Going out into a field and having sex with your partner under the stars probably sounds romantic to most people, but for us, it was the only option we had.” When she says “us,” Kristen, 30, is referring to young humanitarian aid workers who spend years living among impoverished people in remote African villages, besieged refugee camps or other areas suffering a lack of resources amid political crises or natural disasters. More than 800 million people around the world live in such conditions, and today some 4,500 worldwide organizations provide them aid with the help of 450,000 workers.
For roughly four years, Kristen was part of that community. At the age of 24, she joined an evangelical Christian international aid organization. Abroad, she bounced from Haiti to war-torn South Sudan to Kenya, working as an information officer. Her duties included facilitating deliveries of food and clean water to refugees. She was also single at the time, which is characteristic of many young people who do humanitarian work after graduating from college or during a gap year. In the Peace Corps, for example, 95 percent of volunteers, average age 28, are single when they enlist.
Whether domestic or international, most programs require a commitment of anywhere from a few months to two years. Location assignments are temporary. Overseas, reliable transportation is rare and colleagues from the same program may be scattered across thousands of miles. In other words, if you’re a humanitarian aid worker and single, as Kristen was, a Tinder match is virtually worlds away.
Those circumstances have set the groundwork for an unparalleled dating and hookup culture that unfolds in bare-bones cabins, tents and homestays speckled among locales withstanding harsh political, social or environmental conditions. While the rest of their generation is swiping for one-night stands, millennial aid workers are simply looking for someone who speaks the same language. Sex is almost always on the table when they finally find a candidate who checks all the boxes—because when you’re a young humanitarian abroad, sex is a novelty free of the Western world’s reign of unanswered texts, first dates and late-night booty calls. It’s also a welcome distraction for relatively liberated millennials who are quite literally saving the world.
“I essentially watched a social experiment involving a bunch of extremely horny kids,” says Melissa, a 27-year-old DJ in West Virginia who spent close to a year in AmeriCorps’s community-service program. “Every single volunteer I knew had a hookup if they weren’t in a relationship.” Adds Kristen, “Aid workers have a reputation for not being interested in commitment because they need to be ready to leave at any time. You’re in a pool of people who sort of have the motto ‘We don’t commit’—and it has an impact on everybody.”
That brings us back to the false “romance” of hooking up in a grassy field kissed by gleaming constellations. How does someone date while devoting his or her life to others? When you’re young, single and living halfway around the world in these programs, there’s no privacy. You can’t afford to go to a candle-lit -restaurant—or even a dive bar—on a first date. There might not even be hot water to shower in. It’s just you and your biological need for affection—and your need to get laid. Sometimes that means hooking up in a field because it’s the only place you won’t get caught. Other times it means having to wait months to see a gynecologist. One thing is certain: Humanitarian relief work is not for the faint of heart. Trying to maintain the slightest semblance of a relationship, whether casual or exclusive, in the middle of it is just as arduous. “My term of service was more socially and psychologically taxing than anything else I’ve experienced,” says Melissa. “It will test every single belief that you have about yourself.”
Changing the world has become little more than a catchphrase used by charities, beauty-pageant queens and giant corporations to evoke benevolence, raise money and sell products. But thousands of people still wholeheartedly believe in their ability as individuals to advance humanity. For decades, the most well-known service organization was the International Red Cross, established in 1863 to help wounded soldiers. Ninety-eight years later, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy authorized the formation of the Peace Corps by executive order. Since then, thousands of other programs have been launched and funded by governments, nongovernmental organizations, religious groups and celebrities.
In 2015, global humanitarian aid received $28 billion in funding. When you consider that’s how much revenue Apple made via its App Store last year, the world’s budget for alleviating suffering seems like small change. Nonetheless, these programs survive, if only as a backup plan for millennials navigating a still-faltering economy in which people in their early to mid-20s are twice as likely to be unemployed as those in their mid-30s and early 40s. Couple that with current global instability—civilian bombings in the Middle East, xenophobia sweeping across Europe, 10 countries on the brink of genocide and 13.5 percent of Americans living below the poverty line—and humanitarian work is a reliable, albeit sometimes last-resort option for a socially conscious, unemployed generation.
The stereotype of aid workers and volunteers ranges from an undergrad who wears Birkenstocks year-round to your homely cousin who still goes to Bible study on Wednesdays. The reality, however, is that there is no such thing as an average volunteer. They come from all walks of life, with different levels of privilege and of dedication. And though their backgrounds are varied, all young aid workers share one thing: the inescapable pull of their sexuality.
In the Peace Corps, women outnumber men two to one, but that doesn’t automatically turn the service world into a veritable swingers party. While it’s common for people to pair off early in their assignments, that can end up being as disastrous as when a pencil pusher hooks up with an office mate. “These are people you are going to have to rely on at some point,” explains Savannah, a 24-year-old who worked in the Middle East with the American Community School and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees. “When you’re living in a developing country, something will inevitably go wrong. Your car will break down. Your visa will be messed up. You’ll get stuck in a political riot. And you’ll be incredibly thankful when the person coming to your rescue isn’t someone with whom you’ve had an awkward sexual encounter.”
Some volunteers who bypass that advice and date within their programs rarely see each other, let alone another English speaker, during their terms of service anyway. Jake, a Florida native who lived alone in an apartment in Ukraine during a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, says the nearest fellow volunteer was hours away by bus or train. When Erik, a professional diver in New York City who is from Washington, D.C., signed up with the Peace Corps, he was sent to Cambodia, where he lived in a homestay. When he created an OkCupid profile, the dating site delivered a lone match with one nonlocal woman within 200 miles. “There’s definitely some isolation and loneliness,” Jake says. “If not being able to date or connect with someone emotionally is a deal breaker for you, I caution that there’s going to be a lot of that.”
One might think the simple answer is to just date locally. But in addition to the obvious language barriers (most Americans don’t leave college speaking Swahili or Khmer), many third-world cultures frown on Westerners who arrive at their outpost only to spend time pursuing natives instead of performing community service. “As a guest in someone’s house, I couldn’t bring back girls,” says Erik. “But I was able to masturbate as frequently as I liked. In Cambodia, any woman I dated would have been viewed as ‘tarnished.’ Unless I proposed, the girl’s reputation would be ruined. It didn’t seem fair to me to do that just to get my rocks off.” Jake admits to going on dates with a few Ukrainian women, but they weren’t particularly successful. Because of the language barrier, “there wasn’t much for us to talk about,”he says.
Similarly, in East Africa, Kristen says, dating a local man was “a big no-no.” Because she was in a religious organization that prohibits premarital sex, she relied on meeting men through other groups, primarily nonreligious NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross.
But because so many aid workers are fresh out of college, some of them are anything but well-versed in lovemaking. Kristen says that in her organization, men seemed to struggle with their faith and their sexuality. “Because we’re part of a Christian organization, we don’t have sex!” she jokes about the mentality of her colleagues. One man from her program seemed particularly inexperienced when they dated. “I wonder if he had ever been sexually active at home,” she says. “I got the feeling he felt guilty all the time.”
The longer you’re in the field, the more open—or desperate—you become.
Erik claims he was one of the “more confident guys” in his program, but virgins are common. “I knew at least three guys who lost their virginity during service,” he says. Some volunteers chalk up such success stories to the phenomenon of “field goggles,” similar to beer goggles in a bar: The longer you’re in the field, the more open—or desperate—you become. A person may be a five when you’ve been in the field for five weeks, but he or she becomes a 10 after 10 weeks.
Such adjustments dig volunteers deeper into their culture of noncommittal hookups. “Fuckboys are an international phenomenon,” notes Savannah, who is now a public relations account coordinator in southern California. Growing up, Savannah lived mostly overseas. At 18, she started a six-year stint of service that involved working with USAID and the United Nations and in schools in Jordan and Russia. Despite her worldly upbringing, she quickly learned that when it comes to dating in the aid world, husband material is hard to come by. “Being a five-foot-10 blonde helps when you’re living in Asia,” she says, alluding to how some foreigners stand out abroad. “Looking back, though, I wouldn’t have gotten involved with the people I had if they weren’t right there. The temporary nature leads to poorer decisions. Working with high levels of emotional stress didn’t necessarily make it difficult to get in the mood, but it did make it hard to find good guys.”
Erik puts it a little more bluntly: “Love is love and sex is sex. People work overseas for such low wages, they tend not to be high maintenance in the romance department.” Most volunteer-based organizations pay their millennial humanitarians a stipend that forces them to have the same standard of living as the people they’re helping—about $200 a month. That doesn’t leave much for filet mignon and Veuve Clicquot.
Thus, anything and everything constitutes a date. “A date is when you meet someone in a public space and do something that’s free to little cost,” explains Melissa. “It’s not going to be anything fancy, because you can’t take nice clothes with you. I mean, we lived out of backpacks. We didn’t have much of an outfit selection, especially when it came to shoes.” Melissa estimates that in 10 months she put on makeup all of five times.
If you do manage to find someone you’re interested in, it usually takes weeks to schedule a second date. “When you date another volunteer, you understand that you can’t see each other every weekend,” Jake explains. Indeed, almost everyone interviewed for this story said that on average they saw the person they were dating only once a month. “You’ll see each other when you have to travel for other reasons, like a conference,” Jake says.
The upside of those long separations is that people have time to save money to treat their partners to an extravagant night out. Sharing a large order of McDonald’s french fries in a country’s capital, renting a hotel room, visiting a Sudanese tea hut (just a grass hut with a pot of water), watching a movie on a laptop and taking a cheap bus trip around a host country are all examples of lavish dates. And volunteers agree that romantic interests who bring them pieces of home score major points.
“Bringing memories of home is probably the most romantic thing you could do,” Kristen says. For her, gifts of chewing gum or a pot of hot water (for washing her hair) were the equivalent of a bouquet of roses. “One time, a guy made me Kraft macaroni and cheese and a peanut butter sandwich,” says Savannah. “I hadn’t had peanut butter in six months. He saved a Reese’s peanut butter cup, which cost him $6, for the end of the date. It was perfect.”
Because of the mental, emotional and physical stress of service, many organizations aim to keep their staffers as healthy as possible in the field. That includes providing them with contraceptives. The Peace Corps, for example, stocks field offices with condoms and includes them in medical kits handed out to every volunteer. Even in the most remote places, condoms are often widely available. When it comes to women seeking reproductive health care, however, things get more nebulous.
“I was never able to see a gynecologist,” Savannah says. “I wasn’t comfortable with the kind of education doctors received.” It’s a sentiment shared by many female aid workers, some of whom say they couldn’t openly talk about birth control or STD testing, since both carry social stigmas in many third-world nations. The necessity of such restraint elucidates the scale of the subpar or nonexistent female health care systems in developing countries, not to mention the societal laws that still rule women’s bodies in those places.
To manage, some female volunteers stow away six- to 12-month supplies of hormonal birth control pills before leaving home. In more developed countries such as Kenya, the pill is readily available without a prescription—and cheap too, at about a dollar a pack. Others buy pills discreetly from nurses in their programs. But when it comes to handling pregnancy scares, it’s a different story altogether.
An estimated nine out of 10 women in Africa live in countries with restrictive abortion laws. “In East Africa, abortion is a back-alley situation,” says Kristen. “They barely had dentists, much less abortions.” Volunteers who need abortions have to go home—or elsewhere. “The silver lining, I guess, is that an abortion would be easy to hide. You know, make a stop somewhere where no one knows you,” says Kristen. “People in service take monthlong leaves. It isn’t uncommon for someone to disappear for a few weeks. At home, if I disappeared for a few weeks, it would be weird. There, it’s normal.”
When it comes to disappearing for a bit, choppy phone signals, last-minute relocations and long hours make people less accountable, which can ease the pain of a breakup. In the field, it’s easier to ignore being ignored after a date. “At home, if someone doesn’t call, it’s like ‘Oh my gosh, he must be with another girl.’ There, it’s like ‘He’s in the middle of nowhere.’ There’s less to worry about,” says Kristen. “Because people live so far apart, going ‘no contact’ is easier.”
Even though sex is available if you’re willing to put some work into it, the stress of staying together—or managing a breakup—is why some volunteers make a pact to avoid sexual relations entirely. “You’re so physically and mentally exhausted. By the end of the day, you just want to sleep,” says Melissa. “On the weekends, you don’t want to go out of your way.” Jake similarly found himself abstaining in the first two months of his program while he got acclimated to Ukraine. “I didn’t have much energy for a girlfriend or sex,” he recalls. “There’s a lot of emotional stress that drains you.”
And this seems to be the larger narrative about humanitarian hookup culture. Your eagerness to hook up overseas reveals itself based on your view of whether sex is necessary in the first place. Some people are energized by one-night stands, Instagram DMs, Bumble matches and the chase. Others are exhausted by the politics of the game. And even more are freed by the idea that, in the end, they can always just walk away. Those attitudes are as prominent among millennials working in a Sudanese refugee camp as they are among the Friday night crowd at a bar in Manhattan. Is it realistic to date someone while you’re working to save the world? Absolutely. But is it worth it? Maybe not. After all, Gandhi wasn’t celibate for shits and giggles.
As Erik sums it up, there’s a certain way people think when it comes to love and sex in 2017, no matter where they live. Relationships will always have merit, but in the age of instant gratification, sex is disposable. “Sure, skinny-dipping with someone in an ocean of bioluminescent plankton is a great story,” he says, “but if you’re just looking to juggle each other’s genitalia, Tinder works just as well.”