Kissers Should Prepare For ‘Squelching’ And ‘Awkward Slurps’ In Post-Pandemic Romances Says Expert
Lockdown has torn many things away from young people – from students’ freshers week and clubbing to meeting colleagues at new jobs, and even locking lips and flirting.
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted aspects of life for everyone, and lockdown certainly interfered with making personal connections – including the ability to flirt, date or more – subsequently affecting some people’s mental health and confidence.
Alix Fox, sex-pert and Sex Education script consultant – making her a real life Jean Milburn – spoke to UNILAD about young people’s love lives post-pandemic, the impact lockdown has had on mental wellbeing and her advice for getting frisky in the future.
Fox recently teamed up with Wrigley’s EXTRA gum, who paired 40 random strangers with one another to get involved in a pop-up ‘Kissing Booth’, to try and help give young people more confidence post-pandemic.
But why are young people struggling so much since the pandemic? Why has the possibility of romantic interactions, from flirting to chat-up lines to kissing, become even more of an awkward and looming possibility?
Since lockdown restrictions were eased and we were allowed to interact again, the move to begin reconnecting and establish connections has been tentatively made by young people. Some may have bounded into clubs, snogging the first person they could see, but others have approached the snap back to normality a bit more hesitantly, their mental health having taken a hit during the pandemic.
Fox suggested young people shouldn’t be so harsh on themselves or hold themselves to such high expectations. She explained how this ‘universal feeling of anxiety, nervousness and sensation of being a bit rusty, dusty and severely out of the saddle when it comes to all things intimate’ is really effecting most people, ‘so we have to forgive a little bit those false starts’.
As for the kissing booth, Fox noted some of the participants ‘were slicker than an ice rink covered in baby oil, but others were delightfully, affectionately, enchantingly clumsy’, though she thinks the booth acted as an honest view of the situation many are facing at this moment in time.
Rather than the kisses being the most awkward bit, Fox viewed the conversations, small talk and flirting as having been impacted most by the pandemic.
The survey of 2,000 brits was conducted entirely with people under 30 by Extra gum. One of the findings that came out of that was 77% of people worried they were out of practice just from talking to a date.
Due to the standstill the pandemic caused, and the lack of activity that occurred as a result of multiple lockdowns, Fox suggested the ‘usual topics of conversation that people turn to simply aren’t there anymore’.
Instead of being able to chat about hobbies, work or activities, the conversation has become repetitive and pretty bleak, with the focus of most discussions centring around caring for family members, being worried about job prospects and the bleakness of being trapped inside during lockdown. ‘It’s not exactly the most uplifting or juicy topic,’ Fox said.
The pandemic trapped people not only physically but mentally too, causing some to fall victim to overthinking, self-doubt and harsh self-critiquing, with Fox noting that young people have ‘such high expectations’ for themselves and ‘what they’re supposed to have achieved’ before they’ve even exited their teenage years.
The pandemic has also placed extreme pressure on young people’s prospects as businesses closed, job markets became narrower and more competitive, and the future seemed filled with uncertainty. Some students have subsequently felt the urge to do as much as possible to make use of their time in lockdown, which can become an unhealthy focus and negatively impact other areas of one’s life, from one’s mental health to attention given to friendships and romantic relationships.
Over the last year, Fox has spoken to a number of young people who she said have been ‘genuinely concerned that missing 18 months of their life at what they see as a pivotal stage of their existence will absolutely ruin their chances of having the career that they want’.
These days we speak a lot about slashy careers, but I think there’s an expectation that young people won’t just be good at one thing, but that they’ll have multiple strands to their careers. There’s this expectation that everyone has a side hustle at the moment. That not only do you have your main thing that you’re concentrating on but something else concurrent to that.
Social media also adds pressure, from posts of loved-up couples to, as Fox notes, social media now putting forward the idea of monetising hobbies and therefore adding a pressure to make everything in one’s life contribute to a future, successful career.
The pandemic has put an intense focus on jobs, in turn taking away the years of exploring oneself, partying and not being tied down many young people would usually experience. As a result, some now feel an ‘immense pressure to be hitting major life milestones, in plural, before they’ve even hit their twenties’. ‘I think that feeds into the pressure they put themselves under in terms of relationships too,’ Fox commented.
It is reported that romantic relationships are even being put on the back burner by young people due to dating or flirting being seen as a distraction ‘from getting where they want to be financially, and in terms of their academic and career ambitions’.
The pressures and restrictions young people have faced have not just come from lockdown, however, but also pre-existing or intensified views from parents and elder figures.
Fox notes the disconnect between young people and parents and caregivers, in what they ‘think is going on, versus what individual young people are actually experiencing’.
While concerns over internet porn and sexting hold valid concerns, parents can also harbour misconceptions around what actually goes on in young people’s sex lives by not communicating with them properly.
There are many pressures on young people really. I think one thing which is left out a lot is actually asking young people themselves what do they feel pressured by? Rather than assuming we know what’s going on in their heads and just asking them directly, and what kind of support they’d appreciate. Working with young people is as important as working for them.
This relationship between young person and caregiver can be aided massively by an improvement to sex education lessons in school. Fox also works with Brook, an organisation that offers clinical sexual health services, education and wellbeing services for young people. The charity has worked with members of the government to make sure a sex ed curriculum is finally being made obligatory across all schools in England.
While sex education will now be an ‘immovable part’ of the curriculum, Fox remains worried about people mistakenly thinking it means ‘problem solved’.
‘For a start, we need to make sure that that curriculum is fit for purpose. Are we talking about things that young people do really want to know about? Are we including LGBTQ+ themes sufficiently within that topic? Are we giving age appropriate information which is going to be easy to understand by all those people? Is it speaking to the problems they personally face and tailored to cultural and individual interests and experiences enough?’ she said.
However, the responsibility to improve the teaching of sex education so young people are properly supported should not just fall onto schools. Fox spoke of hit Netflix series Sex Education, for which she was a script consultant, as being a really prominent way of aiding society’s development in speaking of such issues.
While she noted the show is ‘primarily entertainment’, Fox suggested it does ‘a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to teaching too’, and ‘can play a really big part in sparking constructive conversations and delivering really carefully responsibly put together messages in ways that are really welcoming and not intimidating, and get people talking in ways which are genuinely helpful’.
The pandemic, due to preventing people from meeting in person and fuelling anxiety, loneliness and frustration, caused a rise in young people’s consumption of pornography, according to a study titled The Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Pornography Habits: A Global Analysis of Google Trends, published in the International Journal of Impotence Research.
Increased consumption of pornography could also have added to the stresses young people now face as a result of the pandemic coming to an end, having gotten used to not romantically interacting with others.
Furthermore, porn should not be used as a tool for education around sex due to some of the damaging stereotypes, ideals and extreme acts it can often promote. While a lack of good, open and honest education and conversation in schools can sometimes lead to porn being the only option for some young people, Fox said porn can also expose ‘really full on sex acts’ to young people and ‘can give a very misrepresentative idea of what good, healthy, enjoyable sex looks like’.
While for some, porn consumption may have increased during the pandemic, Fox said it may have decreased in some young people as they were living with parents and ‘feeling a bit more observed and watched’.
‘More than anything, I think we need to make sure young people don’t feel so ashamed and so frightened that if they do admit that they have questions or are facing issues or in some way struggling, that they won’t get in trouble if they admit to that,’ she said.
A lack of open and honest conversation, and parents discriminating against or condemning young people for their sexual endeavours, poses a negative effect on how young people will interact romantically after the pandemic too, putting additional pressures on flirting, dates and hooking up.
In terms of getting back in the saddle after an extremely isolating, testing and restrictive two years, Fox advised that young people need to remember to ‘be kind to yourselves’.
‘It wasn’t until I saw this research from Wrigley’s gum when I realised how 73% of young people felt so much more apprehensive when it came to dating new people, due to the pandemic and time spent alone,’ she said.
Fox reflected on her time growing up from late teens to early 20s, going to university and it being such a ‘golden era of self exploration, of experimentation, of finding out about other people and new models of relationships’. ‘I met a lot of people who were beginning to experiment with consensual non-monogamy then. I met people from all different cultural and experienced backgrounds. It was such a blossoming and blooming time of my life where I was given such scope to find out who I was, what I liked and what was possible,’ she said.
Due to the constraints which have been placed upon everyone, but particularly those who are young are who are ‘expecting to raise the roof but who were stuck under it for 18 months’ at such a pivotal point of life, Fox said her heart really ‘ached for them’.
Offering some reassurance, Fox said, ‘You’ve been through a period of human history, that in our generations at least, hasn’t been seen before on this scale. It is unprecedented. Of course you’re going to be impacted by that and it’s going to have affected your confidence.’
Secondly, I’d say just because you can now, doesn’t mean you have to. We know that one in five young people haven’t kissed a love interest for a year and a half. Lots of those people will be really raring to go and really enthusiastic to get out there. Other people it might not be there time just yet. They might want to take things a bit more slowly and that is fine too.
Just because you’ve now been given official permission by the government to go and lock lips, doesn’t mean you have to go and jump to it. I’m really anxious that no one feels pressured or coerced to be physical now simply because they’re allowed to.
Fox also warned about putting too much pressure on your first kiss post-pandemic, acknowledging that it will likely be ‘clumsy’, with even some ‘squelching, unfortunate bashing, smashing or clanging’ as many will be out of practice.
‘If you have a mid-path tooth clash or there’s an awkward slurp sound then don’t stress out about it too much. If one of you leans the wrong way or there is a bit of a hiccup, the best thing to do is laugh about it and move on. It actually shows maturity and reassurance towards the other person,’ she said. Fox advised that the phrase ‘Now where were we?’ can ease the flow back into a conversation and avoid any awkward moments.
Showing the reality of romance was something Sex Education and the EXTRA gum campaign did brilliantly – exposing unhealthy and unrealistic ideals projected by certain shows and films, and upending the notion of ‘springing on somebody, sweeping them off their feet and snogging them’.
‘In real life, best case scenario, somebody might be pleasantly surprised, worst case scenario, you’ve just physically done something to someone without their consent. I would really encourage people not to go for the lunge and plunge, where you launch yourself at somebody like a coiled cobra and shove your tongue down their throat and instead actually actively get consent, preferably verbally,’ Fox advised.
Furthermore, asking for consent, despite it being daunting, can actually be ‘sexy’ and allow for more awkwardness to be avoided. ‘Saying something like, ‘I’d love to kiss you, if you’d love to be kissed’. For a start I think that’s a really memorable and sexy thing to say to somebody and it also gives somebody the option to say no, or to pause,’ she said.
A lot of the time, if someone doesn’t want to kiss it can be down to all manner of things, such as worrying about their breath or being in public, rather than not being sexually attracted to the person. ‘I’d say to bear that in mind when you next enter the world, asking somebody and getting a not now, or sorry no thanks, is much better than just going in for the kill and just making a mistake that could go against consent,’ Fox noted.
Fox also advised ‘prepping things to talk about’, despite it seeming ‘a bit nerdy at first’.
‘We know that 84% of people are suffering from fear of flirting and feeling genuinely nervous about this. So spending some time, just coming up with three or four topics that you think are interesting so you feel confident about your chat before you go out, can be a really good move,’ she said. Or even using your phones and internet history or your ‘weirdest note’ to jump off and as ‘a prop’ to aid the flow of conversation. A bad first kiss isn’t the be-all and end-all either, so Fox said it is important to not put pressure on it being ‘perfect’.
The kissing booth, Fox noted, painted a very realistic picture of what it is like to be a young person surfacing from the depths of lockdowns. She described how the booth was, a ‘tad more awks than premium sausages packed with pork’, but that there were ‘also some genuine romances’. She even revealed that some people who took part in the booth ended up going on dates as a result.
The ‘Kissing with Confidence’ campaign helped promote the idea that it is okay to be nervous, awkward and feeling out-of-touch with dating since the lockdowns have ended. Our mental health has been impacted and it is important to remember that while it may feel strange getting back into the swing of things, everyone is in the same boat. ‘So just going easy on yourself and going easy on other people, is my top tip advice,’ Fox said.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone
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CreditsInternational Journal of Impotence Research
International Journal of Impotence Research