couple wearing face masks embracing during a walk through the parkShare on Pinterest
RicardoImagen/Getty Images

Ah, winter. It’s not just the time when lights and pines go up and leaves fall down. The frigid season is also when couples cuff up.

Behold: cuffing season. The time when the shack-up drive is so potent not even a pandemic can stop it…

On the contrary, pleasure seekers are leaning into cuffing season with even more fervor than ever before because it’s actually one of the safest ways to date right now. Really!

Cuffing season refers to the time of year when people start craving connection.

The idea is that from October to March (ish), humans want to cuddle more than they do any other time of year, and seek out a cuddle (and sometimes climax) buddy as a result.

The hypothesis goes that when the temperatures rise again, these pairs split up in time for a saucy, sexy, sensual, and single spring and summer.

Actually, yes! Far more than just a cutesy catchphrase with no basis, there are social, physiological, and emotional reasons cuffing season is a thing.

Testosterone levels rise

Older research suggests that as temperatures drop, natural testosterone levels rise.

Testosterone = the horny hormone.

In other words, the rise in testosterone can make you more interested in having romantic and sexual company.

Winter is the ‘most dangerous season’

Evolutionarily speaking, it’s a time when a warm body next to yours could be the difference between life and death.

Dark, we know. But true!

Seasonal depression is real

Many folks tend to feel more lonely or sad in the winter, says Jesse Kahn, LCSW-R, CST, director and sex therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City.

While a partner alone is no treatment or “cure” for seasonal depression, “finding a partner to navigate those months together may reduce your sense of loneliness or sadness,” they say.

Advertisements get… mushy

We’re bombarded with messages from the advertisement industry about romance now more than any other time of the year, Kahn says.

Christmas, Hanukkah, and Valentine’s Day do fall smack-dab in the middle of cuffing season, after all.

These messages, he says, can make people who aren’t boo-ed up feel like they’d be happier if they were.

“Due to COVID-19, it’s less safe than ever before to have friends with benefits or meaningless app hookups,” says Kryss Shane, LGBTQIA+ expert, mental health professional, and author of the forthcoming book “The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion.”

Finding someone to cuff up with — and be in a social bubble with — for an extended period of time is a much safer way to get your needs met, Shane says.

Yes, people are really dating.

But here’s the thing: Whether dating is allowed isn’t the right question, Shane says. The question is how can you date in the safest way possible.

“Everyone can get COVID-19, and almost everybody wants to date or have sex,” she says. “So our goal shouldn’t be to stop conversations about how to date during COVID, but instead about how to do so safely.”

With bars, gyms, and other meet-up spots still a no-go, you might be wondering how the heck you’re going to find someone to cuff. Fear not, it’s possible!

Dating apps

They’re the obvious option, and they’re also an effective one.

Jess O’Reilly, PhD, resident sexologist for Astroglide, recommends that you lean into the apps that are built for what you’re looking for.

If you’re nonmonogamous, for example, you probs want an app built with that relationship structure in mind, like Feeld, #Open, Tinder, and OkCupid.

If you’re looking for a Forever Boo, Hinge — the app that’s “designed to be deleted” — is probably a better fit.

Ask to be set up

Pandemic or not, a setup is one of the absolute best ways to meet someone.

Someone you trust is vouching for the person you’re about to meet, after all.

So go ahead and tell your pals you’re interested in being set up!

For instance:

  • “I’m telling everyone! I’m currently dating again and on Team Set Up. So, if you know anyone you think I’d be a good match for, I’d love to meet them.”
  • “I’ve been having a hard time finding partners since coming out as bi, so if you know any folks, PLEASE set me up.”
  • “Your friend is cute. If you think we’d be a good fit, I’d love to be set up!”

Zoom lectures and events

From lectures about the history of pandemics to Zoom dance parties, digital events come in all different flavors.

Your move: Think about something you want to learn more about or do more of, then Google away until you find an event that fits your schedule.

While you’re in attendance, don’t be shy! If there’s a group chat function, use it. If participants have the option to introduce themselves, raise your hand to do so.

In person!

Depending on where you live, things like outdoor dining, golfing, outdoor fitness classes, and more may be kosher.

If they are, and you’re partaking, make the most out of it by introducing yourself to people you don’t know, exchanging numbers with folks who you have chemistry with, and making plans for the future.

Good question.

“Meeting up with anyone outside of your typical bubble will pose some level of risk,” says Natasha Bhuyan, MD, a provider at One Medical in Phoenix, Arizona, and regional medical director for the organization’s West Coast markets.

“However, you might choose to meet up with someone if you determine [they’re] sufficiently low risk,” she says.

Bhuyan recommends asking the following Q’s to help determine how risky a meet-up might be:

  • Are you or is anyone you’re living with an essential worker who often comes into contact with lots of people?
  • How often do you wear a mask when you’re in public? Under what circumstances are you not wearing a mask? Are you around people who wear masks?
  • Have you been to any bars, indoor restaurants, or any other crowded social events since March 2020? What precautions did you take?
  • Have you traveled anywhere since March 2020? What precautions did you take?
  • Have you had a recent negative COVID-19 test?

“If you ask a potential date these questions, trust their answers, and they seem to have a lower-risk profile, you may make the decision to meet up with them,” Bhuyan says.

“Just be aware that you may still contract COVID-19 from someone you deem is sufficiently low risk,” she adds.

If you don’t trust your potential date’s answers, that’s a red flag in and of itself, and a sign this may not be someone you actually want to meet up with.

Dating at the intersection of COVID-19 and cuffing season isn’t ~that~ much different than dating at any other point in history.

Step 1: Figure out what you want

Start by thinking through your health status, emotional capacity, love language, and wants.

If you’re high-risk for COVID-19, for example, you might be more interested in having a PG-13 pen pal or someone to have regular phone or video sex with than an IRL partner.

On the other hand, if your love language is physical touch and you’re low-risk, you might be more interested in a consistent IRL romance.

Step 2: Make your intentions clear

There are no right or wrong intentions. But there are communicated intentions and intentions that are not communicated — and the latter isn’t fair to your potential partner/lover/pen pal.

Once you figure out what you want, make sure you make that clear off the bat, O’Reilly says.

That could look like adding the line “Looking for casual virtual play partners, pen pals, and sexting friends only” or “Living with my primary partner, but looking for new lovers to go on socially distanced walks and coffee dates with” to your dating profile.

Or sending a text to drop a hint, like:

  • “Just to be really clear about my intentions: Because it’s a pandemic, I’m looking for something exclusive and committed for a few weeks or a few months. And if it makes sense, maybe even longer than that. What are you looking for?”
  • “Just wanted to let you know that because I have a live-in partner, I’m unable to take the risks of kissing or being intimate until we both get a COVID test.”

Step 3: Get busy

On your marks, get set, swipe, Zoom, text, sext, and video away!

Step 4: Plan dates around risk factors and boundaries

“Before you meet, you should discuss your individual COVID-19 boundaries and risk factors, and then keep those in mind and take proper precautions when planning in-person dates,” Bhuyan says.

For folks with higher risks, she recommends choosing outdoor activities *and* asking all parties to wear a mask.

“Wearing a mask has been proven to limit the spread of COVID-19, so consider dates that don’t involve eating or drinking in order to be able to wear your masks [at all times],” Bhuyan says.

You might consider:

  • hiking
  • walks
  • golfing
  • park hangs
  • stargazing
  • biking
  • horseback riding
  • bonfires

Step 5: Talk physical ~stuff~

Because COVID-19 spreads via respiratory particulars (aka spit and boogers), “it’s important to understand someone’s risk factors before deciding to kiss them during the pandemic,” Bhuyan says.

Depending on how saucy your digital interactions have been, you may also want to talk about other forms of physical intimacy.

“This is a good time to talk about all safer sexual activity practices,” Kahn says. “You might ask the person when the last time they were STI tested was, and what types of barriers they’ve used since then.”

Step 6: Discuss your boundaries again

After a few dates, it’s time to dive deeper into what you’re both looking for *and* how you can achieve that as safely as possible.

For instance, are you both looking to keep things nonmonog or monog? If you want to date nonexclusively, how are you going to navigate that?

What level of seriousness do you have the interest and emotional capacity for? If you’re looking for something just to get you through the winter, do you have an ideal point of termination in mind?

Step 7: Be safe and have fun!

Talking about sex and dating during the middle of a pandemic can feel heavy. So don’t get so wrapped up in what could go wrong that you forget to enjoy the person(s) you’re talking about these things with.

It depends!

How do you feel about being in a relationship right now? How do you feel about this person, specifically? If you feel good about both, enjoy!

If not, switch courses! How? By c-o-m-m-u-n-i-c-a-t-i-n-g.

To be clear, whether the relationship is healthy has nothing to do with when it started (winter), and everything to do with things like:

So if the relationship has these other factors and you both WANT to be together, stay together!

If it doesn’t, that’s when to break up.

Breaking up during the simultaneous COVID-19 pandemic and cuffing season requires the same thing any other breakup does:

  • honesty
  • tact
  • kindness
  • clear boundaries moving forward

If you’re ready to move on from this person, set up a time to talk and let them know that you’re no longer interested in something romantic and sexual with them… nicely.

Dating and sex absolutely aren’t off the table amidst the pandemic.

But because the new coronavirus can spread from just talking with someone who has the virus — let alone smooching or shagging them — harm reduction is a M-U-S-T.

And that means doing things like planning on lower-risk dates, getting tested, wearing your mask, and even leaning into cuffing season.

Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.