This is a voice memo for Death, Sex and Money.
I am a single woman. I'm living alone right now.
I had the misfortune of being broken up with just before we went into quarantine.
We would have been together for a year. Almost.
I have been pretty steadfast in being single and being content until now.
It's felt like the second the shelter in place started, I've gotten voraciously horny?
My sex drive has mostly gone away. I don't really feel like even thinking about sex now.
I got onto Tinder again, because how else do you meet people during a quarantine, if not online, and...
He seems like a great guy and I, and I do like him, but I just don't have the enthusiasm to keep doing this meaningless online dating.
I think about it a lot. If I find love again, what it will be like for me. And I could really use it right now.
ANNA: Hey everyone. It’s Anna Sale, host of Death, Sex & Money.
NICK: And this is Nick van der Kolk. I make the podcast Love + Radio.
ANNA: And our two shows have been asking you about how you're coping with not having a lot of physical touch from other people right now. About your "skin hunger." Earlier this week, we heard from listeners going through really challenging times, like new parenthood, or the death of a partner without touch from family or friends.
NICK: But today, we’re focusing on a whole other group of people that we heard from: those of you whose romantic relationships ended during quarantine. Or right before it.
ANNA: Like a listener we’re calling Elle, who went through a bad breakup…
ELLE: A couple of minutes after New Year's…
ANNA: Oh! [Laughs]
ELLE: [Laughs] So...
ANNA: Elle told me she’s still working through that heartache. But overall, she was glad to be single when lockdown happened.
ELLE: I like my space. I like my sleep. I like my own mess. I like my own dishes. I, you know, a big thing that rang out clear, especially in April, as we were sort of realizing that this was going to be a long haul situation. I just thought like, oh, thank goodness we are no longer together.
NICK: We’ll hear more from Elle about who she does get touch from today in just a minute. But first...
DENNIS: Contra dancing is sort of all old fashioned, New England, probably English, lines of couples and, um, a caller calls out the moves.
NICK: This is a listener we’re gonna call Dennis.
DENNIS: You know, allemande right, with your corner and you do si do your partner, and then you swing, and then you do these complicated moves. And it's, it's great fun. Um, it's nerdy, you know. [Laughs] But it's kind of of epidemiologist’s worst nightmare, 'cause everybody in the hall is touching everyone else in the hall. Um, when you swing you’re holding hands in one hand, you have your arms around each other and kind of lean into it. And there's lots of other moves, like a star where you all grab the wrist in front of you and make a star with one hand, rotate around. So yeah, lots of touching. You know, while exercising hard. So I don't think we'll be dancing for a while.
ANNA: Dennis started going to weekly contra dances in his Massachusetts town back in November. It was right after he and his wife had decided to separate, after 37 years of marriage.
DENNIS: I just needed to dance again, and I hadn't been for many years. She wasn't very comfortable watching me, you know, swinging other women and having a great time when we were sort of struggling so much. And I appreciate that. So.
ANNA: What was the source of strain in your marriage?
DENNIS: Well...big question. It goes way back. Um, but infidelity on my part was the big one. So. Twelve years ago that - that came out and that was devastating of course. Seeing correspondence with someone. And I woke up pretty fast, to the ways I justified this to myself. You know, thinking that oh, well this will actually improve things because it will take the pressure off. I didn't want to lose my marriage, but you know, I wanted something that wasn't working and I thought sex was the answer to that. And it's not, you know, no one ever filled that hole. That's part of the problem. I was looking for someone to fill a hole in me. She couldn't, but you know, neither could anyone else.
ANNA: It sounds like you've thought back about what was the pull towards physical touch with someone who wasn't your wife. Um, how have you thought about that in the last few months when you haven't been able to have touch from anyone?
DENNIS: Um, you know, in giving up sex for a long time, um, voluntarily, um, because I wanted to, well, I needed to reset my whole way of thinking. And honor the hurt and damage and mistrust and, and, you know, really revulsion that she felt a lot of times. So I'm not - I'm not really struggling so much about sex, but touch it turns out is - it's just more essential. You know, we always held hands or, um, you know, we often held hands when we walked together. That kind of thing is so basic and so nice. And when I really think about it, that's sort of what I miss the most is that level of friendly - just friendly intimacy, you know? Just a brush of the hand or a hug or anything. It's just an important part of it's, I dunno. It's important to me and I think it's important to a lot of people. I know other friends of mine who, other contra dance friends, for example, talked about really missing it.
ANNA: Have you thought about what a dance might look like after this?
DENNIS: I think it's going to be the last thing to come back. And also the, the crowd is, a lot of us are older. So it's going to be a long time. And it's really sad. I know some people feel like it'll probably never come back.
ANNA: How much have you missed it?
DENNIS: A lot. I miss, I miss the dances a lot. Um, I miss the fun in the community and getting to know people because little by little I was. I have a friend who, um, wrote to me that during her divorce 10 years ago, she found it to be a huge support. "So many people holding me and literally shepherding me along just down the dance line, of course. But it felt more profound than that." And that, that, that is exactly the experience. It's not that I have any kind of, um, specific intimate relationship with any individuals, but the whole feeling is very connected and very holding and very warm.
ELLE: Not everyone is soothed by a stranger touching them.
ANNA: This is Elle again... who went through a breakup on New Year’s.
ELLE: It was funny like when lockdown happened, my friend said to me, you have so much wisdom about self-isolating for us to learn, because I basically was on quarantine for two months already before all this happened. Not going anywhere. Not seeing anyone. Staying home. Being around people, um, felt too painful.
Elle lives by herself in New York City, and works as a doula. Since the pandemic began, she hasn’t been able to see any of her clients in person… but normally, touch is a huge part of her work.
ELLE: When, I first talk with a potential client. And then even after they hire me, we talk about touch. I mean, we go through the ways in which they enjoy touch and the ways in which they do not want to be touched. Because something that I learned providing doula care in the abortion setting is that not everyone is soothed by touch. Even if you’ve made this deep connection.
ANNA: Are you someone who is soothed by touch?
ELLE: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
ANNA: When you think about the way that you have learned you like to be touched, like, what are the forms of touch that you find comforting?
ELLE: Hm. A memory that's coming to mind is one of my friends, when I was going through my breakup earlier this year, they ran their fingers through my hair. Um, and as a woman of color who has curly hair, not many people have touched my hair. That's sort of this unsaid rule that people don't touch and don't engage, and don't go there. And so there's such, um, like vulnerability and kindness that I felt during the period of time that they just like provided that.
ANNA: What sorts of touch have you allowed yourself during this time and with whom?
ELLE: Well, I have, um, sort of what we're calling a "germ pod," so I'm germ bonded [laughs] - I'm germ bonded with two other people, a couple who are isolating, um, and not seeing anyone else. So we're sort of like social distancing, isolating in our own spaces. And I guess it was only last summer that we met. We had a mutual friend that introduced us. For the queer community, there’s a beach in New York that is, I mean, vital. It's where we are every weekend. It's where we recharge. It's where we see each other. Um, it's where we kiki, where we listen to music. Um, it's also a section of the beach where most people are nude or topless. So it's this like really tiny section that we just like cram in together and that we've claimed. And so they are a queer couple and they had this like whole tent and charcuterie set up. They had this whole vibe going.
ANNA: Were some of you partially clothed, did you meet in a time when you were physically sort of like exposed in a way?
ELLE: I assume my top was off. I would assume that my top was off. But I think maybe two out of the three of us were topless.
ANNA: And how have you felt about not being in a romantic relationship during this time?
ELLE: I have felt wonderful about being single. Um, and I think the biggest lessons that I've learned is that I have to give my emotions that come up like their meeting, if that makes sense? Like if I'm feeling anxious, you know, overeating or numbing out with TV or just trying to ignore it, is not useful, because it'll come up in another way. And so I just let myself do what I need to do in order to, um, feel better. It's like, when I start to feel this physical manifestation in my body, I try to move it through me, whether that's like burning incense, whether that's like dancing to K-pop or like silly French pop songs, um, giving myself head massages with vitamin E oil. Um, and that is so soothing and as we're having this conversation and sort of realizing how, um, soothing, um, like touch to my head is for me.
ANNA: And like, have you, at this point with your germ pod friends, do you think you could say, could you give me a head rub?
ELLE: Yeah, I could say that. I mean, I asked for us to do like a massage train, um, a few weeks ago, and that was really nice. And they were so excited by that. They're like, we actually have massage lotion that has lavender scent in it. And so they got that out and we just sort of sat in a line. And did some shoulder and back massage for a little bit. And then we switched a couple of times. It was, it was really sweet. It kind of felt like a sleepover activity.
NICK: Coming up, one more story from a newly single person whose relationship ended during quarantine... after a long-distance conversation about grooming.
KAY: He clearly had a sexual preference for how he wanted me to be and I wasn't fitting them. And it really became the question like, and that's, that's what became the crux of like a breakup conversation where it was about these associations with hair.
We’ve been hearing from many of you about how you’re thinking about racism and policing over the last few weeks. And you’ve also told us how you’re having new kinds of conversations with loved ones.
We recently got a voice memo from a 26-year-old listener named Rudy. He’s Asian American, and he’s been living with his parents in New Jersey since he lost his job back in March. While he’s been living there, he’s been trying to talk to his parents, who are immigrants, about racial injustice.
RUDY: Unfortunately, all the conversations I've had with them is absolutely difficult to have, because they are definitely a little bit racist towards the minorities and have no feelings towards the injustices that currently they face. I'm not the kind of person just to stand by, and I've been very vocal about it. But it's come to a point where there's even a little bit of cultural respect involved, where they expect me to back off and give them space and allow them to say what they want to say, expecting that because they've given me a home, they’ve given me food, they’ve given me shelter. And, it absolutely tears my heart that whenever I have a real conversation with them about it, it never really amounts to much.
If you’re also from an immigrant family, are your conversations around race and racism shifting? Are you talking about things you never have before? And what family members are you having these conversations with? We want to know what are you learning about your family that’s surprising to you. Tell us! You can write us an email or record a voice memo and send it to us at email@example.com.
ANNA: This is Death, Sex & Money, in a special collaboration with Love and Radio. I’m Anna Sale.
NICK: And I’m Nick van der Kolk.
ANNA: So far, we’ve heard from guests who went through breakups pre-pandemic, and had to deal with the resulting lack of touch during isolation. But for a listener we’re calling Kay, the absence of touch in her relationship because of the pandemic… is what blew everything up.
KAY: I think, you know, we were probably doomed with, or without the coronavirus, you know, I think this was a conversation that just, we were able to finally have during that setting.
NICK: Kay lives in San Francisco, and is in her early 30s. When the pandemic started, she and her boyfriend had been together for about a year. Things seemed pretty solid.
KAY: You know, we liked to spend time with each other. We felt like we were learning from each other. And, um, you know, I, I joke that he cooked and I cleaned the dishes and it felt like - it felt like a balance that, uh, at the end of a long day of work, he could balance my shit.
NICK: So when, when the coronavirus hit, like what, what did that do initially? What did that do that relationship?
KAY: Um. It made us lean a lot more on, um - we were never really like on the phone with each other. We did a lot of texting, um, I remember kind of leaning more into that. Um, and it, it changed the cadence of how often we were seeing each other. You know, he was moving. Um, there was a bunch of crazy stuff for him at work and that, uh, we needed to stay somewhat separate just to make sure in case he really - in case one of us got it. Um, and like sexual intimacy basically stopped, um, once it started.
KAY: Yeah, I think part of it was the - I'm going to feel like a really terrible human being if I give it to you while you're moving apartments. You know, I - I was in love with him. And also feeling like, uh, and maybe the illusion that a lot of people had that, you know, by April or, you know, this would look really different. Um, that it was more of a short term decision than a long term one.
NICK: So when, when did you decide, like to, to basically start having like cybersex, I guess, for lack of a better term.
KAY: Yeah, you know, it was probably about mid-April. And we'd, we'd done that previously, especially when one of us was traveling.
NICK: And was that fun, when that happened before?
KAY: Yeah. It had been, it had been really fun. Um, you know, uh, I, it had been like, especially I think early on in our relationship, it really also gave me a lot of insight into things maybe he wanted to try or like things that I wanted to make, maybe explore. And I didn't envision it, uh, unloading a larger conversation.
NICK: And so what did he say?
KAY: He's like, uh, we need to talk. And it feels like a T-bone where I'm not expecting someone to hit me on the side and is actually saying, "Oh, I need to talk to you about body hair." And I just remember my - and I can feel it right now in my body - like my stomach dropping and my blood sort of going cold. And just being like, what the - ?
You know, I am pretty fair skinned and I have sort of a blondish body hair um, on my calves. It kind of goes in different directions. And, um, for the most part, you know, if I'm walking down the street, you only notice it if the sunlight hits it and sort of, you know, kind of reflects it. My, my armpits are a pretty similar color, maybe a little bit, a little bit darker. I don't know the curls a little bit at the end. Um, and I usually start trimming it once, you know, if I have my arms down and it starts to peak out of the, the crease.
Um, I had known that some hair was a thing for, for him. And to be totally blunt, we had talked about pubic hair about nine months in and, um, I had made some compromises I felt comfortable with and he never brought it up again. And so I figured we were fine. And it became this whole conversation about, you know, the problem for him with sexting me is that he would be imagining me without my body hair. And, and I was just sort of like, this is the moment we're talking about this? [Laughs] I mean, we all have fantasies that, that put people in slightly different lights, but it was just like, are you fucking kidding me?
NICK: So like, what was it like for you, sort of, hearing that?
KAY: Uh, maybe it sounds melodramatic. Uh, but it was devastating. I, um, and I had told him a lot of this, that my relationship - and I'm, you know, a white woman, I have a lot of body privilege. Um, but that growing up, I had a lot of body image issues. I was a compulsive exerciser. I, I did not relate well to myself and that it took me my twenties to really lean into just who I am and be okay with that. And part of it was coming to the realization that I just, I didn't like shaving. I thought I didn't feel like myself doing it. And I, there was something deeply uncomfortable about having to deny that my adult body doesn't have hair. But it was, it was devastating in that moment with him because I was once again, being told by somebody that I was too much. And to be so far into our relationship with somebody I was in love with and to hear that, um, yeah, it just, it just felt like it took sort of the world out from underneath my feet.
NICK: Yeah. I guess what I I'm still hung up on is, is the timing of all of this. And I don't just mean so late in the relationship, but specifically when you guys are not even like spending much time in person and in the context of this like whole sexting thing. 'Cause it's like, if, if there's any time where he could kind of get over this particular hangup of his, I would think it would be at a time when, like you are engaging in sex that is like purely fantastical, you know?
KAY: Yeah. I, I've been thinking a lot about sort of the, the imagined body and then sort of the expectations, um, we want to bring into the real world. Um. I think COVID, and the space of it, gave us a chance to feel safe talking about it in a way that maybe he hadn't felt safe doing before with me. Um, and I guess that maybe through imagination, he realized he needed something different.
Thanks to all of you who sent in your stories. I have loved hearing them.
And Nick, I have one more surprise for you.
[JIM LIBAN: "SKIN HUNGER"
I got skin hunger.
Hungry for your love.
I got skin hunger.
Starving for your touch.
I got skin hunger.
I'm hungry for your skin.
I got skin hunger. Give me some skin. Hey!]
ANNA: It’s my new favorite song.
NICK: Wow. I had no idea that you were gonna play that. Great, well thank you for that.
ANNA: You’re welcome!
NICK: My team at Love + Radio are Steven Jackson and Phil Dmochowski. We are a production of Luminary.
ANNA: Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m usually based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music. This song is "Skin Hunger" by Jim Liban.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And you can email us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NICK: Go to the Love + Radio social media… now. Myspace.com/loveandradio.
ANNA: That's a real thing. Seriously. Go to myspace.com/loveandradio. Thanks to Love + Radio and to you, Nick van der Kolk. I’m Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.