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Sex ban in England: what does it really mean for people in “casual” relationships?

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Hollie Richardson
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Casual sex in lockdown: what are the rules?

How are single people supposed to “establish” relationships with a “casual” sex ban in place? What does an “established” relationship even look like in 2020? Are the physical and mental health needs of single people in lockdown being ignored? Stylist investigates. 

Two people in an “established” relationship who live in separate homes in England are allowed to have sex with each other, according to updated government guidelines on social distancing.

Although the government says this includes people in any “support bubbles” that have been created in lockdown, it offers no definition on what an “established” relationship actually is. 

When Kay Burley asked how the rules apply to casual sex and relationships on Sky News this morning (24 September), Matt Hancock blundered his way through an answer. In fact, the whole interview was very bizarre, with the nation’s health secretary unable to talk about it without nervously laughing and joking.

The only bottom line he could provide on the matter was this: “In these rules we have to bring in, there have to be boundaries.”

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We of course all want to do our bit in helping to minimise the spread of coronavirus, and many of us have already made big changes and sacrifices in our family, social and romantic lives. But the government’s ambiguity around this has prompted questions around single people, coronavirus, sex and relationships over the next six months.

For instance, I would like to know how we’re meant to form meaningful relationships with people when there is a curfew forcing us to end dates at 10om every night? Also, what if you’ve “established” a relationship based on casual sex? And, as 2020 falls into the age of casual dating and sex – when the hell is a relationship even considered as being serious?

It seems the people at the top haven’t been on the dating scene in a while. And I’m not the only one feeling the frustration. Single Stylist staff and readers have shared their reactions to the ban and what it means to them.

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“I needed human contact more than I feared catching corona”

“Single, horny people are likely still going to have sex,” says my friend Charlotte in Scotland, where household visits are not allowed but couples not living together are exempt.

“In the first lockdown I was originally appalled when guys on the dating apps were suggesting hook-ups. But, by the end, I needed human contact more than I feared catching corona. Now that we’ve had some liberty again, it’s gonna be hard to relinquish it. 

“That said, my mindset is different now, I’m trying to be more positive so maybe this time I won’t use physical intimacy in place of actual affection.”

“If I can sit in a pub with my mates, why can’t I share a bed with someone I’m seeing?”

“I’m in two minds,” says an anonymous reader over Twitter DM. “I’m not keen on giving up casual sex – especially as I’ve started seeing someone new, although it’s not yet “official” or anything – but I also understand it doesn’t comply with social distancing regulations.

“At same time, if I sit across the table at the pub with my mates, within 2 metres, why can’t I share a bed with someone (or many someones) as its basically the same?”

A couple holding hands
What do social distancing rules mean for relationships and sex?

“People are gonna use it for anyone they’ve slept with before”

“They’ve provided zero guidance so people are gonna use it for anyone they’ve slept with before,”  tweets JD, who says an established relationship is “probably like two months plus”.

He adds: “The rules are nonsense at this point so nobody is going to follow it anyway. You can’t tell people it’s safe to have 50 people in a pub but not two in a bed.”

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“Why are we banning single people from finding or deepening relationships?”

“I get it: if you are in a traditional relationship then you’re probably not having sex with more than one person, which means that you are limiting the amount of contact you’re making with people,” says Stylist’s fitness writer Chloe.

“However, we know that coronavirus is not the only pandemic we are facing right now: loneliness is also on the rise. So why are we banning single people from finding or deepening relationships? 

“The idea that you can judge how safe someone is based on their relationship status is clearly wrong, and stems from the idea that people without a partner are worthy of less respect. 

“Instead, why don’t we focus on making sure everyone can engage in dating, having sex and reducing loneliness in a safe and sensible way?”

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Addressing the loneliness and mental health of single people during a second lockdown seems to be the biggest concern here. And then there’s the confusing contradiction that large groups can gather closely in pubs but you can’t share a bed with one other person of your choosing.

Ultimately, it looks like single people are just going to have to continue finding new ways of navigating all this. It would just be nice if the government acknowledged the fact that they deserve to be considered as much as people in relationships. 

For further information, sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust has set out its guidelines for having sex during the pandemic on its website.

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…