Love Island has gripped the nation once more over the past month—the show that encourages hot, single and often relationship-allergic people to couple up and pretend they’re in love for a £50,000 prize. Sound like an original concept? If it does, you obviously haven’t heard of Too Hot to Handle, Netflix’s copycat reality series wherein horny contestants must abstain from sex in order to win (you guessed it) an enormous cash prize. Think of Too Hot to Handle as Love Islands terrifying ex-girlfriend—the people are fitter, the accents are international and the dystopia is played up by the presence of ‘Lana’, a creepy Alexa-like entity that controls the contestants’ sex lives.

Central to both of these shows is the assumption that abstaining from sex leads to better relationships. Although this is more overt in Too Hot to Handle, with Lana enforcing celibacy more rigidly than a headteacher at a Year 11 prom, Love Island encourages couples to wait, with all couples sleeping in the same room and only one designated ‘Hideaway’, for which a couple must be selected by their friends to enter. Those who do have sex are often demonised, most famously in the case of Zara Holland, who, after having sex with Alex Bowen in the show’s second series, faced criticism from her fellow islanders and was controversially stripped of her Miss Great Britain title.

Although things have improved in recent years, there’s still an expectation for islanders to explain themselves once they’ve had sex in the villa (particularly those who don’t go on to end up with their partners). Despite having left the show three years ago, tabloid headlines often return to Megan Barton Hanson, who had sex with two different islanders during her stint. ‘Megan Barton-Hanson reveals she has no regrets about having sex on Love Island they exclaim with constant shock, or ‘Megan Barton Hanson hopes Love Island contestants have sex’. All power to Megan for sticking to her opinions, but the fact that her quotes are dug up every year is testament to how little the disapproval towards contestants who ‘give in’ to their sex drives has abated.

So why this return to the pre-sexual-revolution idea that abstinence equals happiness? Watching Too Hot to Handle, you would think that we were living in the Victorian era rather than the sexually liberated society that many of us recognise. To a modern audience, particularly to those integrated in British universities’ inevitable hook-up culture, this outdated idea of love is at best incompatible with our society’s values and at worst dangerously misogynistic.

According to YouGov, 18-19 year olds have sex 1.8 times a week—sex is a normal part of many casual and serious relationships, and I’m not convinced that TV shows which remove or even ban sex from the dating process are helpful or at all relatable. For one, championing celibacy doesn’t make these shows less superficial, with couples still initially selecting a partner based on physical attraction. Secondly, prohibiting something only means that you want what you can’t have, and there’s a desperate air to both programmes that heighten their tension but also undermines the idea of creating ‘meaningful’ relationships.

Notably, men and women have been seen to react differently to sex being taken off the table, creating painful situations year after year. In the latest series of Too Hot to Handle, contestant Cam’s solution to his sexual frustration was masturbation, whilst his partner Emily abstained, costing him and the rest of the cast $2,000. In Love Island, it’s the infamous ‘Casa Amor’—a secondary villa that separates the boys and girls in order to tempt them with a new cast of singles—that reveals couples’ fault lines. Each year a scorned woman watches as her long-term partner (long-term in Love Island can be defined as any duration between one to several weeks) returns to the villa with a girl that they’ve known for a matter of days. It makes for a depressing viewing. Indeed, banning sex doesn’t really seem to change male contestants’ actions, but merely puts women in a vulnerable position that often ends in heartbreak, like Amy from Love Island’s fifth series.

The outcome of both experiments is also disastrous, and demonstrates pretty effectively why we no longer live in a society where sex is taboo. Both shows’ success rates are unsurprisingly low, with 10 couples still together out of Love Islands 187 contestants, and only two pairs still together from Too Hot to Handle’s latest season. Because you know what’s worse than sleeping with someone on the first date? Being forced to talk to someone you don’t really know for three weeks and convincing yourself that it’s love. Go figure.

Women have only recently been permitted to publicly enjoy sex, albeit only in progressive circles—so why are we returning to shows that take this already contentious liberty away? Although I love Love Island (and even more shamefully, Too Hot to Handle)as much as the next person, the social experiment that these shows implement should stay firmly on screen and be taken with a huge pinch of salt. An abstinence-obsessed past is something that neither TV or real life should return to.


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