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COVID Bonding: Parties, Dating, & Human Connection in a Pandemic

COVID Bonding: Parties, Dating, & Human Connection in a Pandemic

How are people in psychedelic communities balancing the need for human connection with pandemic safety? The range of strategies includes self-isolation, Zoom calls, “distance-hangs,” “pods,” and in some cases continuing to party with controversial risk reduction strategies.

“I live by myself, so when shelter in place first started and we were told to stay home and interact only with our household, I followed the rules because they made sense,” says Lily Sun, who has been solo-quarantining. “Over time, as I watched folks ‘pod up’ with others who didn’t live with them, I briefly considered it but have pre-existing health conditions that put me in a higher risk category, so it made sense for me to be cautious.”

Sun does see friends and loved ones in socially distanced and risk mitigated ways, which she says has helped with feelings of isolation. While she still experiences challenges with being alone, she says she also sees benefits.

“Honestly I’m grateful to be able to solo-quarantine,” says Sun. “As a therapist, I’ve watched both friends and clients really struggle to navigate differing risk tolerances with their family, roommates, and pod members, and I’m grateful to be spared that.”

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Zoom has also soared in popularity as a strategy for connection.

“I’ve been focusing on connections with friends and loved ones that are far away and connecting people who aren’t physically close to one another, rather than trying to digitalize the exact same connections I would be participating in in-person,” explains Allan Steiner, organizer of Poly Happy Hour. 

Steiner says the gathering is usually a local event with an Oakland, San Francisco, and South Bay contingent, but now those groups are crossing over with a twice monthly digital happy hour. His own personal priorities have also shifted over the course of the pandemic to include a weekly Zoom call he hosts with his family. 

“Early on I wanted larger events where I was hanging out with new people,” says Steiner. “Now I’m more interested in reoccurring rituals with people I love.”

Finding News Ways To Connect

An entirely new type of art and music event has also emerged in the pandemic: the digital party. Event organizers, including Burning Man, have now gone online and are using a range of tools to bring a feeling of immediacy to these events. Digital versions of such gatherings are typically multiplatform, featuring parallel Zoom rooms, Twitch channels, and other internet-powered experiences curated by artists and sometimes using established digital environments like Discord to bring everyone together.

For many people familiar with the social intimacy sparked by psychedelic experiences, Zoom calls and even the most extravagant digital parties do not meet their needs for human connection, particularly when it comes to dating.

“Being single during the pandemic has been tough. Now more than ever I feel like I’ve been craving human touch and connection,” says Khristina Rhead.

Physical hangouts and dates at a safe distance are a popular strategy for people like Rhead. “I’ve tried to come up with ways to date that will hopefully keep me safe from COVID. I’ve suggested going for hikes, going for a picnic, or just hanging out outside somewhere 6 feet apart.”

In some circumstances, that distance can be closed, but Rhead says she “won’t meet with someone inside until I get to know them better and learn if they’re taking this pandemic seriously or not.”

Since this pandemic started, Rhead says that she has only been in close proximity and inside with three people she dated, each of whom presented a different type of safety decision.

“One of them had already had COVID, one of them got tested regularly for his job, and the other I hung out with numerous times outside before feeling comfortable getting together inside. Also, the third guy is someone I’m friends with, so I trust him more than total strangers.”

When closing the distance, there are still ways to reduce risk. This year has even seen government health authorities in Canada recommending glory holes to “allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact.”

Some people have found other creative ways to meet their needs while reducing risk. “COVID has obviously given us limitations to work within, which can actually open up some very hot possibilities in sex,” says Babs (not her real name), whose nonmonogamous boyfriend was in a different committed partnership, limiting their ability to be in normal contact. “Since I didn’t have the construction skills or dedication to construct a glory hole, we worked with what we had, which was masks on, and face down, ass up. Back to basics in some ways. In others, entirely new territory.”

Many people accept some additional exposure in exchange for less restricted physical touch with a small number of people, choosing their “pods” or “bubbles” of close relationships to “COVID-bond” with.

Creating Your Pod

Defining a pod can prove complicated, especially for those practicing polyamory. “One of the biggest difficulties I’ve come up against is figuring out where a germ circle ends — everyone I date in Brooklyn lives with roommates,” explains sexual health writer Emma Kaywin. “I’m not just having to have difficult health and behavior conversations with partners, but with roommates of partners, and with partners of partners’ roommates. It is really difficult to figure out the nodal end points, which is what you need to do if you’re creating a germ pod.”

Kaywin notes that this exercise is what all COVID pods are doing, regardless of their dating status. She likens pre-COVID-bonding talks to pre-sex talks. 

“As a polyamorous human, I’m no stranger to having difficult conversations about health transmission — we do it all the time with sexually transmitted infections!” says Kaywin. “I’ve actually been surprised though how many poly people have deeply sucked at having COVID mapping talks, given that we are at least supposed to be having these talks already when it comes to STIs.”

In some ways, Steiner notes that people practicing polyamory find their experiences helpful in navigating the present complexities of relationships during a pandemic.

“Nonmonogamy is certainly harder if your definition is ‘seeing multiple people,’” says Steiner. “But my philosophy is more ‘relationships are based on agreements,’ so there’s actually a very relevant skillset in being able to have those conversations, ask for what you need, and negotiate boundaries/risk.”

In other ways, polyamory creates additional complications. Kaywin explains that COVID has provided unexpected revelations for those in these types of partnerships and “unmasked for many people where they are in a relationship hierarchy.” For some this has been an unsettling experience. 

“When COVID hit, a lot of people closed their germ circles and cut off some of their partners purposefully to make their circles smaller, or moved out of the city with just one or a couple partners, leaving some behind and often without any discussion,” says Kaywin. “That was exceptionally painful for a lot of my community and I’m anticipating a poly reckoning when this is all over.”

Even for those who have joined a COVID pod, some people still find something missing in the arrangement that precludes the spontaneity of random encounters. 

“There is a significant element of sexuality that plays out in the public domain, among strangers,” says Laura Mae Northrup of Inside Eyes Podcast. “It could be an exchange of eye contact, noticing someone looking at you, or the innocuous flirting that emerges in a delightful yet short lived conversation with a stranger. When done consensually and respectfully, all of these things remind us that we are desirable and that we desire. During the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t experience any of these subtle erotic exchanges.”

Northrup says she has been reflecting on the cumulative impact of this and “realized how shut down I had become around my own sexuality during the pandemic, how disconnected I had felt.”

Northrup also believes there is something lost without the experience of seeing a romantic partner out in public. The process of watching them seen by others is sometimes part of their allure. 

“There is something exciting and hot about knowing that your partner or partners are out in the world, being seen, and when you are present with them in public space, you get to see them in their element — you get to see the responses other people have to them, and that can make them sexy.”

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”Whether you are monogamous or poly, the knowledge that your partner or partners have to keep choosing you and vice versa, even while other options exist” is exciting, adds Northrup. “The COVID-19 pandemic makes us feel less like we have been chosen and more like we are the last two people on a deserted island, struggling to survive. Turns out that fantasy isn’t as hot in real life.”

Being isolated with a partner can lead to problems. According to Larissa Maier of the Global Drug Survey, their Special Edition on COVID-19 shows that “18% reported an increase in relationship tension during COVID-19.”

Community Risk Tolerance

On the extreme end of risk tolerance within communities that acknowledge the existence of COVID-19, some are still continuing to party.

The annual Ephemerisle event, which takes place in the Sacramento River Delta featuring “boat islands,” serves as a case study in communities attempting to navigate the choppy waters of collective consent.

“Ephemerisle is a decentralized and emergent gathering, comprising many groups and islands, all of which embrace a range of values and cultural stances. There are no tickets and no central organizers–each island is wholly independent,” according to an open letter to the Ephemerisle community by attendees and island leaders from past years.

The letter continues, “We believe it is impractical for any ‘island’ or raftup of multiple boats to implement sufficient COVID safety protocols that can reliably prevent spread at such a gathering, along with preventing community spread beyond it. As such, we are not organizing our islands for this year, we are not attending ourselves, and we do not believe it is advisable for the community to gather in such an environment. We urge the community to forgo any festival-like or raftup gatherings for the time being.”

Despite this pushback, some islands proceeded anyway, and 130-150 people gathered this summer. Sean McCabe, one of the main organizers of “Big Booty Island,” says, “We did the best we could at the time to keep people safe with a full medical team and centralized COVID protocols.” McCabe claims, “So far there have been no known cases of COVID post-gathering.”

Though social distancing was encouraged, McCabe noted that this was difficult to maintain when the party heated up. “Adherence to our protocols was mixed given the culture of the participants, especially while people were under the influence of substances,” says McCabe.

McCabe says he’s frustrated with current testing limitations, but also sees a potential path forward.

“I was particularly disappointed to find out PCR [polymerase chain reaction] testing was backed up 14 days in America and would deliver stale results that would make our post-event tracking efforts more difficult,” says McCabe.

McCabe believes “the only way to make an event truly safe is with quick, accurate on-sight testing procedures.” He hopes to soon use such testing to create safe events where participants would be tested in advance and quarantine until they get their results.

Epidemiologist Sarah B. Andrea, PhD, MPH believes rapid testing reliability is too poor to use as a pre-party screener.

“Current rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 are less sensitive than PCR, meaning they miss some people who are actually positive,” says Dr. Andrea. “Even with a more accurate test, if you get tested too early after exposure, you can still get a false negative test result. In the context of a multi-day long event like Ephemerisle, even if undetectable levels of SARS-COV-2 today translates to not necessarily being contagious today, you could still become contagious tomorrow or the next day. In addition, a negative test result – even a true negative – can be dangerous. With their negative test results, folks may be even more lax on things like mask usage and physical distancing, actually increasing their risk of exposure.”

It remains to be seen how people will choose to balance COVID safety with the need for human connection over the coming months.

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