Social isolation has also meant sexual isolation for people keen to explore physical intimacy. Is virtual sex enough – or do we need to be touched?
About three months into lockdown in the UK, 26-year-old student Emma signed into a Zoom meeting with a group of people she’d only ever met through online chats. Organised by Killing Kittens, a company that, pre-Covid-19, hosted in-person sex parties with an emphasis on women’s empowerment, the “virtual house party” kicked off with drinking games. It was unlike anything she’d ever attended.
“We played ‘Never Have I Ever’,” she says, “and [the organisers] asked us questions like, ‘Which celebrity would you most like to see at a Killing Kittens party?’.” It got attendees talking about their fantasies and preferences – a smooth segue into the less structured part of the evening, during which some participants “removed clothing”, says Emma. “It was just a really good, quite sexy interaction with other people.”
It was the kind of connection Emma had been craving. With her one housemate staying with family, and having lost her job in March, Emma has spent much of the pandemic physically isolated. “There were points at which it got quite lonely,” she says.
Though she’d attended sex parties in the past, Emma had only just joined Killing Kittens in November 2019. “I was a little nervous to get properly involved,” she says, and when the pandemic hit, she worried she’d missed her chance. Instead, she joined one of Killing Kittens’s singles chat groups and started making close friends, which made her feel comfortable enough to try a virtual party on for size.
During the pandemic, social isolation has also meant sexual isolation for both individuals and couples hoping to explore physical intimacy. While recreating the tactile experience of sex online isn’t straightforward, virtual experiences – from dirty-talk Zoom workshops to sex parties like the one Emma attended – have helped fill the intimacy-shaped void felt by so many. To a certain extent, at least. For attendees and organisers, online sexual encounters can ‘mimic’ in-person experiences and offer much-need psychological relief, but there’s no direct replacement for physical touch.
However, beyond just acting as a stand-in for sex during the pandemic, these virtual experiences may also be showing us what’s important in intimacy writ large – both while we’re in isolation and once we can touch each other again.
Discovering digital intimacy
Almost a year into the pandemic, many have found ways to date and form relationships online. Dating apps such as Bumble now let users indicate “virtual only” or “socially distanced” dating preferences. According to a Bumble representative, in-app video calls were up by 42% in May 2020 compared to pre-lockdown March.
But replicating a first date via video chat is a far cry from recreating sexual experiences over the web. Key elements – physical touch most prominently – don’t have a straightforward, online substitute.
Still, people are getting virtually intimate. In October, hard-seltzer company Basic surveyed 2,000 single under 35-year-olds in the US, and found that 58% had had virtual sex during the pandemic. Of those, 77% did so with someone they’d never had sex with in person. Per a Bumble survey of 5,000 UK singles, 32% said “digital intimacy” was important in a relationship “both during lockdown and when measures lifted”.
There’s a big sexual gratification in being able to watch and be watched – Emma
For Emma and others who’ve dabbled in online sexual encounters in the past year, things like virtual sex parties, educational Zoom workshops, remotely controlled sex toys and simply engaging in sex-positive communities have proven to be both sexually fulfilling and antidotes to physical intimacy. “There’s a big sexual gratification in being able to watch and be watched,” says Emma, who describes herself as an “exhibitionist”.
Plus, watching real couples have sex is different from watching pornography. It’s personal – and the connections Emma’s made in these sex-positive spaces are, too. She and other single attendees have formed “tight bonds”, she says, “because we’ve all shared this experience on a very similar level”.
In London, David runs the brick-and-mortar adult lifestyle club Le Boudoir. In October, when he started hosting virtual sex parties with other London lifestyle clubs such as Purple Mamba, he noticed first-time attendees behaving like they would in physical spaces. Instead of huddling in the corner, they’re initially hesitant to virtually chat with others, but “you can literally see them warm throughout the evening”, says David.
Like Killing Kittens, these events start with icebreakers and performances (i.e., erotic dancers), which help get people in the mood. The progression of the parties looks a lot like it would in real life. “That’s technology mimicking real life,” he adds.
The element of safety
The online nature of these events also expands attendee demographics, so they span more locations, age ranges and experience levels.
People attend Boudoir and Purple Mamba’s events from Israel, South Korea, Australia and the US. A party that starts on Saturday evening, UK time can roll into evening on the US’s East Coast and across America. Sayle has also noticed virtual events attracting younger attendees – not only because they’re more online and “that’s how they communicate”, says Sayle, but also because online events remove the financial barrier to showing up at a physical party. Online Killing Kittens parties cost £20 ($27), while in-person ones can cost £350 ($480).
Emma, who doesn’t live in a major city, likes that she doesn’t have to spend money on travelling to an event in London, which would include putting up for a hotel, meals and new clothes. “As a student, that’s quite nice,” she says.
Boudoir and Purple Mamba’s virtual sex parties now attract around 150 attendees on a given Saturday. About half are first timers. Sayle sees a similar split at Killing Kittens’ events. “A lot of [attendees] are totally new people who would never have thought about [attending a sex party] before,” says Sayle. There’s a “safety element” to showing up via video chat, she adds: “You can close the screen at any point.”
That’s exactly what made UK-based couple Matt, 31, and Emily, 29, feel comfortable about going to their first-ever sex party during the pandemic, with Boudoir and Purple Mamba, online. “You’re in your own house,” says Matt. “It’s the safety of it.” Though they would have likely gone to an in-person event eventually, “it would have taken longer,” says Emily.
Just because you’re separated by distance doesn’t mean the activity you’re doing… is somehow less than if it was in person – Megan Stubbs
So far, the online events have let them explore their sexuality and relationship. Everyone’s “different styles” come through, says Matt, which creates a real, shared experience with another couple – one they didn’t think they’d want to experience before the pandemic. They’ve since changed their minds. Virtual encounters have also helped Matt and Emily put language to their desires. Because they’ve had to clearly communicate with others remotely, they’ve learned certain terms that describe their preferences.
This fits with a trend Michigan-based sexologist Megan Stubbs has observed. “I see more avenues of communication being open. People are talking more and getting more specific about their needs.” Distance necessitates this. When you’re not in the same room as your sex partner(s), you can’t rely on body language and subtle cues. But, she adds, “Just because you’re separated by distance doesn’t mean the activity you’re doing… is somehow less than if it was in person.”
Still, experts and people having virtual sex agree nothing can completely substitute for physical touch. As Sayle puts it, “You can’t recreate an orgy online.”
This is, in part, because of the cellular processes that take place when a person is touched. Tiffany Field, who heads the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, explains that “moderate pressure touch” stimulates pressure receptors under the skin. “That sets off a chain reaction,” she says, that slows the nervous system. “The heart rate slows down, blood pressure slows, and brainwaves change in the direction of theta, which is a relaxation state.”
Levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that kills immune cells, also decrease when we’re touched, while natural killer cells (which kill bacteria, viral and cancer cells) increase, according to Field’s research, which specifically examines massage therapy. “It’s ironic, during this time when there’s a lot of touch deprivation going on,” she says, “that we don’t have the protection of the natural killer cells killing the viral cells.”
Based on her research of “moderate pressure touch,” Field says people living alone can still help stave off touch deprivation through “self-touch”. That even includes simple activities such as stretching and walking, which stimulate pressure receptors on the bottoms of our feet. Engaging in virtual sex surely falls into that category, if participants are willing to get active.
A deeper appreciation
Of these online-sexual-experience organisers and participants, all say they’ll likely continue with virtual experiences even when it’s safe to mingle with strangers. Digital intimacy offers something unique – the ability to stay at home but still engage in a fulfilling activity, with a geographically wider array of people, for minimal or zero cost.
In-person events, though, will likely boom. “Thousands of years of history of what happens post-pandemics and post-war show that people start shagging,” says Sayle. “It’s going to happen.”
The pandemic could also have another effect – it may make us all realise how touch-deprived we were to begin with. Before Covid-19, touch expert Field and colleagues were conducting a study in which they observed how much people were touching one another at airport departure gates. People were touching, says Field, only 4% of the time. Sixty-eight percent of the time, they were on their phones. Online platforms and social media were driving us physically apart pre-pandemic. Now, they’re facilitating people being together.
“I think what Covid has done has exacerbated [touch deprivation],” says Field. “Maybe [people] are beginning to appreciate that they’re missing the touch they did have.”
It is an offence under the act to “disclose a private sexual photograph or film of an individual who appears in the photograph or film without their consent with the intention of causing that individual distress”.
Only disclosures of private sexual photos or films made to third parties with “an intent to cause distress” currently constitutes an offence.
Ms Sims believes the laws, like the ones in Northern Ireland and England, are failing because “it’s very hard to prove intent” and “it is on to the victim to prove that intent”.
A spokesman for NI’s Department of Justice (DoJ) told BBC News NI that Minister Naomi Long is “fully committed to playing her part in addressing this issue”.
The Irish legislation introduces two new offences to deal with the non-consensual distribution of intimate images.
• The first offence deals with the distribution or publication of intimate images without consent and with intent to cause harm. The penalties applicable can be an unlimited fine and/or imprisonment of up to seven years.
• The second offence deals with the taking, distribution or publication of intimate images without consent even if there is no specific intent to cause harm. This offence carries a maximum penalty of €5,000 (£4,386) and/or two months imprisonment.
He said that while telecommunications is a reserved – rather than devolved – matter, DoJ officials have been liaising with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to “ensure the interests of Northern Ireland are fully met”.
“On 15 December 2020, the UK government published its response to the Online Harms White Paper which sets out how a proposed legal duty of care on online companies will work in practice and gives them new responsibilities towards their users,” the spokesman said.
He added: “Social media sites, websites, apps and other services which host user-generated content or allow people to talk to others online will need to remove and limit the spread of illegal content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content.”
He said the UK government is working with the Law Commission to improve protection afforded at present in criminal law.
“It is recognised that reform of the law is needed to protect victims from harmful online behaviour including abusive messages, cyber flashing, pile-on harassment and the malicious sharing of information known to be false,” the spokesman said.
Joseph Jones doesn’t find the gruelling physical demands of his job at Amazon particularly troubling – he can walk as many as 17 miles per shift. The firm’s attitude towards his work, however, is something else.
“It’s a very adversarial relationship with the supervisors and the staff,” says the 35-year-old, who started working part-time at the company’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama in October. “You’re a cog in the system… and it’s very obvious.”
During the busy season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, for example, he says Amazon required staff to extend their shifts – typically with little notice. Once, he says he didn’t even know he had been asked to put in extra time until he arrived for work and the company app informed him he was an hour late.
Last year, the treatment prompted him to join a petition that sought an official vote on creating a union at the warehouse.
In December, state labour officials ruled the request had garnered enough support to warrant an election – the first such vote Amazon has faced in the US since 2014. Ballots were mailed this week.
If the campaign succeeds, the Bessemer facility, which opened in March, would become the only unionised Amazon location in the US.
“This election takes on enormous importance because Amazon is not just another company,” says Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is leading the effort. “This election transcends Bessemer. It’s really about how workers are going to be treated in the future.”
Organisers have spent months making their case to the nearly 6,000 people who work at the facility. They have lined the side of the road with signs, posted representatives at the plant’s gates, hosted meetings and rallies, and spent hours “talking, talking, talking”.
For its part, Amazon has responded with mandatory weekly meetings discouraging the proposal, plastered the warehouse with anti-union flyers, blasted text messages to staff, and launched a website “Do it without Dues”, which promotes the firm’s “high wages” – hourly pay starts at $15.30 (£11.15) – health benefits, and safety committee.
It also sought, unsuccessfully, to force the election to be held in person, rather than by mail, as officials required due to the pandemic.
Amazon spokeswoman Heather Knox says the company is “providing education” on the impact of a potential union – which it estimates would cost full-time staff $500 in dues – and does not believe the RWDSU “represents the majority of our employees’ views”.
“Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs,” she says, adding that the company has improved its safety measures since the start of the pandemic.
At the plant, Joseph says the pressure has been intense, with rumours flying about the firm’s efforts to infiltrate workers.
“They’re terrified of what precedent this could set,” he says of the company.
For years, Amazon has been able to brush past complaints about its business practices and working conditions.
But the pandemic – which brought health risks alongside a surge in the firm’s business and profit – has galvanised workers around the world. This is despite the firm’s notoriously aggressive efforts to squelch labour activism, says Christy Hoffman, secretary general of UNI Global Union, which works with unions globally, including the RWDSU.
“Amazon’s dynamics did not shift but the workers became much more active during the pandemic when the danger to them in connection with social distancing, the pace of work, the volume of work became so dangerous,” she says.
Last year, the company was hit by strikes in Italy and Germany and protests at warehouses and grocery stores in the US. In France and Spain, unions lodged complaints with the state, leading to government intervention.
In Bessemer, a majority black suburb of Birmingham, Alabama where a quarter of families live below the poverty line, tensions emerged amid last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Staff sought out the RWDSU. Mr Appelbaum says they wanted more information about co-workers falling ill and were upset by the “dehumanising” way they were managed – receiving unpredictable assignments from robots and getting disciplined via an app.
Other affronts came into play. In June, the firm abruptly ended hazard pay, an extra $2 per hour that it had offered at the start of the pandemic, even as virus cases continued to rage.
“Amazon’s business is thriving and they do something as picky as taking away hazard pay from their employees,” Joseph says. “I think it put a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.”
Will the campaign succeed?
The Birmingham area has a rich history of civil rights activism and unionisation, tied to its past as a coal mining and steel centre.
But unionisation rates have plunged in the US and in southern states, like Alabama, suspicion of organised labour runs deep. In Bessemer, a city of 27,000 hit hard by the departure of major manufacturers in the 1980s, Amazon’s arrival was welcomed as a source of employment.
“The educated folks will tell you money’s not a motivator. Well I guarantee you… money is a motivator and the biggest difference with Amazon is they pay,” says labour leader Bren Riley, president of the Alabama AFL-CIO, of which the RWDSU is an affiliate. “They don’t have problems getting people to come to work.”
Alan Draper, the Ranger professor of government at St Lawrence University, says unions lose votes like the one facing Amazon much more than they did in the past.
“The sense of fear that employers are able to create is tremendous. That the union has been successful enough to get workers past that fear in order to get to an election is remarkable today,” he says. “Unfortunately it’s very episodic.”
If the union wins, Amazon would be forced to negotiate over a contract, which could address anything from pay and holidays, to discipline and production expectations.
With ballots due on 29 March, the fight has attracted national attention. Liberal political stars in the US such as former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the NFL Players Association, which represents American football players, have chimed in with support.
In Alabama, however, many politicians have steered clear of the fight.
“Whatever the differences are, I hope that they can be rectified to the satisfaction of the employees as well as to Amazon,” says Bessemer Mayor Ken Gulley, a Democrat, who was part of a team that helped lure Amazon to town in 2018 with millions of dollars worth of state and local tax breaks.
He says he wants to see everyone “treated fairly” but worries that the high-profile union drive could hurt the city’s efforts to attract other big employers like Amazon, whose economic impact he describes as “significant”.
“Obviously it’s a great company and we’re looking to a strong partnership with them for many years to come.”
Joseph says he’s not sure how the vote will go, but is hopeful the Bessemer effort will inspire Amazon workers elsewhere to take a stand.
“If this is successful – knock on wood – then I hope everybody follows suit.”
A suspected crime boss has confirmed he is still involved in “planning multiple world title fights” in boxing.
Daniel Kinahan insisted that allegations of criminality are part of “a campaign” against him.
His continued involvement at the top of the sport was revealed last week by BBC One’s Panorama, leading to calls for tighter regulation.
Mr Kinahan has no criminal convictions, but was named in Irish courts as the head of a prominent drug cartel.
The suspected gangster helped set up boxing management business MTK Global – but it was announced last year he was stepping away from the sport.
However, the company told Panorama that he still advises some of its boxers, and Mr Kinahan himself has now issued his own statement, telling Talksport that he was innocent, and that he continued to work at the very top of the sport.
“I have dedicated myself to my work in boxing for over 15 years. I am proud to say today that I have helped organise over a dozen major world title fights,” Mr Kinahan said.
“I continue to be involved in planning multiple record-breaking and exciting world title fights.”
Mr Kinahan said he believed that his success in the world of boxing “has led to an increase in the campaign against me”.
“I am not a part of a criminal gang or any conspiracy. I have no convictions,” he said.
Mr Kinahan’s role in world boxing caused an outcry in June last year when it emerged he had been working as a personal adviser to world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury ahead of a much-anticipated £200m mega-fight later this year with fellow British champion Anthony Joshua.
Panorama asked Fury whether Mr Kinahan was still his personal adviser, but he did not respond.
The BBC team that produced the programme has received an unspecified threat from unnamed criminal elements since it was broadcast, but Mr Kinahan has denied being involved.
“Last week it was inferred that I had threatened a reporter. I have full respect for journalism. I have worked with journalists and I value their role,” he said in his statement.
“I have never threatened a reporter or journalist or asked anyone to do that for me. I never have and I never would.”
Last week Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told the BBC that the film had raised “very worrying allegations”.
The British Boxing Board of Control has said it is powerless to stop Kinahan advising boxers as it does not regulate such roles and he is not licensed with them.
‘Proud of his record’
Eddie Hearn – who promotes Joshua – said he anticipated “no impact” on the fight with Fury, and insisted that no sponsors or broadcasters had expressed concern to him since the programme was aired. Last year, the Irish government called on broadcasters to boycott the planned world title fights.
Lawyers for MTK Global told Panorama that while Mr Kinahan “provides some personal advice to a number of boxers managed by MTK Global”, he had never owned, controlled or been an employee of the company.
Mr Kinahan’s lawyers also told the programme he has no criminal convictions and the allegations about him running a violent cartel are false and have no evidential basis.
“He is proud of his record in boxing to date. He has operated on the basis of honesty and with a commitment to putting fighters’ needs first,” they said.
“Mr Kinahan is a successful and independent adviser in the boxing industry in his own right. It is a matter of public record that he has exited the business of MTK.”
How did a four-year degree become compulsory for nearly every job – and could the need to reboot the economy help tackle this problem?
Eleven years ago, Allie Cornett realized she wasn’t ready for college, and had lost interest in the geology degree she was pursuing at a university in Hawaii. She left school, and went to work in the hospitality industry as a tour guide. For the next decade, she found herself repeatedly running into the same wall.
“I have been told multiple times that I have a great resumé, and lots of experience, but no degree… so no potential for upward movement,” says Cornett, 33. At the last company she worked for, she applied for open managerial positions constantly over five years, “only to not get them because someone with less experience, but who had a degree, did”.
Cornett is a victim of a phenomenon called ‘degree inflation’: the rising demand for bachelor’s degrees in jobs that didn’t always require one, and probably don’t actually require one now.
It’s a widespread problem, says Manjari Raman, director of Harvard Business School’s project on Managing the Future of Work. According to a 2017 paper Raman co-authored, “the degree gap – the discrepancy between the demand for a college degree in job postings and the employees who are currently in that job who have a college degree – is significant. For example, in 2015, 67% of production supervisor job postings asked for a college degree, while only 16% of employed production supervisors had one.”
In other words, the people currently doing the work don’t have degrees, but as they retire or leave their positions, their replacements will be expected to. This creates a system where companies struggle to fill jobs and incur unnecessary costs, all the while leaving experienced, willing workers out in the cold. Degree inflation has been a major problem in the labour market for decades, but the issue is even more pressing as we face a post-pandemic economy in need of a serious – and swift – reboot.
“I have been told multiple times that I have a great resumé, and lots of experience, but no degree… so no potential for upward movement” – Allie Cornett (Credit: Zachary Gorski)
Same jobs, new competencies
Degree inflation is most evident in what Raman calls “middle-skills jobs” – those requiring more than a high school diploma, but less than a college degree. Many listings for such positions now ask for a four-year degree, which only a third of American adults have. Globally, it’s even more stark. Less than 7% of the world’s population holds a Bachelor’s degree.
Experts who study the phenomenon say it’s due, at least in part, to the widening role of technology. “The seeds for degree inflation were planted as the nature of jobs was changing,” says Raman. “More and more automation created jobs that are called the same thing but require different competencies.”
She gives the example of a lineman working for a utility company. “Two decades ago, you were talking about somebody shimmying up a pole. You needed to be physically strong and able to work in all weather conditions, and that’s what made you successful,” she says. “Now, that job is very different. You’re in a pneumatic machine. You use a smart device to connect with the central headquarters to figure out the problem. You’re still using your hands, but also a lot of data inputs coming at you through technology.”
The people currently doing the work don’t have degrees, but as they retire or leave their positions, their replacements will be expected to
A version of this shift is present in just about any other industry you can name. “As more automation came in, there was more demand on these workers to display social skills. What you now needed was someone who could talk to a customer, who could articulate the problem and problem-solve,” says Raman. But rather than look for candidates with those specific qualifications, “many companies took the easy route of using the four-year college degree as a proxy: ‘I know if they have a degree, they’ll be able to use an iPad. They’ll be able to use Excel’.”
Those positions then become difficult to fill, because even middle-skill workers with experience are excluded by automated application tools that cut out those without degrees. “Many middle-skills jobs synonymous with middle-class lifestyles and upward mobility – such as supervisors, support specialists, sales representatives, inspectors and testers, clerks and secretaries and administrative assistants – are now considered hard-to-fill jobs because employers prefer candidates who are college graduates,” according to the Harvard Business School paper.
This focus on degrees creates exclusionary conditions, the “worst-case scenario” of which, says Ray Bachan, a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton’s Business School, “is a lack of intergenerational mobility. It all has social connotations”. Less affluent parents are less likely to have children who go to college, he explains. And when those children struggle to find jobs, the result is a generation failing to be more successful than the one before it.
Crucially, degree inflation has a significant impact on populations that are less likely to graduate from a four-year programme. In the United States, black and Latino students are conferred just 11% and 14% of annual Bachelor’s degrees, respectively.
Many employers now require four-year degrees for jobs that didn’t previously need them, in part because of the increased role of technology across all industries (Credit: Alamy)
And all these socially detrimental practices don’t even result in a better-performing workforce. When people who do have degrees end up in middle-skill jobs that don’t actually require the specialisations they studied, they tend to be under-productive and quick to become “disenchanted”, says Raman. “There’s high turnover, because they were not happy doing what a middle-skill worker could and should be doing.”
Turnover adds to companies’ costs. Add to that the fact that employers pay college graduates as much as 30% more, and it’s clear a system of degree inflation benefits neither worker nor employer.
In fact, the only ones who do seem to benefit from degree inflation are the world’s academic institutions, which saw enrolment more than double between 2000 and 2014. In the UK, where degrees are ranked based on academic performance, there’s another dimension to inflation. Not only have universities there increased the overall number of diplomas by five times since 1990, but the students leaving school with first-class honours (the highest-rated degree) skyrocketed from 7% in 1997 to 30% in 2019.
Degree inflation has a significant impact on populations that are less likely to graduate from a four-year programme
“It could be due to better teaching methods, better facilities, more comprehensive libraries, the internet,” says Bachan. But more likely, changes to grading algorithms mean “it’s easier to get a higher degree than it was in the past”. That leaves workers who don’t have any degree at an even greater disadvantage in a workforce crowded with applicants with top-scoring degrees.
But this, too, is ultimately bad for both employers and their prospective employees. Academic credentials are meant to be a signal to employers of how good applicants are. Degree inflation, says Bachan, makes those signals unreliable. “There are so many people now with good degrees, it’ll be difficult for employers to select the people who actually do have the highest level of skills.”
‘Stop doing that’
There’s no reason to expect the number of people getting degrees to drop significantly; while enrolment at US institutions did fall by 2.5% overall in 2020, there’s evidence of an increase in people – many of them older than the average college student – returning to degree programmes over the course of the year. In the UK, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service recorded a significant jump in the number of applicants 35 and older this past summer.
Allie Cornett is among these returnees; when the California vacation destination where she was working shut down due to coronavirus, she moved to Oregon and was accepted to a Bachelor’s degree programme in outdoor adventure leadership at Southern Oregon University. The pandemic, she says, “gave me a chance to really focus on what I wanted from school and out of my future career”.
Degree inflation has a significant negative impact on populations that are less likely to graduate from a four-year programme, including black and Latino students (Credit: Alamy)
Yet she could graduate into a different recruitment environment because, while degree inflation is a problem decades in the making, the pandemic may have opened the door to big changes. “In general,” says Raman, “we find Covid is like an X-ray machine. It starkly exposes the issues in the economy.” To survive in a post-pandemic economy, companies may find doing away with degree inflation gives them an influx of talent and saves them money. It’s a direction major companies were moving before 2020, but now, Raman says she expects to see degree inflation reversed even quicker.
“It’s almost a no-brainer once you point it out,” adds Raman. “The first thing CEOs do is call their HR person and say, ‘Are our job postings slapping on a four-year college degree? And if they are, stop doing that.’ There are very strong financial reasons for right sizing. It’s not just salary – you reduce the cost of turnover, increase productivity, increase retention. These are important for companies, and they understand this. They’re seeing that by following degree inflation they’re only hurting themselves.”
Raman notes that mammoth corporations, including Amazon and Walmart, recognised the issue long before the pandemic. Amazon launched a $700m (£512m) programme in 2019 to provide education and training to its existing degree-less workers, with the idea that it’s more cost effective to train incumbent workers for management positions. (Walmart started a similar programme in 2017). Raman says those companies, and others, have also begun removing arbitrary degree requirements from middle-skill jobs. The policies adopted by major corporations tend to trickle down to medium and small ones. Preliminary data, she says, suggests that’s already starting to happen.
“Compared to 2015, in 2021 there’s far greater acknowledgement and understanding that packing more BAs into your company is not positive,” she says. “Pre-Covid, we knew degree inflation was something that’s not good for companies and not good for workers. Post-Covid, we have to remember that and rebuild the economy in such a way that it doesn’t just work for people who have a four-year college degree, but also for the many hundreds of thousands of people who don’t, but who have experience, qualifications and are eager to work.”
Dating is complicated at the best of times, but social stigma means dating someone with a disability is rarely discussed. After Hannah and wheelchair user Shane Burcaw spoke out over online comments dismissing their relationship, we spoke to other couples about their experiences.
After Hannah and Shane recently tied the knot at an intimate home ceremony, they shared a photo of the day on social media.
“We’re husband and wife!!!!” wrote Hannah. “I’m incredibly lucky to now be married to the greatest guy I know.”
But they were met with messages like this:
“For real though… does she also have another partner for having sex with?”
“Is he rich or something?”
“Oh my God… this must be photoshopped.”
The reason, YouTubers Shane and Hannahbelieve, is because he’s disabled and she’s not. Shane has spinal muscular atrophy and has used a wheelchair since he was two.
The couple, who live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, tell BBC Three that the knee-jerk response reflects how misinformed many people still are towards disability and dating.
“Our society tells us that disabled people aren’t worthy partners,” she says. “There’s almost no positive representation of disability or dating with a disability in our media, so many people think that disabled people couldn’t possibly be in a healthy, wonderful relationship.
“This means when they see Shane and I, they invent conspiracy theories to try to reconcile our relationship with what they’ve been taught.”
‘The media makes disability undesirable’
One survey, from 2014, suggests that 44% of Brits sampled wouldn’t consider having sex with someone who had a physical disability, while 50% wouldn’t rule out the possibility.
Shane, 28, says the lack of positive representation often made him feel like he “would never find a partner”.
“The things I saw in the media made disability out to be extremely undesirable,” he says.
“This led me to believe that most people would not want to be bothered with dating someone who had a disability.”
Hannah, 24, says that while Shane’s disability never bothered her (they got chatting after she saw one of his vlogs online), she’d equally “never met anyone who used a wheelchair or had a physical disability.”
There’s also a debate about how disabled and non-disabled couples describe themselves.
In the US, some couples, including within the disability vlogging community, have started to use the term “interabled”.
But it’s not widely accepted. Some feel it’s an unhelpful reinforcement of narrow-minded, medically-orientated thinking.
“It’s inaccurate and focuses on the physical or mental differences between the two people (or more) in a relationship,” says disability campaigner and broadcaster Mik Scarlet.
“Disabled people spend far too much time trying to get wider society to understand the ‘social model of disability’, which suggests we aren’t disabled by our bodies but the way society treats us, so when a concept like ‘interabled’ takes hold it undoes so much of that work.”
BBC Three spoke to other young couples about their experiences…
‘People assume we’re siblings’
Charlie and Gina
I have cerebral palsy due to lack of oxygen to the brain at 10 weeks old. I mainly use a wheelchair as I have problems with balance and use of my lower limbs.
Gina and I have been together for just over three years.
Gina’s never been fazed by the disability. She did ask a lot of questions at the beginning of our relationship, but I didn’t mind that. Since she knew that I was disabled from the beginning, and we developed our relationship online, by the time we met in person we were already quite committed and it didn’t matter at all.
In terms of social perceptions, it’s interesting that people often assume we’re siblings. Sure, we’re both ginger, but I think it’s easier for people to assume a disabled person would be out with their family instead of having a partner.
We also get a lot of people thanking or praising Gina for being with me, which makes me sound like a booby prize or that she’s settled for something she shouldn’t have to put up with.
People also seem to think it must be a very one-sided relationship, with Gina doing everything for me. The opposite is true: it’s a two-way street just like everyone else’s relationships. Yes, she may help physically day-to-day but I support her through mental struggles and everyday life.
If there’s one thing I want people to understand it’s that relationships are relationships. They have ups and downs, responsibilities, and care and understanding for each other. Having a disability doesn’t change that. If you’re in a relationship with someone with a disability, it is just that. No ulterior motives.
When we first started chatting, I asked Charlie if he minded if I asked some questions… ice-breakers, life questions. I said he could do the same, and we turned it into a fun, silly game.
A lot of mine involved questions about his disability, but I had said that if I asked a stupid question or one he didn’t want to answer, he didn’t have to. It helped to get a lot covered, so nothing felt awkward when we met.
Fast-forward three years. When we’re out, I’ve got used to the shocked, sympathy look I get when I mention my boyfriend is a wheelchair user or that I have to assist him with certain tasks. People say, “that must be a lot for you… I bet it was difficult to decide whether you wanted to move forward with the relationship.”
The answer, bluntly, is no. I always reply with a compliment to Charlie or explain that no, I am not in a burdensome one-way relationship, but rather with him because he is an amazing, loving and caring person.
I think a lot of the misunderstanding comes from people believing that helping a disabled person can only be a chore – the duty of a paid friend or assistant.
What they fail to understand is that, actually, when I help Charlie, it doesn’t weaken the relationship and take the love away. If anything it heightens it. I never use the word carer for this reason, I am Charlie’s partner through everything.
‘There’s a taboo around disability and sex’
Lucy and Arun
I have fibromyalgia, a musculoskeletal disability. Symptoms include chronic pain, brain fog, chronic fatigue and probably the one that affects me most – mobility. I regularly require the use of a stick or other support.
I met Arun over two years ago on an exchange programme in Los Angeles. As I’m so open, he fell in love with me knowing about my disability.
Arun understands that my body is very different and unpredictable – he’s not only the most caring person but also the most supportive.
On a day-to-day basis, I need quite a lot of help to stay mobile as I struggle with public transport, can’t walk very far and unfortunately cannot drive at the moment (a lot has to be taken into consideration). I am lucky that Arun drives and will help me run errands like shopping.
The fact that fibro is invisible means we are initially perceived as a couple without the disability, but this means it can come as more of a visible shock to some people.
It’s frustrating, as Arun gets inundated with lots of questions. In public I tend to brush it off a lot more whereas he can get quite hot-headed sometimes. However, at home, I have a lot more panic attacks and breakdowns because it gets incredibly overwhelming.
I wish people would understand that my disability doesn’t entitle you to any more information about my private life compared to anyone else.
That said, there’s definitely a taboo around disability and sex, in that people think you cannot have both.
While this may be true for some cases, I feel people who are disabled have a much deeper appreciation about what it means to be intimate and have sex. It’s not just about penetration (sorry to be so blunt), but I think more about the feelings and emotion, the foreplay and the pleasure.
It’s a whole experience that I think some non-disabled couples would say that they are lacking.
‘Care should exist in all romantic relationships’
Lorna and Rob
I’ve been with Rob for 11 years, and married for four. We’d been together for about seven years when I was diagnosed with ME, which causes severe fatigue and leaves me often using a wheelchair and housebound most of the time.
It also means Rob has to help me with some personal care, such as showering and other day-to-day tasks.
I would say it absolutely brought us closer as a couple, and continues to do so. I think care within a relationship, although often tricky to navigate, can be so intimate.
This isn’t to say it’s been an easy adjustment, for either of us.
The transition has been difficult for me, as my life has changed so drastically. I had to forgo my career as a teacher and that really impacted my sense of self-worth.
However, I’m lucky that I was able to access some therapy on the NHS and my therapist and I did a lot of work on this. The main thing that helped was reframing what we consider to be “helpful”.
So although I may not be able to do the hoovering or the cooking, I listen to him when he needs to offload about his day. I do the meal plans to ensure we’re both getting a healthy, balanced diet.
The fact is, care of some form should exist in all romantic relationships – abled and disabled – otherwise what exactly are you doing with each other?
In terms of life beyond the home, having a fluctuating condition and chronic fatigue means that we can never really make any concrete plans.
Obviously we still have our moments of frustration, but I would say that it’s actually taught us both to be way more flexible and laid-back, and also to live a little more in the present and appreciate the smaller things that are still accessible to us.
Plus, that guy is like, obsessed with me or something, he’s happy just being with me! Our sex life is strong, mainly because we communicate.
As a society, we still fail to see disabled people as fully realised human beings with the same spectrum of emotional and physical needs as anyone else.
This needs to change. I lost all my confidence and I worried that my husband wouldn’t find me desirable anymore, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Plus, I still fancy the pants off my husband, so that always helps.
An American woman looks set to be deported from Bali after her Twitter thread promoting the island as a cheap and LGBT-friendly option for foreigners during the pandemic went viral.
Kristen Gray sparked backlash for her lack of cultural awareness following the tweets on her “elevated lifestyle”.
Indonesian authorities have since accused her of spreading information that could “unsettle” the public.
But Ms Gray says she is being targeted because she spoke out about being LGBT.
Even though the Balinese are mostly Hindu, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation where its LGBT community has faced discrimination.
Ms Gray is being held at an immigration detention facility and will be deported as soon as a flight is available, Reuters news agency reports.
The Los Angeles native moved to the Indonesian island with her girlfriend a year ago, describing it as “the perfect medicine”.
In a Twitter thread, she raved about Bali being LGBT-friendly, and enthused about the “lower cost of living” there.
In her tweets, Gray – a self-described “digital nomad” – had promoted the sale of her e-book titled ‘Our Bali Life Is Yours’, which is said to have links to visa agents and tips on how foreigners could get to the country.
“It’s a guide breaking down how we did it and how you can do it too,” said one of the now-deleted tweets.
Gray had added: “The island has been amazing because of our elevated lifestyle at a much lower cost of living. I was paying US$1,300 for my LA studio. Now I have a treehouse for US$400.”
The tweets, which initially caused a backlash online, soon caught the attention of immigration officials. Authorities now say she may have violated a number of immigration laws, including spreading information that could “unsettle” the public – such as the idea that Bali was queer friendly, and that foreigners could easily get past borders amid the pandemic.
She is also accused of working without a business visa.
Indonesia has temporarily restricted foreign arrivals since 1 January to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
In response to the deportation announcement, Gray told reporters that she is “not guilty”.
“I have not overstayed my visa. I am not making money in Indonesian rupiah. I put out a statement about LGBT and I am deported because I am LGBT.”