How coronavirus is transforming online dating and sex

Last week, as shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders became increasingly common, a mysterious Google Form circulated among students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business: “Love Is Blind, Bschool Edition.” The name was inspired by the hit Netflix show where couples talk in isolated pods and subsequently get engaged without seeing each other.

The rules are simple: Make a fake email address and tell the creators the business school you attend, your sexual orientation, and your gender identification. The creators randomize that information and set up a match, introducing a pair to each other for email correspondence via the fake address; after a week, texting or video is permitted.

Welcome to dating and sex during the coronavirus pandemic. Dating apps have struggled; after all, the whole point of dating is to physically meet someone. Match—the company behind online dating giants Tinder and OkCupid—has seen stocks tumble 25%, and had to balance public health with mission statements.

“Tinder understands that our members are oftentimes meeting new people in-person, and, given the current environment, we wanted to remind them of the precautions they should take,” the company said in a press release, citing the World Health Organization. The firm is now rolling out a feature that lets users match with people outside their immediate geographical area.

But what does virtual dating mean? 

One way to do it is by reinventing the speed date. Dawoon Kang, cofounder of Coffee Meets Bagel, says the app has begun hosting virtual meetups for 10 to 15 members at a time, consisting of a video call moderated by a company representative. A participant who is interested in another can email the representative; if two people feel sparks, the representative connects them.

Coronavirus is also upending what we thought were the ground rules of dating in the digital age. Pre-coronavirus, texting someone to set up a date was fine, but calling a person, let alone video-chatting before a date, was tiptoeing toward creepy. 

Not anymore. By the end of February, JWed, a Jewish dating app, was an early adopter of in-app video chat. Bumble pushed its video chat and voice features, allowing users to talk to a date without breaking shelter-in-place mandates. Representatives at JWed told me that while these features had already been in development, the coronavirus crisis sped up implementation.

The video calls serve as what some singles term a “vibe check,” allowing them to gauge chemistry in a context beyond text banter. Kang predicts these vibe checks will be the norm long after the cure for Covid-19 has been found, as people seek to trade selfie culture’s filtered photos for a more realistic image of a person. “At first, people don’t feel like they look very good,” Kang says, but “then they’re forced to try it when they realize they won’t meet people for a very long time. Once they try it, they’re likely to do it again.”

Jazz, a woman from London, has been on dating apps since 2014. Video calls have made dating less casual, she says.

“I can now have first meets on video and build an emotional connection with a man over the physical,” she says. “Three weeks no-contact means you will be able to drop the fakes like flies and engage with the ones that are truly wanting to have something more.”

Jazz claims she hasn’t changed how she presents herself (“Loungewear and no makeup—if they like you like this, then they’ll like you in any state”) and enjoys the ease of the date: “I can also drink a glass of wine and roll into bed. Woohoo!”

Sex at a distance

Coronavirus isn’t just changing norms around dating: sex tech is also seeing a surge in popularity. Much of this is to do with the effects of quarantine, says Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. While the coronavirus and the resulting lockdowns are still too new to allow for real analysis, he says it’s clear that the strange times we now live in are changing our behavior. People are trying out the newest sex gadgets, visiting virtual-reality strip clubs, attending Zoom sex parties, and even searching PornHub for very specific porn: homemade videos that fetishize coronavirus.

Polly Rodriguez, the founder of sex toy retailer Unbound Babes, says that when the coronavirus arrived, sex tech firms struggled. Many sex toys are made in China, which meant the supply chain was badly hit.

But demand remains high. Once the first patients started getting sick with coronavirus in the US, Unbound Babes raced to fill orders for vibrators and multipacks of condoms, which were up 30% the first week of March and then another 40% the second week. “This is usually our slowest time of year,” she says. “People are stockpiling and anticipating this will take a while.”

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Lehmiller says this can be attributed to demographics. “The percentage of people who are single is higher today than it’s ever been,” he says. “We have a lot of people who aren’t living with a partner or spouse than ever before.”

But it’s not only single people interested in sex toys; Lehmiller predicts that the coming months of lockdown will see committed partners begin to experiment. “You’ll see an increase in remote-controlled sex toys where people can engage sexually with a partner through technology from a distance,” he says. “You can sexually engage without oral transmission”—an attractive feature when we don’t know how long we’ll be isolated within our homes.

The pandemic will “set the stage for the sex tech revolution we’ve been all anticipating to take place sooner than we thought,” says Lehmiller.

But not everyone is able to take advantage—particularly those who are facing the brunt of what appears to be the early days of a global economic recession. Vibrators and so-called teledildonics are still luxury goods and can cost in the triple digits. Step Tranovich of sex tech startup Cute Little Fuckers says, contrary to Unbound Babes’ boom, his company’s sales have been nosediving. His customers, too, are facing uncertain times. “My clientele is largely transgender and queer,” he says. “They’re already marginalized and have a less stable income stream. Unfortunately, when big things happen, they are the first to get laid off and financially disadvantaged.”

Still, Lehmiller says that the pandemic and quarantine orders will lead to very different relationship rules. And that goes for dating apps, too. “The one thing I’m certain about is that the longer this prolongs, the longer this will be a permanent shift,” Kang says. “People want to virtually connect.”hide

Seeing a Spike in Activity, Dating Apps Respond to Pandemic With Digital Date Ideas

Tinder, Bumble and Hinge offer new features for members to video chat or connect internationally.Tinder, Bumble, Hinge

In mid-March, Jessica Ross, an administrator at a law firm in Washington, D.C., had been self-isolating at home for a few days when she decided to start swiping on a dating app out of boredom. Ross said the app was booming with people excited to chat while stuck at home with one natural, unfortunate conversation starter—the COVID-19 outbreak.

Ross, 29, said she eventually exchanged numbers with a man she was messaging to take their conversation off the app. For her, exchanging numbers usually leads to the next step of meeting up for drinks. But they were both on the same page about not meeting in person during a global pandemic, so they started to virtually date using FaceTime. Ross said around two weeks ago, he asked if she was interested in going on a FaceTime date—noting that it could be awkward.

“I figured this was about to become the new normal, so I told him I’d prefer to do it while it was still weird,” she said. “Now we talk often enough that I know what he’s doing most nights, and we feel comfortable FaceTiming out of the blue.”

In February, Ross’s video dating situation may have seemed unconventional. However, it has become a new normal for people looking to make romantic connections while in-person dates are unsafe.

Major dating apps have reported an increase in global use during the pandemic, and they’ve swiftly pivoted to encourage users to not meet in person. The apps are now offering users convenient ways to set up virtual dates, on-theme digital and social content, plus links to safety guidelines from global health organizations.

Hinge, which reported a 30% increase in messages among users in March compared to January and February, is addressing the potential awkwardness that comes with asking a match to take a conversation from messages to video. The brand revised its in-app survey to reflect the current dating climate, reporting that 70% of members would be open to a virtual date on video platforms like Zoom; and in general, a third of all members shared the phase of dating when they feel the least confident was turning conversations into face-to-face meetings.

In response to the findings, Hinge today launched a “Date From Home” menu, which pops up at the bottom of in-app conversations, asking users if they’re ready to go on a digital date. Users can select when they’re ready to move the conversation off the app, and their response remains private until their match selects it, too.

“While we may need to be physically distant right now, we can still be socially connected,” said Tim MacGougan, chief product officer, Hinge, in a statement. “We are excited for the launch of ‘Date from Home’ as a new and easy way for our users to continue their dating lives.”OkCupid released an infographic based on profile info of members who answered in-app questions.OkCupid

Michael Kaye, global communications manager, OkCupid, said the dating site has seen an 30% increase in global daily messages exchanged in the past few weeks. The brand is particularly monitoring how the topics of conversation have increasingly shifted toward coronavirus and social distancing. Kaye noted between February and March, mentions of video chatting platforms like Zoom and Skype increased 180% and toilet paper increased 238% on member profiles.

“But we don’t recommend you use a coronavirus opening line,” Kaye said. “Our data shows those messages are 5% less likely to get a reply, and the ones that do have conversations fizzle out faster.”

OkCupid has also added new in-app questions related to virtual dating; the questions are normally used to help the platform match people on compatible interests. New questions include: “What’s your ideal virtual date?,” “Do you enjoy phone sex?” and “Would you say ‘I love you’ to someone you’ve never met in person?”

Tinder reported daily conversations have been up an average of 20% globally and 19% in the U.S., and the average length of conversations 25% and 8% longer, respectively. The swiping app also reported the use of Passport—a premium feature that allows users to connect with anyone in the world—was up during the last week of March in Brazil, France, Germany and India. To acknowledge that members across the globe are sharing a similar experience, the platform has made its Passport feature free throughout April.

“We hope our members, many of whom are anxious and looking for more human connection, can use Passport to transport themselves out of self-quarantine to anywhere in the world,” said Tinder CEO Elie Seidman. “We’re inspired by how people are using Tinder to be there for each other, and we want to fan these flames of social solidarity.”

Tinder is also aiming to make connections for college students affected by school dismissals easier while they’re apart. The brand removed the distance radius for Tinder U, a feature where college students can join using their school email addresses to match with students on their own campuses and those nearby; normally, students are limited to a short distance range set by the app.

For Bumble, the temporary new dating lifestyle gave the women-focused dating and networking platform a chance to boost its in-app voice call and video chat service, launched in 2019. The brand initially introduced the feature as a way for members to chat with matches before they shared personal information like phone numbers or email addresses. Now, the brand is urging members to use the feature through in-app notifications and a letter from founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd on its website.

“We’re experiencing a major lifestyle change at the moment and we’re focused on helping our users shift the dating app experience to an in-app dating experience,” a Bumble representative said.

According to the Bumble representative, as of March 27 the brand has seen a 93% increase in voice call and video chat usage from March 13, and the average call time is 30 minutes. Since March 12 in the U.S., Bumble has seen a 21% increase in messages sent, as well as a 13% increase in use among Gen Z. Among its three modes—Bumble Date, Bizz and BFF—the brand reports its Bizz networking mode has seen the greatest increase in swipes, up 57%.

As major dating apps temporarily pivot messaging, they’re also offering virtual date ideas for their followers on social media and through blog posts on their sites. On Instagram, Bumble has posted a Mad Libs-style game to figure out what to do on your next virtual date, as well as ideas corresponding to astrological signs.

Online dating amid coronavirus: Longer conversations and a ‘pivot’ to video dates

“She said, ‘Do I have to change out of sweats?’ and I said, ‘Of course not, I haven’t worn adult pants in weeks anyway.’”

As COVID-19 has spread across the globe, online daters are having longer conversations and adopting an option that has previously not been popular: video dates.

Match Group Inc. MTCH, -1.58% and rival Bumble are seeing a boost in the number of messages exchanged between daters on their platforms as well as a growing interest in built-in tools that allow users to hold video calls without exchanging contact information. Match Group owns a variety of dating properties including Tinder, Hinge and Match.com, while Bumble is known for its namesake service launched by a Tinder co-founder.

“Whether it’s for work or for fun, everything has become digital and distant,” said Nick Kallail, an alumni-network and marketing manager in Kansas who recently did a video date with a woman he met on Bumble during the coronavirus outbreak.

By connecting over video chat, Kallail was able to chat with his date, who lives nearby in Kansas City but has been hunkering down with her parents in Washington state due to the virus. Kallail experienced some first-date firsts, including when his date’s mother stopped in to chat during their conversation and when both parties agreed that it was fine to wear comfortable clothes for their digital meeting.

“She said, ‘Do I have to change out of sweats?’ and I said, ‘Of course not, I haven’t worn adult pants in weeks anyway.’”

Even those who bypass dating apps are turning to video dates, according to Barbie Adler, the founder of Selective Search, an offline executive matchmaking service. She said that periods of extended time at home tend to make her clients more determined to find love because they start to desire connection more, and she’s encouraged them to try video or phone dates during the public-health crisis.

Adler advises clients to find a setting for their video dates that faces a light source and that doesn’t show any clutter in the background. While it’s fine to do a video date from a desk, she recommends that people adopt comfortable body language so they don’t look like they’re giving a job interview. And though she tells daters they don’t have to look too formal, she also suggests that they wear something they would consider wearing for an in-person meeting.

One creative client sent a bottle of his favorite wine to his date and they each drank from their respective bottles during the video session. Others have decided to go for walks separately but at the same time and do phone dates.

“Social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation,” Adler told MarketWatch. She expects that daters could form deeper connections through their virtual dates than they might have if they had jumped into quick conversation before making plans for an in-person dinner.

For Match, the rush of stay-at-home orders brought on by the novel coronavirus outbreak has prompted a change in strategy, according to a Tuesday filing and letter from the company’s new chief executive. While the length of Tinder users’ conversations has increased by 10% to 30% since the virus began impacting the dating landscape, Match services have been struggling to attract new users (especially those older than 30) and paying subscribers in countries hit hard by infections.

The company has responded with a quick “pivot” as it tries to add video capabilities to more of its services. Users across the Match properties seem to be coming around to the feature after showing some skepticism in the past.

Chief Executive Shar Dubey said Match had begun rolling out video chat on two of its services, Plenty of Fish and Twoo, and that usage had “exceeded our expectations.” The company now plans to roll out one-on-one video-chat services on its namesake Match.com service in early April.

“We have offered video chat features in the past and seen low usage, but we think this time user behavior is likely to change more permanently,” she said.

Dubey pointed to subscriber declines of about 5% in Europe since the start of the crisis, though the impact has been more pronounced in countries that have been hit harder by the outbreak, like Spain and Italy.

Match did not mention any plans for video on Tinder, its mobile-focused dating app. A spokeswoman said that the company had nothing to add beyond the letter.

While brands are rushing to incorporate video chatting into their services, many people may still choose to handle this part of dating process their own. Kallail said he and his date had exchanged phone numbers before deciding to go on a virtual date and didn’t rely on Bumble to handle the video call.

Bumble, a chief rival to Tinder, also has video and voice integration inside its app and the company has seen increased usage of these features during the COVID-19 outbreak. Engagement with these services is up 21%, a company spokesperson said, with the average video or voice call lasting about 15 minutes.

The company has also witnessed a 21% bump in the number of regular messages sent via its platform and, as with the Match properties, Bumble users appear to be chatting for longer with their matches.

“We’re experiencing a major lifestyle change at the moment and we’re focused on helping our users shift the dating app experience to an in-app dating experience,” the spokeswoman said in an email.

Match did not mention if it plans to charge for any video-chat offerings as part of subscription services like Tinder Gold, which have powered much of its gains in recent years.

Jefferies analysts raised their price target after the news Tuesday evening, because Dubey said that Match’s first-quarter results would likely come in at the low end of the company’s guidance range, which called for sales of $545 million to $555 million. The analysts wrote that performance was better than feared, and the letter suggested Match “was likely on pace to exceed 1Q expectations prior to the COVID dynamic.”

“No recession in love,” they wrote, while bumping the target to $74 from $65.

The Match letter also noted that the company’s divorce from parent company IAC/Interactive Corp. IAC, -1.33% is on track to be completed in the second quarter, but the pandemic could impact that as well.

Match stock declined 19.6% in the first quarter of 2020 as the novel coronavirus spread across the globe, roughly in line with an 18.7% decline for the S&P 500 index SPX, +1.44%. No analysts tracked by FactSet suggest selling the stock, with 10 rating it a buy and eight rating the shares as a hold.