The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Hot Vax Summer’ is coming. Can it possibly live up to the hype?

(Taylor McManus for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Two weeks after Will Schonenberg had his first shot of the Moderna vaccine, he headed to a dive bar for his second, third and fourth shots — of whiskey.

Schonenberg and his friends bought shots for a group of women at a table nearby. Later that night, the whole group ended up back at his place for a game of Uno and more drinks. They ended up staying up past 2 a.m. Nobody hooked up, but each of his buddies came away with a woman’s phone number.

“It felt crazy-adventurous,” says Schonenberg, 32.

The next morning, reality hit him hard. Schonenberg was still drunk when he woke up. The hangover lasted a day and a half. “Maybe I shouldn’t have had three whiskey shots in an hour,” he says. He’s not in his 20s anymore. But the notion that the pandemic is fading away has lowered inhibitions and excited expectations. “That energy is in the air,” Schonenberg says. “Everybody wants to hang out.”

Officially, the promise of mass vaccinations is a return to schools and offices and maskless mall outings and stress-free visits to Grandma and Grandpa. Unofficially? A return to non-distanced dating and wild bar nights and all-night dance parties and making out with strangers unrestrained by the fear of disease. (Well, at least not that one.) Granted, some people were already partying as if the coronavirus wasn’t a thing. But with about half of eligible Americans on the verge of full vaccination, the reluctant homebodies of the pandemic are ready to return to the nightlife with the abandon of college freshmen.

It’s as if vaccinated America is newly single and rebounding hard after leaving a terrible relationship. And there is an emerging consensus about what’s coming next.

“The whole world has decided that this summer’s going to be just one giant orgy,” says Morgan Williams, 25, of Atlanta. “A lot of my single friends, that’s all they want to do is they just want to go out and hook up with people.”

Some people are calling it “Shot Girl Summer” or “Hot Vax Summer,” plays on Megan Thee Stallion’s 2019 anthem “Hot Girl Summer.” Others are cutting straight to the chase and calling it “Horny Summer.”

Pandemic skin hunger — the term for the biological need for human touch — has given way to vaccination-themed thirst traps. One viral tweet captured a photo of a man whose shirt read “Vaccinated and ready to” . . . uh, hook up, although he used a word unsuitable for a family newspaper. The lifestyle website Elite Daily offered up a list of 25 captions for “Shot Girl Summer” Instagram posts. (Some examples: “This hot girl moment has been sponsored by modern medicine.” “Immune to COVID, susceptible to suggestion.” “Vaxed, waxed, and looking like a snack.”) A new ad from clothier Suitsupply shows a pile of models licking one another, with the caption: “The New Normal Is Coming.”

Vaccinated or not, America wants to party again

Yeah! Summer! Hookups! Parties! The only thing wilder than what America’s hedonists are planning for this summer is, perhaps, their expectations. Can “Hot Vax Summer” possibly live up to the hype?

“I’m not bullish on the horniness of summer 2021,” says Luc Perkins, 39, of Portland, Ore. Perkins says he “can see why people are really invested” in the idea of making up for lost time, socially, but there’s a strong possibility that their social skills have been dulled by quarantine.

Jose Romero, a 43-year-old gay man in Washington, is predicting a lot of conversations this summer that go like this: “You’re vaccinated, I’m vaccinated, let’s make out.” What else needs to be said?

Still, Romero says that “some people are being a bit unrealistic” in their assumptions that everyone is on board for a hot vax summer. “You hear someone say: ‘Oh, Pride’s going to be huge. Everyone’s going to want to go,’ ” he says. “I think there’s a lot of people that are still hesitant.”

Says Williams: “There are guys out there who are assuming that girls now, like, all they want to do is hook up. They’re going to come in with this level of arrogance, like, ‘Well, I already know you want to hook up because you haven’t been able to do it for a year.’ And that’s just going to make them even worse.”

She thinks “Hot Vax Summer” may fall victim to a rather unsexy paradox.

“It’s hyped up so much,” she says, “that you almost feel obligated to have so much fun and you end up not having as much fun because you’re trying too hard to have fun.”

In psychology, there’s something known as “rosy prospection.” It’s the academic term for how looking forward to something such as a party or a vacation can actually make you happier than doing that thing. Your flight might get delayed, or your beach day ruined by rain — but those aren’t the possibilities we think about when we’re dreaming about the future. Developing hyped-up expectations for future events can help people manage their stress.

“We kind of get that surge of happiness and positive anticipation when things are possible,” says Christian Waugh, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University who studies positive emotions in times of stress. “You know, ‘I’m vaccinated, my friends are vaccinated — this is actually likely to happen.’ ”

Is “Hot Vax Summer” really inevitable? Or is our belief in its inevitability the only part that was always going to happen?

The hype is rooted not just in psychology but also in history. The end of the 1918 pandemic ushered in the Roaring Twenties, an era we now associate with short hemlines, speakeasies, jazz and promiscuity. Teenagers scandalized their elders by attending “petting parties,” also known as “snugglepupping” — a word we should definitely bring back — where they would make out and fondle each other (but would not necessarily have sex).

But the horniness of that period was not exactly prompted by the end of the pandemic, says Erica Ryan, an associate professor of history at Rider University. The 1918 flu pandemic “didn’t cause cultural change,” says Ryan, who wrote a book about the Roaring Twenties. “It was these much bigger forces,” particularly the end of World War I. “Americans have sort of romanticized the 1920s for a really long time as this period of widespread prosperity and a time of wild abandon,” she says. “And I think that that was true for a really small subset of the population.”

The coronavirus struck America at a time when sexual mores seemed to be trending in a more chaste direction. Before the pandemic, studies found that young people were having less casual sex. In a study conducted over the winter, researchers at the Kinsey Institute concluded that 52 percent of singles were hoping for a committed relationship and 37 percent wanted to wait longer before having sex.

Hinge, a dating app popular with millennials, says it is hearing from users that they’re more interested in settling down than going buck wild this summer. “After spending a year alone, the majority of Hinge users say they’re looking for a relationship and not something casual,” says Logan Ury, director of relationship science for the app. Rather than having a “YOLO” effect of pushing singles toward hookups, Ury says, the pandemic may have made many singles realize they don’t have “unlimited time to find somebody.”

“Hot Vax Summer” doesn’t necessarily mean hooking up with random strangers, of course. It can also mean a dating boom for singles who have been hampered by Zoom introductions and masks-and-distancing choreography.

The newfound sense of possibility might be so powerful that it obscures the fact that trying to meet people and go on dates is often a disappointing slog.

Perkins, the 39-year-old Oregonian, says he has found that the dating apps “never felt more desolate” than they do now, even as people emerge from their coronavirus cocoons. “The percentage of people who are on the apps for the wrong reasons — like, just for entertainment value or for validation — seems way higher,” he says. “So many utterly futile conversations that go absolutely nowhere. So much ghosting.”

The way he sees it, “I think we’re just mostly going to go straight back to the mean that we established before covid, which is where dating is, like, not super awesome, and it’s mostly frustrating, and you have not as many options as you’d like and you just kind of muddle through.”

In other words: Hot Vax Bummer.

Claire Allard, 23, was very much ready for whatever post-vaccination had to offer. She dated someone in the winter and they were super careful, postponing their first kiss until they were both fully vaccinated. However, after months of chaste dating and before that first smooch, they broke up.

Recently, she met a guy she liked and they hooked up on the first date. “It was eight months since I’d had sex, so I was going crazy,” she says. Afterward, they texted about meeting up again, trading “I’d love to see you’s,” but she hasn’t heard from him in over two weeks.

The post-vax dating rush has not solved the perennial problem of mismatched expectations, and in some cases it might be making things more dramatic. Stacie Camirand, a 24-year-old woman on Long Island, quickly felt smothered this spring when a 26-year-old man she had been dating for just over a month suggested they move in together. “I told him this is moving a little too fast for me. And he kept sending me apartment listings anyway,” Camirand says. She broke up with him.

Camirand expects her hot vax summer will be heavier on relaxing than partying. “Before the pandemic, I was go go go,” she says. But the pandemic year has “made me learn to appreciate myself” and “take care of myself,” she says, “which I don’t think I was doing that well before.”

Eli Vandegrift, 23, of Fairfax, Va., says that “a hot vax summer, to me, is just, like, being able to go to a bookstore or go to a cafe and read and write indoors, probably with a mask on” — without feeling “like I’m going to die.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Eli Vandegrift’s name. This version has been corrected.