From debates around consent to the redefinition of romantic relationships, the entire dating landscape is in flux. Welcome to a brave new world.
“When a man puts his finger in your mouth, what do you do?” my friend Sophie, 30, asked as we sat having drinks in an east London bar. “Bite down?” I suggested. She explained that the context was dinner, date three, and he had, so far, been a nice man. Charming and chatty. They had kissed (no tongue). “He seemed interesting. So I didn’t want to just, you know, bite him.” He’d scooped out some mousse with his forefinger and the chocolaty glob was in her mouth before she realised what was happening. “I was still chewing other food,” she explained. “And then his finger stayed in there a beat too long. Does this count as assault?” She was laughing and so was I, but you do have to wonder what a man who feels comfortable fingering your mouth in public is capable of in private. She didn’t see him again.
I tell her about the time, a year and a half ago, when I went on a date and the man insisted, despite my protestations, on sitting next to rather than opposite me at dinner. We’d gone to a small Korean place near my office; low-key but great food. “It’s like we’re siblings,” I half-laughed when he sat down beside me. From time to time he’d rub my arm and say, “Your skin is so soft”. Later, after sex, he chastised me for being “unemotional”. “How could someone so soft in so many ways be so cold and hard in others?” He heaved himself over and pulled the duvet up dramatically. This was only our second meeting and I pointed out that it was absurd for him to sulk just because I didn’t want to spoon. “Maybe I like some space when I sleep?” I didn’t see him again. “There’s something unsettling about men who feel entitled to your personal space,” Sophie agreed. “Not danger-zone unsettling, but odd, you know?”
Has there ever been a time in the history of dating when we’ve paid such close attention to the granular details of our romantic interactions? Not just to the actions themselves—the “he did this” and “she said that” of every date—but to the subtle power dynamics, assumptions and norms that underpinned those actions. In almost every sphere of relationships—from the way we meet partners to the terms we set for them; from fidelity and monogamy to intimacy itself—the landscape is in flux as never before.
Let’s start with #MeToo (how could we not?). It didn’t just expose harassment, it caused many of us to delve into that murky swampland between “unpleasant” and “illegal”, to pluck out experiences, hold them up to the light and examine them. Finger-in-mouth-gate may not have been “danger-zone”, but it was “unpleasant”, something that, before, we may never have stopped to consider. Now we’re drilling down into these: I recently sat in on a university consent course and watched as the group of 12 students and a counsellor attempted to agree rules for things we’d previously written off as too “intangible” to codify.
I was fascinated to find that 18- and 19-year-olds—dressed head-to-toe in clothes from social shopping app Depop, Juuling away in class and using slang I barely understood—were much more enlightened on this issue than I ever was. For instance, they discussed the words we can use that will secure consent but not ruin the mood (“I’d love to slip my hand up your shirt,” the students concluded, is a sexier primer than “May I touch your breast?”). Or when a sign can be taken as non-verbal consent. I found myself thinking back to when I was their age (I’m 30 now). These thoughts never crossed my mind.
But the revolution isn’t just happening in classrooms. Outside, in the world of dating, the rise of “consent recordings”—where men ask their paramours to state, on video or voice message, that they’re “up for sex” before they get down to business—implies there’s a whole stratum of men who don’t yet understand the nuances of consent and who want to cover their backs. It happened recently to my friend Nat, 32. It was their second date, drinks had turned into dinner and then they went back to his. They were abuzz with wine and sexual tension. His hand inched up her thigh, “and then he stopped and said, ‘Would you just say that you’re consenting for this voice note?’” She pointed out that, legally, it wouldn’t mean anything because consent can be taken away at any point. “But also, it was just weird.” #MeToo-inspired debates over power and consent aren’t the only factors contributing to a dating landscape that feels radically different from the one that existed just a couple of years ago, however. New concepts such as non-monogamy, as well as polyamory (a recent survey found that a fifth of Brits identify as ‘poly’), as well as relationship anarchy (an anti-hierarchical approach to relationships, where everything from friendships to romantic love are given equal weighting), are changing what relationships look like—and what we want from them.
My own situation is a case in point. For almost two years, I have been in an ethically non-monogamous relationship. Sam, 30, and I met in a most conventional way, at a summer wedding in the rolling Italian countryside. It could have been a textbook romance, but I was only six months out of a 10-year monogamous relationship and Sam didn’t seem particularly interested in settling down either. Our “thing” was wonderful, though. Honest and exciting and, awkwardly for two people who were “keeping it casual”, almost immediately much more than that.
So, a few months in, chafing under constraints neither one of us had fully agreed to, I proposed a solution: we sleep with other people if we want to and the opportunity arises, but we don’t trawl for dates on apps. I’d seen the term “ethical non-monogamy” in a newspaper; I thought it sounded pompous and silly at first—almost a joke. We laughed. But we also immediately liked the “non-ness” of it—which is to say it doesn’t quite announce what it is, but it announces what it is not. To say that it was new territory for me would be something of an understatement. The first time Sam slept with someone he met in a bar, it smarted—a strange, sharp, jellyfish sting to my pride. There have been times when I’ve felt inadequate; when I have laid in the dark and stared at Sam’s sleeping face and wondered why he didn’t come home last night. But for the most part, it’s good. Anyone who knows anything about poly life will know that it is not a free-for-all; there are rules and boundaries and colour-coded Google calendars. The truth is I feel a thrill at this facet of our relationship. It seems to me a radical act of compassion to accept that my partner may feel attracted to someone else, like we all are from time to time.
If you’re thinking, “Nice idea, but I could never do it. The jealousy! The paranoia! The sharing!”, I get what you’re saying, but I’ve also seen how poly life has started to influence the dating experiences of my most monogamously minded friends. Take 32-year-old Liv, who recently dated a man in a poly relationship. “I guess at first it was curiosity—he seemed to be so interesting and engaging. But his girlfriend... could I really get over that?” In times gone by, the answer would have always, always been no. But now? I shrugged. “Depends what you both expect from your time together.” I meant it: if you’re both in it for the sheer joy of being together in that moment, if you don’t feel any kind of possessiveness over that person, then it’s a noble endeavour. Polyamory is based on the belief that love is not finite and, like my own brand of non-monogamy, that you don’t stop loving someone just because of what they do when they’re not with you. Polyamorists, by this definition, practise a more unconditional form of love.
On the surface, my own polyamorous relationship could be seen as two navel-gazing commitment phobes, shagging around and intellectualising it. But anthropologist and neuroscientist Dr Helen Fisher, whose three TED Talks on modern love have amassed more than 1O million views, has a kinder take on it. “I call this ‘slow love’,” she says. “This generation is really taking its time about finding a partner and has developed a number of stages before entering even the most casual of commitments. In times gone by, you were either dating or you weren’t. Now, though, couples take a much longer period of time to get to know each other, and engage in a whole host of pre-dating dating rituals.” She says that, according to one recent survey she worked on with Match.com, 34 per cent of respondents had slept with their partner even before the first official date. Yes, in anthropological terms, that liminal “just friends” phase is now so common it’s actually become an official stage of a relationship. This makes sense. The average millennial will live past the age of 100, and the average British bride is 35 by the time she walks down the aisle, according to the Office for National Statistics. “People are living much longer,” says Fisher, “so they’ll have longer to spend with the person they choose. They’re taking their time deciding who that should be.”
The digital revolution has also made monogamy infinitely more complicated. As evolutionary anthropologist Dr Anna Machin— who researches human relationships at Oxford University—once told me, “For long-term relationships to flourish, you have to suspend the belief that there is a perfect person for you.” Problematically, though, dating apps have made us believe just that. “Thanks to dating apps, we now have an endless supply of potential partners—it’s the paradox of choice: why stick with the one you have, when someone potentially better is just a thumb-swipe away? They’ve certainly had an impact on relationships—and I’m not sure it’s a good one.”
And even when you’ve made your choice, it is much more difficult to pin down that happily ever after. Relationships exist, as they always have done, when two people live within a set of pre-agreed boundaries. But when such large swathes of our lives are conducted online, these boundaries become much trickier to define and defend. Last year, Dr Martin Graff, head of research psychology at the University of South Wales, wrote a paper on the advent of micro-cheating. He defines it as “that grey area that falls between flirting and unfaithful behaviour, with examples including the use of romantically charged emojis in a communication with someone outside of your relationship”. Think replying with a flame emoji to the Instagram story of an ex, which some argue is the 2O19 equivalent of the “you up?” message. It’s an imperfect comparison, because we all know that “you up?” (often received at 3am) basically means “wanna fuck?” The intention is clear. But we haven’t yet, as a culture, agreed on what the intention behind that flame emoji—meaning, “Wow, you look hot”—is. And while it’s definitely shady to send it to an ex, when does the micro become macro? That is, at what point does micro-cheating go from a bit annoying to ground for divorce? Emojis are silly, but in this context, the emotional impact is real. Still, how does one police such intangible infidelities?
Some people of a more dystopian disposition point out that these worries will seem trite in the near future, when virtual-reality porn and sex robots go mainstream. In 2016, AI expert Dr David Levy argued that we would see the first human-robot marriages by 2O5O, and at the Third International Congress on Love And Sex With Robots in 2O17, Rebekah Rousi, a post-doctoral researcher in cognitive science, explored a future scenario in which we might fall in love with fully sentient robots. “Due to the incalculable nature of love, affection and sexual attraction, the development of robots with genuine capacity for emotions may not have the best outcome...” she writes in her paper on the subject. And yet, human-robot interaction (HRI) is a growing field of research. So should we consider intimacy with a robot cheating? Or is it just masturbating with a “tool”? Monogamists will have to develop a whole new set of ethics and boundaries before the sex-robot revolution truly gets underway.
So, what to make of it all? In 100 years’ time, when future generations look at what love and romance was like in 2019, they’d be justified in concluding: “it’s complicated”. But if one common theme can be found, it’s that we’re interrogating the spaces in the middle—the grey areas between good sexual experiences and amazing ones, monogamy and infidelity. The conversations that are currently going on feed into one another—by rejecting long-established norms and outdated binaries, we begin to question the rules we would previously have treated as sacrosanct. Arguably, this can only be a good thing— we’re reaching for a more nuanced understanding of sex, sexuality and love, instead of just tacitly accepting the given paradigms that were only really working for a select few. And in the meantime, with old boundaries giving way to ever-more vast areas of no man’s land, we’re all just working it out as we go along. Sam and I take each day as it comes and, one day, non-monogamy might stop being fun. I guess at that point, it’ll just be the robots I have to worry about.
Illustrations by: Alicia Meseguer