The Boys Are Talking

I thought social distancing would put an end to my use of dating apps. Much to my surprise, it’s better than before—because men are stepping up as conversationalists.

A woman and a man having a pleasant phone conversation.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images via LaylaBird/E+ via Getty Images Plus, g-stockstudio/iStock/Getty Images Plus and tomozina/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

I’ve been single for about two and a half years. Not unhappily so, but I keep a busy schedule that allows me time to go out and meet new people or to go on dates, but rarely both.  Despite that, I’ve been able to maintain a rather pleasing love life, thanks in great part to the apps. Obviously, I haven’t yet settled down with Mr. Right Enough just yet, but I’ve connected with great friends, met remarkable lovers, and explored both fleeting and long-term romance on my own terms.

I recently relocated to Los Angeles after 12 years in Brooklyn. The transition moved the apps from “great option” to “seemingly necessary”; not only was I in a new city, but one that has a reputation for being a particularly difficult place for Black women to date, especially those of us who are interested primarily in dating Black men. (Another essay for another quarantine.) Though the local options aren’t quite as enticing as the ones back in New York, being able to cut to the chase and identify brothers who actually like women with whom they can share combs is infinitely more valuable now.

When the spread of coronavirus led California’s leaders to institute shelter-in-place orders, I initially took a little break from browsing for boys. What would be the point if there was no safe way for us to meet each other? But my return to the apps—largely motivated by boredom, unsurprisingly—led to a remarkable discovery: Now that we can’t meet each other, the men of Tinder and Hinge are beginning to transform. No longer able to inspire sustained interest based on surface-level sex appeal or “impressive” résumés, they are now forced to show off what they’ve got between their ears and dazzle us with their conversational skills. Thank God for unlimited cellphone minutes, because the boys are talking their asses off, y’all.

I’m ready to listen, in part because I live for great conversations, and I hate having to carry them. Nearly all my life’s most significant romances have kicked off with absurdly long phone calls that end on a different day than they begin: date-length chats powered by limitless interest in what the person on the other end of the line has to say. But not that many of the men I’ve dated in the era of the apps have made it to the “I want to have dark circles under my eyes because I was listening to you express a very goofy opinion that somehow made me want you more” stage of courtship. All of them were at least relatively handsome, but far too few of them managed to dazzle me with their words enough that I’d want to sit up and just talk to them in person—let alone over the phone.

It’s been easy to be convinced, by a pair of whiskey goggles or a bowlegged gait, that some ill-mannered scoundrel is totally the yin to your yang and will get with the feminist program in due time. But now, without the ability to make an early in-person connection, there’s no need to rush past the long phone conversations that can truly put wit, chemistry, and complementary interests to the test. The magic of physical attraction hasn’t been completely wiped away—after all, Instagram and FaceTime make it possible to gaze upon a potential paramour anytime. But when phone calls and video chats are the only dates currently available? These may be the same players, but the game just got real different.

I’ve been both privileged and wise enough to stay indoors nearly 24/7 for over a month at this point, and I’m having marathon phone conversations left and right. A ritual that was once saved for “promising” potential suitors is now routine. I’m tempted to talk a little about the conversations I’ve had, and with whom, but I’ve been on the internet long enough to know that not only do men hate that shit, creating a permanent record of a new situation is a good way to watch it slip through your fingers. (Hopefully, this essay has not doomed me to be ghosted and unswiped throughout the remainder of this dizzyingly uncertain season.)

Instead, I’ll share what I’ve appreciated most about them. For one, though the coronavirus is a topic of conversation, we’re able to avoid some of the anxiety-inducing exchanges that are often necessary with loved ones. While I have no shortage of things that I could be doing during my “free time,” talking to dudes does feel like an investment in the settled-down future that I desire; not that one of these guys will necessarily be the one to take that journey with me, but that having meaningful, substantive conversations with men that aren’t my longtime platonic friends allows me to consider different perspectives that can help make me a better partner whenever the time comes.

The forced celibacy of social distancing runs counter to my morals and values. March 2020 was the first month in at least two years that I went without sex. Chatting with cute men I might have sex with if I could has made it a bit easier to survive the necessary abstinence. (One day, when our grandkids ask us about how we made it through this time, we’ll be figuring out a way to explain that sending sexy pictures in hopes of keeping someone indoors was our civic duty.) What’s stunning, however, is that there’s more to this moment than just flirtation and brewing lust.

Like most feminists, I find myself often called upon to examine and condemn the violence of men, their many unearned privileges, their refusal to engage women as their peers and equals, etc. But smaller consequences of patriarchy take center stage in my personal life, such as how terribly unimpressive and dull men are often allowed to be without consequence. Guys who laugh at fart jokes will say that women are not funny. They go years without reading books and will argue you down about something you’ve studied exhaustively, just to “play devil’s advocate.” For a particularly sad lot, “WYD” texts often represent their best attempts at flirting. MEN ARE BORING AS HELL, to be honest, and we don’t say this publicly often enough.

Yet, in these difficult and grim times, long conversations with the typically-less-charming sex have made my time indoors much more bearable. Shelter-in-place life has been a welcome reminder that some men do have much more to offer than what’s between their legs (and their ability to make bookshelves), and I’m grateful. Whenever this is all over, I’ll be able to say that I was able to get by with a little help from guys I probably would not have met otherwise. Men, men—of all people!—have been charming, witty, supportive, kind, patient, interesting (interesting!), and super comforting. Here’s to hoping they keep that going when the doors to the bar have reopened.