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Restricted Romance: How students navigate long-distance relationships, hookups amid the pandemic

February 9, 2021
Photo by Hope Ann Flores | The State News

At the time when Michigan's first pandemic orders were being issued, criminal justice alumnus Eric Peterson and his girlfriend, journalism junior Grace Durfey, were coming up on their one-year anniversary. Because the pair lived three hours away from each other and in different states, they were unable to celebrate the occasion together in person. 

Luckily for Durfey and Peterson, the pandemic restrictions did not change much for them. Their relationship was already built to endure the trials that come with long-distance. The couple only saw each other four times in the summer of 2019, so spending the first several months of the pandemic interacting mainly via text wasn't as intimidating.

Peterson moved from his hometown of Saugatuck, Michigan, to Durfey's home of Toledo, Ohio, after being hired at a local hospital in September 2020. While they were able to spend more time together being in the same city again, COVID exposure from Peterson's job still posed an issue for them.

"I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to even see her (Durfey) for Christmas because of how crazy it was going on at the hospital," Peterson said. "I had someone literally cough in my face who was COVID positive, on purpose, and so it was kind of like, 'Well, I can't go anywhere. ... I can't see anybody.'"

Peterson and Durfey aren’t alone. According to a Vox article, those who are newly single have been more open to long distance, virtual relationships during the pandemic. However, the difficulty lies in striking a balance between “‘I’d really like to talk to some people and I’d really like to get back out there,” and “just entering into a month-long emotional affair with a stranger you’ll never see.”

According to a 2007 study, partners in long distance relationships tend to have higher relational stability compared to geographically close partners. In fact, the study showed that long distance partners tend to be more satisfied with the communication in the relationship and have higher perceived agreement.


However, that same study said that long distance partners were more likely to separate after reuniting due to higher instances of "extreme idealization."

Even with the COVID-19 restrictions and physical distance between them making it harder for them to see each other, Durfey and Peterson are determined to make it through the pandemic together.

"We were both very communicative about (how) we never thought that it wasn't going to work," Durfey said. "We were not going let COVID take us." 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that people restrict traveling to limit the spread of COVID-19. The CDC has also recommended certain types of transportation that minimize contact between people of different households as much as possible. 

Traveling by car, recreational vehicle, or another personal vehicle is the safest method of transportation until the public is widely inoculated against the novel coronavirus, according to the CDC website. However, stopping for gas, food and supplies may still put motorists at risk of exposure, so it's important to wear a mask, practice good hand hygiene and physically distance whenever possible. 

Megan Maas, assistant professor of human development and family studies, suggests students who are still engaging in hookups practice extra safety measures to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19. According to Maas, it's important to quarantine for 10 days or more, and to get tested for the coronavirus before a hookup. 

While she doesn't recommend in-person sex until each partner is vaccinated against COVID-19, Maas believes there are safe ways to be intimate with a partner virtually, like sending flirty text messages. She also encourages masturbation as a COVID-safe alternative. 

"So, for example, you can have old fashioned phone sex, you talk to each other," Maas said. "And I would recommend that over some other forms, but you can also have it over video chat. But it's really important that you don't record anything or take screenshots of anything without someone's consent because that is illegal."

Maas said that it's crucial to get tested for STIs along with COVID-19 immediately after having in-person sex, especially without the use of protection. It's also wise to quarantine after a hookup, but testing should be a priority. 

Additionally, it's important to set healthy boundaries and avoid situations that aren't enjoyable. If the risk feels too high, it isn't worth it, Maas said. Research on the long-term side effects of COVID-19 is ongoing and there are a lot of potential future health issues to take into consideration.

"We know that in some cases, there's been recent reports that show that it can mess with the way that your body produces testosterone, that could potentially impact future fertility," she said. 

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted stay-home orders, freshman Abigail Fuller broke up with her first boyfriend.

While everyone else in the world was coming to terms with the "new normal," she was coming to terms with being single for the first time in two years.

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Fuller, who requested to use a pseudonym for privacy reasons, said she grappled with mental health issues in the first months of the pandemic. She realized the best course of action for her wasn't what everyone else was doing. In fact, she decided she'd do the polar opposite. 

"The first couple months I felt really depressed," she said. "I felt really lonely. And I was like, 'Well, I might as well just travel.' I know that's the total opposite of what every other person thought but I was like, 'Well, I might as well travel,' and that's what I did."

The CDC provides a list of factors to take into consideration before making travel arrangements, such as the potential risks of each mode of transport, high-risk travel activities and living with or visiting individuals in the high-risk demographic. If travel is not mandatory, public health officials urge against it until the vaccine is widely available. 

However, against CDC advice, Fuller traveled at least once a month over the course of 2020. Some trips she took with friends, while others were solo ventures. 

During these trips, Fuller and her friends would go to parties and meet up with people in the area. About five months ago when she began traveling on her own, she started going on dates and would sometimes go on multiple in one day, a welcome change from the isolation she’d felt in the early months of 2020.

“I usually would just meet up with three, or four or five people a day, and I would decide whether or not I wanted to actually do anything with them," she said. "But it was really fun to me because I’d only ever had one boyfriend in my life, now it was like ‘holy crap, there’s all these people that want to have sex with me.’” 

Fuller said that her experiences traveling and having hookups during the pandemic have taught her she’s fully in control of how she chooses to respond to situations. 

“I (could have been) really disappointed and be like ‘Man, my life sucks because COVID has ruined everything,’ but I’ve just been trying to make the most of it,” Fuller said. “ Even though things are restricted you can still have fun.” 

Wanting to make the most out of the pandemic putting life on pause has shown Fuller her reckless side, too. 

“Sometimes I put myself in bad situations like last week …  literally had some guy Uber me to Boulder that I didn’t know," Fuller said. "… I ended up leaving and going to some other guy's house and he took me to this party. My flight was at eight in the morning, and I didn’t even get back to my hotel until like six in the morning. I was like ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’” 

According to a 2017 study by Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, many students are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by college hookup culture.

"Hooking up is (imminently) defensible in hookup culture," Wade said in her study. "Students believe, or believe that their peers believe, that virginity is passé and monogamy prudish; that college is a time to go wild and have fun; that separating sex from emotions is sexually liberating; and that they’re too young and career-focused for commitment. All of these ideas are widely circulated on campus—and all make reasonable sense—validating the choice to engage in casual sex while invalidating both monogamous relationships and the choice to have no sex at all."

It’s possible to form new relationships and hookups during a pandemic, but it’s recommended that you learn your partner’s “attitudes towards social distancing and wearing masks,” infectious disease expert Ravina Kullar said in a Bumble article

Fuller said that being able to explore her sexuality outside of a relationship helped her overcome some of the shame she thought she'd feel from having sex, having grown up being warned against it. 

"I'm not so scared about sex and that kind of stuff because I've always been told 'Don't have sex before marriage and if you do, you're a w----' and that always stuck with me and it made me so worried I was like 'oh I can never have sex with more than three or four people,'" Fuller said. "But I still sometimes struggle with that. But I've definitely let loose a little bit more and tried to just have more fun and enjoy myself and not be so worried about that number or what other people might think of me if they found out." 

This article is part of the Restricted Romance print issue. Read the entire issue here.


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