Fall has begun and the chatter around “hot vax summer” — as disappointing as it may have been — has finally quieted down. This can only mean one thing: Cuffing season is here.

Originally an AAVE (African American Vernacular English) term, cuffing season is what Dr. Justin Lehmiller calls a “biopsychosocial phenomenon.”

Lehmiller, a scientific fellow at the Kinsey Institute and author of Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire, told Mashable this means there are biological, psychological, and social reasons behind us coupling up in the fall and winter months.

That goes for any cuffing season, but this one is especially interesting. Many Americans are vaccinated against COVID, but people in other parts of the world aren’t. While U.S. cases are declining, there’s still uncertainty about what the future holds.

According to a survey done with Kinsey and Lovehoney, a sex toy retailer where Lehmiller is a scientific advisor, people have two distinct desires going into post-vax life: kink or relationships — or, for some, both.

“What we want and need right now in our intimate life is a little different from what we did before,” said Lehmiller, who has a PhD in social psychology.

Why you want to be “cuffed”

In the Kinsey/Lovehoney sample of 2,000 American adults surveyed between May and June of 2021, 71 percent said they’re more interested in long-term relationships now compared to pre-pandemic.

Other data supports this as well. Dating app Hinge found that 75 percent of users (out of 2,000 surveyed in May 2021) wanted a relationship this summer. Then there’s Mashable’s own post-vax dating survey, which concluded that more young people desired a serious relationship over a casual one.

Not only do more people want to go steady, they also want to go slower: 36 percent of people said first date sex is a dealbreaker, according to Kinsey/Lovehoney, while a third of Hinge users said they’re waiting longer to have sex.

Lehmiller said that there are many reasons for this slowdown, including and beyond the biopsychosocial cuffing phenomenon.

In the colder months, the difference in our sun exposure affects the production of neurotransmitters that are involved in mood regulation (which is one reason behind Seasonal Affective Disorder) — that’s the biological component.

On the psychological and social side, there’s the pressure to have a partner for holiday socializing. Because it gets colder in some parts of the country, we’re also inclined to go out less and thus interact with fewer people. There’s an incentive to have someone to come home to during that time.

This biopsychosocial event plays out year after year, Lehmiller said. Data on “in a relationship” Facebook statuses and dating app usage classically show a spike in the winter months, for example.

Then there’s the pandemic-fueled explanations, such as lingering concerns about health and safety and uncertainty over what this fall and winter will bring. The latter could act as an “accelerator” for people to take dating seriously now.


Now that we can date in person again, daters want to get intimacy “right.”

But people don’t just want a relationship. After the brunt of pandemic loneliness and stress, people want deep connections.

“They don’t want the superficial relationships they had before,” noted Lehmiller. “They want that deeper, more meaningful connection.”

Related video: Pre-COVID cringe dating trends we don’t want coming back

Not only did more people online date during the pandemic, the nature of it was (obviously) different. Singles ended up having vulnerable conversations over text or video more quickly because our intimacy needs weren’t met in other ways.

Now that we can date in person again, daters want to get intimacy “right.” There’s heightened interest in finding the right person as opposed to jumping into a relationship for the sake of being in a relationship.

This may account for why people are taking their relationships slower — and why over half, 52 percent, are less interested in casual sex, according to Kinsey/Lovehoney.

Casual hookups, said Hinge’s director of relationship science, Logan Ury, were anything but casual pre-vaccination. You had to figure out “pod” mates and have frank conversations about safety. This intentionality translates into having fewer sexual partners now.

If you want a relationship this cuffing season, it's best to start looking early.

If you want a relationship this cuffing season, it’s best to start looking early.
Credit: bob al-greene / mashable



Some of us want literal handcuffs

In conjunction with wanting a relationship, people also want to explore sexually now. In the Kinsey/Lovehoney survey, 51 percent said their sexual interests changed during the pandemic. Of those, 73 percent said they became kinkier.

Hinge saw a similar shift: 45 percent of more than 3,000 users surveyed in August 2021 said they want to try new things in the bedroom with a new partner this fall. A whopping 80 percent said it’s important to them that a partner is sexually open and adventurous.

Hinge calls cuffing season 2021 a period of “sexploration.” Singles “have spent a lot of time alone over the last 18 months, looking inward and tapping into their imagination,” explained Ury. “With new mental freedom, the unlocked new sexual fantasies are ready to be unleashed — with the right partner.”

Lehmiller identified several reasons for this. For those who experimented during the pandemic, kink could’ve been a novelty that broke up the monotony of lockdown.

Further, when we try new sexual things, we’re more immersed in the experience. We’re more present, so not only are you entertained, but you’re also not thinking about day-to-day COVID news.

The pandemic also brought people’s mortality to the forefront. In that, Lehmiller identified a “need to make up for lost time,” and the desire to hit one’s “sexual bucket list.” COVID made some of us realize how short life is…so we might as well be kinky today.

“COVID has brought into stark relief the reality that each day isn’t a given,” said Sofiya Alexandra, co-founder and co-host of Private Parts Unknown, a podcast exploring love and sexuality around the world, “and that if you want to experience life at its fullest, you better start now.”

The desires for relationship and kink are different psychological needs (the former for intimacy and the latter for sex), but they’re both rooted in our pandemic experience.

Some people, actually, desire both: Among singles in the Kinsey/Lovehoney survey who are more interested in long-term relationships, 31 percent said they’re kinkier now than pre-pandemic.

Are we really done with one-night stands?

These statistics don’t mean that everyone is looking for kinky sex or a relationship moving out of the pandemic. “It’s not the case that everybody is more experimental,” said Lehmiller. “It’s not the case that everybody is less interested in casual sex.”

As there are a lot of human beings in the world, there’s a lot of variability in desire; not everyone wants to get cuffed. Tinder, for example, said earlier this year that the future of dating is fluid and that people may be more open to different kinds of connections.

Others, meanwhile, are adding thirds (or more) to the mix. The sexual exploration app Feeld saw a 670-percent jump in singles listing threesomes as their top desire from 2020 to 2021. There’s an increase in folks calling themselves ethically non-monogamous and polyamorous, as well.

As life shifts into a new normal, there’s also the question of whether these newfound desires will stay put. Will people go back to old habits?

Lehmiller hypothesizes that yes, eventually, people will revert to one-night stands and casual sex — but it won’t be quick. “There’s still so much lingering uncertainty, and I think it’s gonna take a while before we see that happen,” he said.

How to survive this (kinky) cuffing season

Maybe you’ve been out of the dating game the past 18 months — or maybe you’ve had a disappointing “vaxxed and waxed” summer and are looking for something a bit more serious now. Either way, you may be navigating lingering pandemic feelings of hesitation, not to mention grief and trauma.

Ury said to give yourself compassion and realize you’re not alone in these feelings. Instead of hiding them on a date, you can be vulnerable; it may encourage your date to express themselves freely, as well.

“You can skip the small talk and have a really interesting conversation,” said Ury.

For those looking to cuff this fall and winter, Lehmiller suggests starting early. Online dating produces a lot of options; you may need to talk to a lot of people to find someone you truly have a connection with.


“You can skip the small talk and have a really interesting conversation.”

Courtney Kocak, fellow co-founder and co-host of Private Parts Unknown, said that you want a partner who’s equally invested. That means being up front with potential suitors about what you want this cuffing season (and potentially beyond), and being willing to walk away if it’s not a good fit.

Lehmiller encouraged talking about sex early. Among vaccinated singles in the Kinsey/Lovehoney survey, 52 percent said they’re more likely to communicate about safe sex practices moving forward. That number dips down to 30 percent for unvaccinated singles, but it’s clear that communication styles have changed for some over the past year and a half.

See Also: Best sex toys for couples looking to switch things up between the sheets

There’s even more evidence on this front: 40 percent of Hinge users feel comfortable sharing a sexual fantasy with a partner after a few dates.

Embracing sexual communication early on can set the stage for a more fulfilling sexual relationship in the future, said Lehmiller.

If you’re looking to explore kink with a new partner, Ury suggests getting to know your own body first. Before you can ask for what you want in bed, you need to figure out what you want yourself.

Lehmiller, meanwhile, said to look for said partner in the right places. An app like Feeld caters to users looking for kinky and other explorative sexual situations; you may have an easier time finding a kinky partner there than with other apps.

When you do find a partner, Lehmiller says to start low and go slow. Start by sharing fantasies and desires. Vulnerability is the fastest way to build intimacy, and you do that by being open about your wants.

You don’t have to reveal the most adventurous activity right away. Instead, take some time and build intimacy together. Even do some research on best practices for the kinks you want to explore.

The key, said Lehmiller, is a lot of communication. Make sure everyone is doing what they want and is following safety precautions.

Hot vax summer may have been a bust, but there’s plenty of possibilities for love and “sexploration” this cuffing season.

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