The pandemic has changed and continues to change everyday aspects of our lives with love and relationships being no exception to the effects of this extraordinary shift; write Sritama Chaudhuri and Suraj Beri
Meghna (name changed) looks anxiously at her phone. She has been one of those ardent "woke millennials", who would campaign for every right cause on the internet. She did the same when lockdown rules were declared for the first time. Hand-wash, sanitiser in the bag, mask on face, 6 feet distancing… everything check. Her meticulous alertness was an inspiration for everybody around her. But as days passed by and quarantine started looming large on the 46th day, she realised one basic problem. Sex and relationships!
A pandemic often disrupts the collective's idea of normal and not-normal. COVID-19 has forced us to reflect on our everyday lived realities. Indians particularly are used to functioning in close social proximities; crowded buses, crowded streets, and closely seated 'parar-adda' sessions. Human touch is something that has always been taken for granted. People swarm around 'Golgappa' sellers, making one close circle holding a small 'katori' to fill it with 'jaljeera', dirt and sweat-filled 'Golgappas'. Hygiene never matters. India is a country where the Government had to create a separate awareness campaign called 'Swachh Bharat' to stop open defecation. Otherwise, till date, railway tracks have remained one of the favourite destinations for villagers to defecate in the open. Railway tracks in small towns had another purpose too: a potential dating site. What happens to a county like this, when the everyday normal phenomenology becomes pathological under the scientific medical gaze? The contagious nature of COVID-19 has made all types of romantic relationships tedious. The precautionary measures have pumped out every bit of probable romance from the current social interaction and mobility procedures. This begets the obvious question: What is the future of romantic relations in the COVID-era?
Love as a sociological and cultural act
The act of romance, with all kinds of Shakespearean emotions, is a sociological and cultural act. Meaning, even though the hormonal impulse is purely biological, the civilised expression of it, i.e., the overt act of romance is learned through the process of socialisation with the help of various agencies like the family, school, peer, media and the larger outside world in general. For an example, a vulnerable teenage boy with hormones bursting inside him, learning the 'proper' act of execution from the cheap porn magazine which he smuggled inside his house is a part of this socialisation process. According to Anthony Giddens (1992), in western societies, this learning has always been essentially heterosexual with a dominance of male sexuality, which resulted in unequal male-dominated romantic relationships. In the Indian context, there was no exception and popular culture medium Bollywood was often considered a rulebook for romance. The scenes and sites depicted in the movies: green paddy fields, movie theatres, school libraries, neon-lighted night clubs all become possible locations in the public imagination, again essentially heterosexual and male-dominated. In a sense, everything about love has always been precarious. Next, sociologists tell us that we learn specific (social) ways to convey feelings of love. People learn through socialisation, the acts of exchanging flowers, chocolates, gifts as culturally approved ways to demonstrate love for someone. Social spaces in family, peer groups, media, culturally valued manners train us to imagine and express love in certain ways. In recent times, people use technology and social media to find and express love. These COVID-times have forced people to communicate and interact digitally first before meeting in person. Love and relationships are being tested by self-distancing orders under lockdown. When the pandemic of AIDS first surfaced, the institution of love and free sexual intercourse faced a prominent threat. It was with the help of awareness campaigns and popular culture that the use of condoms and precautions were shown.
To consider love as sociological means to think more critically about the social foundations of love. Many sociological studies have detailed, most people do not find themselves deeply and madly in love with just anyone; instead, most of us end up in love with someone who looks, thinks, and acts like us. More specifically, we tend to end up in love with those who share our caste, class, race, ethnicity, and religion or our social capital. Earlier, geographical proximity played a key role in finding someone within our shared social capital. Now, with the internet, the geographical barrier has paved the way for a bigger global social capital. Love now is diverse. Love now is an experiment and confluence of varied social milieus. A popular web series titled 'Modern love' hints at this evolving nature of the institution of love.
According to Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck, postmodern or unconventional relationships can be seen as being built on three major pillars. The first one is the process of individualisation, which leads to autonomy and independence in personal lives. It stresses flexible attitudes and self-development to choose out of available options. The second pillar is the new notion of intimacy where couples are treated as a unit of intimate or erotic lives. Intimacy would refer to the process of knowing, disclosing sharing thoughts, emotions and feelings. The third pillar on which unconventional relationships are built is the individual fulfilment of sexual desires. Instead of sex being silent as it has been in pre-modern periods, it gained freedom and flexible expressions. COVID-19 has made the fulfilment of the last condition difficult. Sexual intercourse with a romantic partner residing in a different household or going physically to office has become a matrix of trust, understanding and medical awareness. For example, if a partner goes out to work, she/he has a bigger chance of coming in contact with a larger number of people, hence the risk of getting contaminated becomes automatically higher. Whereas if another partner is working from home, then the potential risk of the same contamination is lower. This threat of contamination is creating an invisible layer of mental 'untouchability' which the urban population was not prepared for.
The inconvenience isn't just restricted to monogamous heterosexual couples. Indian society has never been accommodative towards different types of relationships. COVID-19 made the sustenance of such relationships even harder. Like this threat of contamination has also entered into the intimate lives of queer people. Social media app Whatsapp has already started to circulate the fate of illicit and extra-marital relationships as a joke. The laughter is temporary but the psychic dilemma and the fear of contamination is real.
Locking down love
The Coronavirus lockdown has temporarily suspended the taken for granted attitudes on our daily lives. The usual mechanisms to approach the potential mate at friend's party, gay clubs, college or work sites have been ripped away from people due to lockdown. Even the popular trend of looking for desirable people on social networking sites (e.g., Tinder, Hinge) and then finally meeting them in the real world has taken a back seat. The business of arranged marriage is staring at the uncertain times as well. There has been a lot of popular discussion on the rise of 'virtual dates', 'virtual sexting' in the absence of real-life dating behaviour. How do we make sense of these changes happening in people's personal lives amidst this medical and spatial emergency?
In our view, COVID-19 lockdown has led to significant changes in relationship behaviours. Foremost, the increasing physical distance has made couples become dependent upon media technologies to continue their interaction. But it has had impact on the social process of dating i.e., to building skills about how to talk to each other at a distance and how to sustain the intimacy for long without meeting the other in person. In one way, those couples who had previous experience of long-distance relationship are better equipped to manage social distancing, in terms of the roles and the amount of time they see and spend with each other. But those who are single and looking for love mates in this period are experiencing existential dilemmas. The physical distance and blocked spatial mobility have impacted the dating process in a way which is favourable to the traditional way of exploring partners, and courtship process. Getting to know someone before the actual relationship starts regains ground.
Absence of physical interaction has significantly raised the value of video chatting, on Facebook, WhatsApp, Zoom, Instagram or Skype. People used to do video calls before the current scenario too but it never quite became the primary mode of dating which it has now. Thus, video calls have gained added sociological relevance too. For instance, video calls truly display the person you are talking to (in sociological terms). You can see their look, haircut, dress, ambience, residential structure, lifestyle, education traits, and more visible signs of social background. In addition to this, the feeling of being connected on video call also has the added relevance to consistently check/monitor what has been said and what is being actually done. Along with it, couples now
play online games together, which, alongside video calls, give a sense of togetherness and shared time. It would not be an exaggeration to say that these virtual long-distance relationships are today's courtship period.
More time, more development
With the Coronavirus lockdowns restrictions, people have more time in a comparative sense. For singles who are trying to date, they have to be really clear about their expectations. When an individual dates online under normal circumstances, they can click specific criteria they are looking for. Now that's really difficult and challenging given the lockdown guidelines, with the knowledge about a partner's medical history becoming important. You not only want a sensible, good-looking and funny guy but most importantly they must be COVID-tested as well. That further complicates the already complicated emotion of love. Also, since they cannot meet the potential mate in person, they exchange chats, calls and messages. Since they are not spending time getting ready for university or work, they are not getting stuck in traffic jams or spending hours in commuting. Couples simply have more time to be connected with each other. So now lockdown makes couples spend more time getting to know each other. This provides a detailed account of their activities and thoughts, emotions and feelings, past happenings and future plans. This sharing and revealing of one's innermost feelings, emotions and experiences brings them closer and establish emotional bonding and intimacy. More importantly, through this process, single people also get to know about their potential/would-be partners. In a sense, the lockdown has made the idea of a long-distance relationship as a key feature of love relations.
The COVID situation has also slowed down the dating process given the restrictions on meeting in person. Hence, people now spend more time in knowing the person through online interaction. Since sex and money are off the table in given circumstances, people return back to the traditional ways of dating. Clicking on Tinder profiles and swiping right is not enough in this quarantine situation. Moving beyond the cognitive overload of dating sites, people now have to invest more in 'getting to know each other', which had been reduced to few days or even hours with our sped-up lives and 'liquid love' as polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls it.
Whenever any well-established social practice gets disturbed, it also creates tensions, conflicts and terrible anxieties for the ordinary people. In these situations, people look for adaptation and accommodation with the existing tools. In case of dating and relationships, couples would have to redefine the situation, or more correctly they would have to control the definition of their relations with available mechanisms. When COVID-19 testing mechanism would become pervasive, then testing before dating/marrying or mating could become a socially established norm. It took Indians a lot to adapt to examine health and sexual history without any prejudice and stigma. In earlier times, HIV or hepatitis or Thalassemia tests before arranged marriages or prior to getting into a legal conventional relationship had layers of family pressure and hidden stigma instead of scientific and rational temper. COVID-19, if it becomes a part of our reality, has to go through this. The impact of any change in India never resonates homogeneously. In order to battle COVID-19, both urban and rural population who are potentially looking for or are in 'pyaar', 'mohabbat' and 'Bhalobasha' must learn to deal with their partner's health and hygiene history with scientific temper and not with prejudice. It seems that what has happened is physical distancing and not social distancing. People will continue to be social, albeit in different ways, keeping the spirit of 'aatmanirbharta' alive.
Sritama Chaudhuri is an assistant professor, Department of Sociology, Asutosh College, University of Calcutta. Dr Suraj Beri is an assistant professor, Department of Sociology, Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University.