I’ve been a runner in New York City for years; suddenly, I have a lot of company on my daily jogs. With the gyms closed, it’s the only real exercise we can get anymore. For the most part, my fellow Brooklynites are staying as safe as they can, maintaining a six-foot radius from each other. Some wear masks. But there’s one way we’re not keeping distance: we are eye-fucking the shit out of each other.
I first noticed my own habit of checking people out this past weekend when I watched a long-haired bicyclist stopped at a red light. He wore cut-off shorts and what looked to be a beer-stained shirt. In normal times, I wouldn’t give him a second glance.
But in a global pandemic that has left me isolated at home and talking to the birds who perch on my fire escape, I found myself gaping. By the time the light turned green, I had imagined our future together, spending post-virus days shopping for vintage furniture and fostering elderly rescue cats.
After more than two and a half weeks of self-quarantine, my daily sanity walks or runs have become less about exercise and more the potential for a remote meet-cute. I’ve fallen in love with mailmen, dog walkers, gas pumpers, and many Postmates delivery people.
The coronavirus may ravage my sense of safety and sanity, but damn it, it cannot take away my rampant and unbridled lustiness—from the CDC’s recommended distance, of course. Sometimes I just sit by my window and stare at the butts that walk by. I consider it a minor public service to remind strangers that in these trying times, they are still hot.
Friends have confirmed their own uptick in yearning. One, an avid cyclist, said she has stopped going to the grocery store in favor of home deliveries. But nothing can stop her female gaze during daily bike rides.
“Are humans more attractive than four days ago or what?” an acquaintance wrote to me over Instagram. She’s noticed herself checking people out more, especially since her home has an outdoor terrace from which she can watch the world go by.
According to a study published by the dating app S’More, only 11 percent of single people plan on meeting someone in real life during the crisis. Of course, it’s prudent to keep things virtual to slow the spread of the virus.
The heart of Craigslist’s missed connections section beats on, with New Yorkers taking to the forum hoping to reach the cutie they saw while walking in the neighborhood or waiting in line at Shoprite.
One popular TikTok video garnered over 4 million views on Twitter this week, as it told a socially-distant yuppie love story: a man in Bushwick saw a woman dancing on her roof, and sent his number to her via drone.
“I thought she was really cute from far away,” Jeremy Cohen told the New York Post. “During this quarantine, I think everyone is fiending for social interaction. I was like, ‘Oh my god, a girl. I haven’t seen one for so long.’”
I’m not sure if I’d agree to go on a Zoom date with someone who told my city’s most storied tabloid that I looked cute only from a distance, but best wishes to the young lovers.
Dr Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, believes it’s a “great time” for singles. Everyone’s feeling loved-starved. Expectations are low.
“It’s a mutual suffering, right off the bat on the street, you know something about the people you’re walking by,” Dr. Fisher said. “You already have a good deal of empathy of them, you’re more likely to be overlooking the bad parts, [like] what they’re wearing.”
With bars and restaurants closed and concerts cancelled, the city street is our one last bastion of connection. “It’s an alive feeling when you see other people,” Dr. Fisher said. “We’re quite primed right now to look around and fall in love on the street, because that’s the only place to be.”
We’ve been told going outside for any reason can pose a threat to us. So any time we must, we’re hyper-aware of our surroundings, which includes other people.
“Currently, we are in a context where we need to be vigilant,” said Dr. Justin R. Garcia, acting executive director of the Kinsey Institute. “Many people are craving social interaction, but we’re advised not to get too close. So for those two reasons, we’re paying a lot of attention to anyone who crosses our path. Normally we might walk down the street and not notice people, but now we’re really checking them out. You could suddenly think, ‘Oh, I never realized how cute that woman is who lives across the street.’”
When we’re attracted to someone, our brain releases dopamine, a hormone associated with happiness. We could all use a little more of that right now.
“Dopamine activates the pleasure circuit in the brain,” Dr. Garcia said. “Seeing someone who is attractive might lead us to fantasize about when we can finally talk to that person in three months, or go get a drink with them. That’s fun. It allows us to roll around in our ideas, fantasies, and love stories.”
It’s natural to want what you can’t have—in this case, a real-life date with a stranger. “You know you’re not supposed to be too close to that person you’re checking out, which makes you crave it more,” Dr. Garcia said.
If you do venture out, pay close attention to what Dr. Fisher calls the “copulatory gaze.” It’s when you stare at someone for two or three seconds, and they hopefully stare back for just as long, signaling attraction. (Or they turn around and walk away, in which case, next time!)
Humans are the only mammals with whites around the eyes, or sclera. Researchers believe this helps us to communicate. “It’s a mechanism that evolved millions of years ago as part of the pickup process,” Dr. Fisher explained. “It’s very easy to tell if someone is looking at you. Then you have to decide what to do about it.”
Alex Espinoza is the author of Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime. He’s charted the way gay men have cruised for sex, from ancient Greece to Grindr and Squirt. “There’s no manual that tells you how to do it,” Esponiza said. “You just have to be cognizant and aware of the sexual chemistry between you and someone else that’s intangible. You can’t touch it. You just have to be very attuned to it.”
Espinoza lives in Los Angeles, a city currently in lockdown. He’s huddled up in his home, but ventures out for walks. During one this week, he encountered another man on the street. They wanted to pass each other, but stopped before getting too close. “I wanted to maintain a distance and we sort of gave each other a look,” he said. “It wasn’t sexual, but there was a tenderness and an understanding that we shared in that moment.”
He wagers that such looks will become the norm as this virus grinds cities to a halt, putting us all on pause. “During this moment of silence, when we’re all sort of looking into ourselves and being very aware as the world around us is quiet, these things get heightened,” Espinoza said. “Furtive glances become more apparent and obvious.”
It’s something Espinoza believes gay men are quite used to, growing up feeling alienated and detached from society, regulated to silence and secret meetings. “My research has shown that police, stings, even the fear of death and the AIDS crisis, couldn’t keep gay men from exhibiting intimacy towards each other,” Espinoza said. “That speaks to the power of our human desire to connect. In this current moment when we can’t touch, it’s the same thing. We’ll find a way, even if it’s just a glance or a look, or something to keep us longing for more. We’ll find a way.”
So for now, we go on a kind of sexless cruising. Maybe the only good thing about longing for someone so hard that your chest feels tight and you start googling “covid symptoms” is that there is no right or wrong way to yearn. All you need is a window and your loneliness. Go forth and eye everyone!