Picture this: it’s the spring of 2020, and the laws of sex and dating are being rewritten in real time. Friendly hugs and handshakes are becoming a thing of the past, leaving many people with a desperate longing to be touched – “skin hunger”, it’s called. The BBC asks Love Island alum Dr. Alex, “Can I get coronavirus by touching someone else’s vagina or penis?”, while officials in British Columbia advocate for glory holes vis-á-vis safer sex, Harvard Medical School favours phone sex and the Netherland’s National Institute for Public Health and the Environment suggests singletons seek out a “seksbuddy”.
Just over two years later, we’re still feeling the cultural aftershocks of the deep disruption to sex, love, and dating as we knew it, but in a way we might not have expected. Last year’s post-vax “Shot Girl Summer” never really materialised, as breakthrough COVID cases and the Delta variant snuffed out the carefree wet-and-wild plans that were made by many of us who’d been able to get vaccinated. So, when I mapped out plans for the summer of 2022 with my friends, I provisionally predicted that this would be one for the history books – that as official restrictions finally lifted, so would inhibitions and clothes.
But from TV and films to literature and music, this summer’s hottest accessory isn’t a new seksbuddy. It’s intimacy. That’s the beating heart of BBC Three’s Sally Rooney adaptation of Conversations with Friends, the earnest and dewy-eyed teen series Heartstopper from Netflix and Fire Island, a raunchy romcom from Hulu. It’s what keeps pulling me back to Sheila Heti’s lucid column of experimental diary entries in the New York Times and to Mitski’s most recent album, which feels as vulnerable and self-reflective as a secret confession. And returning to the charts thanks to Stranger Things, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill is a fitting song of the summer. Nearly 40 years after its original release, the track takes an ice pick to even the coldest, hardest hearts until they’re left exposed to feel the weight of Bush’s private thoughts.
“You feel things more when you’re not experiencing them,” writer and dating expert Annie Lord tells me over the phone ahead of the release of her memoir Notes on Heartbreak. I’ve asked her about the Summer of Big Intimacy, and she’s explaining her own theory: that perhaps after such a long period of longing and distance, we’re desperate for proximity in unexpected forms.
Beth Ashley, THE FACE’s own sex and relationship columnist, agrees. She explains that pop culture is often a launch pad for our own desires, offering “a safe place to let those feelings of missing intimacy run free, and feel understood in your need for it.
“Admitting you feel lonely or you’re craving physical touch is a hard thing to do, but you can watch it play out between characters without having to ask or share,” Ashley says. She points out that while shows like Pam & Tommy and Euphoria served us love and lust on the silver screen, we seek out softer, gentler shows like Heartstopper to address our softer, gentler needs. Upon its release, Heartstopper was widely lauded as a queer love story for teens – and one without drink, drugs, sex or nudity. In place of these indulgences is a keen, open-hearted intimacy shared between two young boys on the brink of adulthood. As Ashley notes, ”You can see Charlie reacting viscerally whenever Nick gently brushes his hand, or kisses his face, as if he’s done so much more.”
Recent pop culture is lush with moments like these – moments so observant and specific in their details, but so broad in their resonance that they map onto our own lives with an uncanny familiarity. While frothy romcoms relish every opportunity to be crude, crass and lascivious, Joel Kim Booster’s writing in Fire Island also centres the tender love shared between friends, lovers, chosen family and even antagonists. From under the haze of ketamine and poppers, a sense of care and community glows, unblinking, as the film’s many tensions resolve. That same tender love is on display in Jack Rooke’s Big Boys, a deeply moving portrait of friendship between young men and the people who love them.
These on-screen depictions of intimacy can be startlingly clear. In the televised adaptation of Dolly Alderton’s memoir Everything I Know About Love, four female friends (and flatmates) have it out over cocktails and a card game. The 20-somethings shout loudly across their dining table as if it’s a crowded club, and things get personal fast. The scene is reminiscent of the beach house scene in Girls. But in Girls, the demolition of friendships felt like a relief. As Shoshanna laid into Jessa, Marnie and Hannah, she released three seasons’ worth of the kind of resentment that only ever builds up as intimacy wanes and grievances grow into the space it left behind. In Everything I Know About Love, the fight is more affecting and cast in a grief-stricken light. These young women love each other – dearly, still – but the words with which they can express their love are ones of anger and betrayal. Whereas the beach house laid bare how distant four friends had grown, the card game shows four friends who are so close, they feel smothered by the love they share, and unable to foster the space they need.
This is the appeal of intimacy, regardless of whether it’s shared between friends or family or lovers – that we’d fight tooth or nail to protect the tender bits we share only with those for whom we care. That we’d fight so fiercely to defend this softness that we forget who we’re fighting, and what we’re fighting for.
When I ask Lord for her own forecast for this summer, she returns to the early days of 2020, of bizarre public health messaging and abstention with no near end. “I remember when the pandemic was first happening, it felt less like what you wanted as sex – what you wanted was to be really near to someone,” she says. “The way to be nearest to someone is touching them or knowing loads about them, to feel like they’re there all the time.
“You know when you’re in the park with friends, and everyone’s limbs are kind of knotted together?” Lord concludes. And I know what she means. It’s the feeling of a candlelit dinner that lasts into the early morning with friends you’ve not seen for too long. The feeling of receiving an unexpected card in the post. The feeling of care and compassion that’s so universal it reduced me to tears as I watched two literal rocks squabble in Everything Everywhere All At Once. The feeling of leaving your softest spots exposed for all to see. The feeling of the Summer of Big Intimacy.