could help me chill out, too. “Deep breathing continues to rank among the top activities one can do to reduce stress and anxiety,” she said. Aside from yoga, I was barred from doing any kind of ab exercises (truly the best part of all this), because you know how your Pilates instructor tells you to squeeze your pelvic floor while doing crunches, Kegel-style? Not so good for an already tight pelvic floor. (On that note, a quick aside: Campbell shocked me when she pulled back the curtain on Kegels: “Most people do not need to do Kegels. I see far more people who have tight pelvic floors than I do people who have weak pelvic floors.” Moral of the story: Get a pelvic physio exam before you start doing Kegels or buy those Goop-endorsed vagina eggs—actually, just don’t buy those, full-stop. You could be on the road to too-tight pelvic floor muscles, and trust, it is no fun.)

Read this next: Alison Brie Opens Up About Depression and Body Dysmorphia

There is not enough open discourse about pelvic tension

Along with the mind-blowing info about Kegels, I learned a hell of a lot from my visits with Campbell: I learned about my own vagina, I learned about pain, I learned that I’m definitely not alone—one in four women experience this, says. Campbell—and I learned it’s pretty common to mistakenly assume it will “go away on its own.”

“Many women are told ‘there is nothing wrong with you’ or ‘the pain is in your head’ or ‘just relax,’” says Campbell. “Women then feel like they are imagining their pain.” I get that. While no one told me to just chill out or suggested that I was inventing my pain, I was embarrassed, and I didn’t know what to do.

Campbell believes that part of the problem is that there’s still a gap in knowledge about pelvic physio, and a lot of people, like me, who hadn’t even heard of it, especially in North America. She told me about all the conferences she attends in Europe where pelvic physiotherapy is much more prevalent than it is in Canada. (Are you really surprised that Europeans are literally way more relaxed about their vaginas?) “I know there are 800 gynecologists in Toronto, and I don’t have 800 different referring doctors,” she told me. She says the bulk of her referrals come from about a dozen sources, and that more gynecologists should be making routine referrals to pelvic physios. “How many [patients] are out there, lost online, have no idea what to do, and are shaming themselves or thinking they’re the only person in the world that has this? I’m scared to think of the number of people who are out there wondering that.”

You don’t have to suffer in silence

It’s an understatement to say I’m grateful I found pelvic physiotherapy. Without it, I would have spent years suffering or living in a sexless relationship, with no one to validate the pain I was experiencing. After a few months of doing my exercises and seeing Campbell regularly, sex gradually returned to be something I could look forward to rather than dread. Now that it’s been a little more than a year, the times I’m able to have pain-free sex outweigh the painful ones, something that comes from a combination of regularly doing my ‘homework’ and continuing to better understand the sources of my stress and therefore my pain.

Read this next: How Outlander Reinvented My Sex Life

Like any mental wellness treatment, I will always have to work at this. My Russian doll dildos will likely continue living in my bedside table for years to come, and if I’m not always on top of my anxiety, there will be times I won’t be able to have sex. But I’m relieved to have the tools—both literally and figuratively—to deal with this. After initially keeping my dyspareunia to myself, I’m learning how to talk to other women in my life about it, and when I do, I’m surprised by how many of them have experienced something similar, and how many of them didn’t know what to call it or if it was even something that they could get help for. I hope that other people who are dealing with this or any kind of vaginismus find a similar comfort in knowing they’re not alone, because I sure did.

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Sex & Relationships

How Outlander Reinvented My Sex Life

A guide to kickstarting long-term sexual relationships via your Netflix account

I have scoffed at romance fiction my entire life. The term always evoked images of Fabio standing on a ship’s deck, brandishing a sword while ripping open his shirt. I’ve also never been one to watch porn: for one thing, I’m terrified of contracting computer viruses I’d later have to explain. But my attitude towards both began to change about six months ago, when I got into Outlander, the Starz historical fiction series (now streaming on Netflix!) based on the books by Diana Gabaldon.

The ridiculously popular tale centres around Claire Beauchamp (Caitriona Balfe), a post-WWII British combat nurse. On a trip to Inverness in the mid-1940s, she is magically transported through time to 18th century Scotland, where she meets and marries James Fraser (Sam Heughan), a young Highlander warrior. Romance, adventure, and very hot sex ensue—for Claire and Jamie, and, as it turned out, for me.

The couple has intense chemistry, and it’s infectious. After the second episode, I was screaming on Facebook, “WHEN DO THEY KISS?” By the time I hit the seventh episode, I was breathless. “Dan?” I called to my husband of 17 years. “Are you busy?” The more I watched, the more attractive my husband became.

Overnight, we went from “When’s the last time we had sex?” to Dan groaning “Christ, Julie, I’m not 25 anymore.” I had sex on the brain 24/7. My obsession became such that I started every conversation with, “Have you been watching Outlander?” Both my best friend and my car mechanic thanked me for turning them on to the show. Meanwhile, Dan was telling all his friends to have their wives watch Outlander. “You don’t even have to be in the room,” he insisted to them. “She’ll just call you when she’s ready.” I could not believe a television show was having such an effect on me.

Figuring out why led me to consider everything from the psychology of long-term relationships to the differences between spontaneous desire and slower arousal that needs a little encouragement. It also led me to reconsider both romance novels and unapologetic pornography. Both are so-called guilty pleasures that have a major presence online and can be set in any time or location. And both generally end up with the main characters having sex.

Read this next: Pandemic Making You Horny? Here’s Why

Dan and I have been together a long time. We have two kids, 12 and 14, and a three-year-old dog who has claimed the space between us on our bed. While our relationship started out pretty hot and heavy, time and adult responsibilities have somewhat dulled the spark. The sex, when we have it, is fantastic. It just seems that as time went by, our timing grew increasingly off. When Dan made advances, I was always tired. Sex was dependent on me initiating it, which didn’t happen all that often. We laughed that first night I jumped him post-Outlander, delighted by my newfound enthusiasm.

“In the beginning of a relationship, the hormones released in your brains make you want to be with that person all the time. It’s obsessive. You’re always touching or having sex,” says Dr. Laurie Betito, a Montreal-based clinical psychologist and host of CJAD Radio’s sex and relationship call-in show, Passion. “Fast forward 18 months or so, and those hormones have settled and you’re back to reality. Desire varies, especially for women. It’s something you have to work at.”

While men are more likely to have spontaneous desire (read: they often get turned on for no specific reason), women’s desire is more often “responsive.” “Women have said it forever—we need a storyline. We need context,” says Dr. Betito. “Romance me a little, charge me up.” And one thing female desire often seems to respond to is romance fiction, like Outlander, that blends sex and romance. This, of course, is the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. That book started out as Twilight fan fiction before becoming an international success, eventually selling over 125 million copies and spawning four sequels and three movies. Almost every woman I know read that book, and their partners were thrilled. I missed out on that entire craze, refusing to read a book that I felt was beneath my standards. I also missed out on getting laid.

“Women didn’t realize their sexuality was just beneath the surface. Their husbands didn’t realize it,” says Dr. Betito of Fifty Shades. “All it required was some imagination, reading these books. Even if women didn’t relate to the BDSM itself, they were certainly relating to the romance, context and hot sex scenes.”

While subconsciously I understood the distinction between spontaneous and responsive desire, it’s another thing to have it articulated so clearly. For years, I just figured Dan and I had mismatched sex drives. Another way to look at it is like this: Men often have sex because they’re horny, whereas women often choose to have sex because they want to feel close. It’s that closeness that then leads to arousal. With men, desire precedes arousal, but with women, it’s the reverse.

Read this next: The Best Sex Toys to Romance Yourself with

The notion of misaligned sex drives is something that frequently comes up in conversation. My friend Liane* is 48 and has been with her husband for over 20 years. She says, “Jason is always ready. I once picked up a box of condoms in the drugstore and he popped a woody, right there in the aisle.”

Liane and Jason have high-pressure careers, two kids and hectic lives. She readily admits that sometimes, it takes a little something extra to get her going. “What Jason doesn’t understand is that foreplay is 24-hours long,” she says. “Did he pick up his laundry this morning? Did he drive the kids to school? Was he able to avoid showing me his latest rash?”

It’s no secret that real life can be a romance killer. “Sometimes, after being in a relationship for so long, and one of us is watching football or reading a book, the effort required to initiate intimacy feels like too much work,” Liane says. “When the timing is off, sometimes it’s easier to just masturbate.”

All of this is very common, says Betito, but it can still be incredibly frustrating. “If you don’t understand this difference in a long-term relationship, one partner wonders what’s wrong with the other. ‘What’s wrong that you never want to have sex?’,” she says. “If he keeps pathologizing her, she’ll want it less. If he approaches her the way she needs to be approached, she’s far more open. If he understands that, it’s a very different interplay.”

Over the span of their relationship, Liane has turned to varying things to spark her own desire when Jason’s behaviour fell short.

“I used to get off on attention from other men,” she says. “But that’s faded over time. Now I’m happy to curl up with some juicy erotica, or even catch a few minutes of decent porn. Either one will get me going. And regardless of how I get there, the sex with Jason is always amazing…even after all this time.”

A man and woman ride closely together on horseback

A friend advised to me “hold out for ‘The Wedding’ episode, then stick around for ‘The Reckoning.’” (Photo: Netflix Canada)

This got me thinking. My Outlander flashpoint was “The Wedding,” an episode in which Jamie first realizes that women are capable of orgasm. From that moment on, their relationship was no longer about his own pleasure, but all about ensuring Claire’s. I re-watched every sex episode multiple times. Eventually, I was just fast forwarding to the pertinent scenes. Then I stopped and asked myself—“Well, what’s the difference between this and porn?”There’s actually a lot of crossover between the two genres, according to Michael Castleman, who calls them “two sides of the same evolutionary coin.” Castleman is a San Francisco-based counsellor and journalist who’s been writing about health and sexuality for over 35 years and has studied the pornography vs. romance fiction issue. Put simply, one is used to “activate cues for male arousal” while the other does the same for female arousal.

His research for an upcoming book confirms much of what we already believe: As men are largely visual, traditional porn is entirely organized around sex, devoid of any love and relationships, while romance fiction aimed at women centres on exactly those things. That doesn’t make one genre inherently “better:” Castleman points out that where porn can set up unrealistic expectations about women, sex, and relationships, romance fiction often does exactly the same when it comes to men. Outlander’s Jamie Fraser wakes Claire up in the morning with oral sex, kills everyone who wrongs her, and consistently makes her feel like that most beautiful woman in the world. How can anyone live up to that?

Read this next: We’re in the Middle of a Pandemic, So Why Is My Ex Sliding Into My DMs?

Even though it’s not my thing, I wasn’t so surprised to discover that many of my female friends were watching porn. My friend Katie* has been into romance fiction for as long as she can remember—she’s one of the people that recommended Outlander to me, and texted that I should “Hold out for ‘The Wedding’ episode, then stick around for ‘The Reckoning’” when I started wondering when all the promised action would start.

In recent years, Katie’s also discovered female-oriented pornography, and is a big fan of Erika Lust, a Swedish erotic film director. Lust champions feminist pornography, which is all about gender equality and helping women in their sexual pursuit of equality and pleasure. “These shorts are so well-produced and easy to watch: the story, the context, the chemistry—and the explicit sex,” says Katie. “This isn’t about the money shot. It’s about the fantasy. These films check all my boxes.”

She loves Lust’s XConfessions, a series of short films generated with viewer participation. Women anonymously send in written versions of their secret fantasies, and Lust produces the scenarios in her trademark cinematic style.

Katie’s had never watched with her husband, Rob, but as a result of our conversation, told him about her porn-watching habit, and invited him to join her. He agreed enthusiastically, but it didn’t go as expected. In fact, he initially refused to believe that what she was watching counted as “porn.”

“He made me fast-forward to the sex scenes,” Katie laughed. “Essentially skipping over all the parts I needed to get going. But even if we’re not into the same kind of stuff, just the fact that he was willing to watch with me was a turn-on. It certainly reinvigorated our sex life.”

Betito believes that most people watch porn alone, but encourages couples to enjoy it together. “Or even reading erotica to each other,” she suggests. “It’s a little bit like verbalizing your fantasy, but it’s someone else’s. It’s talking dirty without talking dirty. If both parties are on board… anything that lights you up is fine.”

Getting both parties on board can sometimes require professional help, says Dr. Justin Lehmiller, an Indiana-based social psychologist and author who pens the popular blog Sex and Psychology. “Sexual desire discrepancy is one of the most common reasons couples seek sex therapy,” he says. “It’s important to get to the root cause, which might involve speaking with a professional. Other things that can help are focusing on the quality of the sex you’re having rather than the quantity. Some couples find it helpful to schedule sex or date nights, or to incorporate more novelty/excitement into their sex life.”

Audrey*, from Montreal, has also been with her husband, Barry, for over 20 years. They try to make an effort on even the smallest fronts: She looks him in the eye when she greets him and listens earnestly when he tells her about his day. “That connection is so important,” she said, echoing Liane’s comment about 24-hour foreplay.

Read this next: We Should All Be Following the NYC Coronavirus Guide to Safe Sex

Sexually, she’s into plenty of novelty, including pornography, and the couple’s sex life sometimes involves other partners. After a few casual threesomes over the years, they began “slowly” opening up their marriage, says Audrey.

“We’re really just wading into these waters, trying to figure out what the rules would be,” she says. “If he went on a ‘date’ would he have to ask permission first? Are there parameters around age? These are the kinds of questions we’re trying to navigate.

“I enjoy sex with both men and women, and I really enjoy watching Barry with other women,” she continues. And occasional dates with someone with whom she doesn’t share bills, or childcare duty, allows her to “just be me in the moment—get a break from reality.”

Lehmiller says it’s well-known that opening up long term relationships increases sexual desire. “Open relationships offer the opportunity for a steady stream of sexual novelty, and we know that novelty has a powerful effect on libido,” he says. That said, an open relationship might not seem like the obvious route for many of us.

“In order for it to work, the relationship has to be super healthy to begin with,” Betito says. “This is not a fix….As a couple, you must be able to separate sex from love.”

Audrey agrees. “Barry and I can separate the sex completely from our marriage, and this is something that works for us,” she says. “I’m in my 40s. I’m a grown woman, I know what I want, and I can tell him. In fact, he finds it a turn-on that I’ve gotten so direct about sex.”

That’s also true for me: at 48, I am having better sex than I was in my 20s, which Betito says isn’t rare. “Women have better sex after 40,” she says. “It’s not hormonal—that peak was at 18. It’s more about women being in tune with their sexuality and themselves.”

My favourite couple has also gotten better with age. When Claire returned to Jamie in season three, the sex was hotter than ever. I cannot wait to see what’s in store for them—and me—during the fifth season, which is just about to begin. Especially now that Dan’s agreed to let me call him Jamie.

*All names have been changed

The fifth season of Outlander debuted February 16 on W Network and is airing now 

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