MILLENNIAL LOVE IN THE TIME OF CORONA
What Too Hot To Handle’s enforced celibacy policy teaches us about dating in lockdown
As a new reality TV show about abstaining from sex becomes an instant hit, Olivia Petter explores how the pandemic has forced many of us to adopt its rules
Sex sells – but watching people not getting any makes for much better reality TV. At least, that’s the lesson viewers take away from Netflix’s latest offering, Too Hot to Handle. Following on from the outrageously watchable Love is Blind comes another binge-worthy dating series from the US streaming giant, only this time, its radical concept is more relatable than anyone on the production team could ever have predicted.
Too Hot to Handle follows a well-trodden format in the world of dating reality TV. A group of lithe-limbed and fame-hungry twenty-somethings are banished to a balmy location where they are encouraged to swan around in swimwear and find a mate. Yes, it’s ostensibly Love Island, only there’s a catch.
Unlike its liberal counterparts, Too Hot to Handle forbids its contestants from engaging in any form of physical intimacy. They cannot kiss, masturbate or have sex. If they break the rules, they incur a fee that is withdrawn from the $100,000 (£80,000) prize money awarded at the end of the series to whoever has shown the most personal growth in the month in which filming takes place.
The idea of making singletons wear a metaphorical chastity belt for a month, supposedly in order to form deeper connections than they might in the real world, would always have been a good pitch for a generation of people used to flings and casual hook-ups. But the completely unforeseeable change in worldwide circumstance, a pandemic and subsequent lockdown, has made the show more poignant than anyone could have imagined.
As the UK nears its sixth week in nationwide lockdown, those who do not live with a romantic partner are settling into yet another week of enforced celibacy. Much like the contestants on Too Hot to Handle, who were not told about the no-sex rule prior to filming, many Britons are experiencing an unprecedented and unexpected period of compulsory abstinence. People can continue to date virtually, of course, but unlike the contestants, they cannot spend time together in real life. So getting hot and heavy with a Hinge date is off the table for a while.
It’s not as apocalyptic as it sounds. Mia*, 19, has been going on regular FaceTime dates with a woman she met on an app at the start of lockdown and is already experiencing the enhanced connection the Too Hot to Handle contestants are told they will gain from not having sex. “I’ve never felt closer to someone who I have never actually met,” she says.
“We write letters to one another, drink wine together and I just posted her a copy of my favourite book. I think the fact that we are connecting so deeply in lockdown shows how we aren’t just talking for the sake of sex, which we both know can’t happen any time soon. It is strange but refreshing to feel so close to someone you have never met, let alone had sex with.”
The experience has been similarly enlivening for Sophie, 29, who has been going on virtual dates with a man she met on Badoo four weeks ago. “I’ve definitely felt that physical attraction while chatting to him,” she says. “But having to wait a little longer than normal to have sex does make me feel like it could mean more when we do.”
This unusual way of dating with enforced abstinence can also take away a lot of the pressure that surrounds getting intimate with someone for the first time, which is why Jess*, 27, has actually found it easier to date now than ever before. “I’m recently out of a long-term relationship, and the few dates I went on after my break-up made me feel really anxious as there was a pressure for physical contact,” she says.
“Removing the option of kissing someone (or going further) at the end has made me relax into it a bit more. I know I can just get to know a person first, build emotional intimacy and see if I like them without the external pressure of having to be intimate with each other physically.”
It has also helped her through a difficult post-break-up period. “I was rushing into a lot of casual flings after my long-term relationship ended,” she says. “I felt like my life was missing something, and it was just so easy to fill that absence by getting physical with someone else very quickly, even if they weren’t necessarily right for me. Now that’s no longer an option, it has forced me to sit with my thoughts and deal with the root of my own behaviour, which is a good thing.”
Jess’s post-break-up behaviour is common, says chartered psychologist Daria Kuss, particularly when dating apps have made physical intimacy as accessible as takeaways on Deliveroo. “It’s much easier to form a physical connection with someone compared to an emotional one,” Kuss says.
“It takes less time and effort, which is fine if all you’re looking for is something short-term. But if you have long-term intentions, a period of enforced celibacy could work in your favour, providing additional time and space to get to know someone and find out if they are compatible with you on intellectual, cognitive and lifestyle levels.”
Not having sex on the table from the start could also alleviate some of the anxieties that people have about exclusivity when entering into a new sexual relationship, says Dr Audrey Tang, chartered psychologist and author. “There is some sort of security that if you are not having sex with each other, you aren’t having it with anyone else either – that can potentially ease some insecurities of a new relationship,” she explains.
That said, abstaining from sex is by no means always easy, particularly when it is out of your control.
Kuss notes that physical touch has been scientifically proven to boast a number of health benefits, such as boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety and stress. “Therefore, enforced celibacy may increase the likelihood of having negative physical and psychological experiences and, in some cases, lead to the engagement in maladaptive alternative coping methods, such as alcohol consumption.”
It’s hard to know what impact this period of time will have on dating culture moving forward. One argument is that people who might’ve once been quick to rush into physical intimacy will pledge to take things at a slower pace. “Everyone is different,” says Tang. “But people who might have previously favoured casual sex and found deeper connections during this time without it, like some of the contestants on Too Hot to Handle, are likely to change their mindset moving forward.”
There is, of course, another prediction that after weeks without sex, single people will go on a bit of a binge, so to speak. “Those who like casual sex will continue to engage in it,” says Tang, “which is obviously not a problem so long as both people are in agreement.”
Despite seeing the benefits of abstinence firsthand, Jess believes that once the lockdown is lifted, casual sex culture will boom. “It’s inevitable that people will go a bit wild after lockdown, especially if they’ve been on multiple Zoom dates with someone,” she says.
“We’re all desperate for human connection right now, and physical contact is something you really miss if you’re doing lockdown as a single person. But having been through this period will still change things and make the reward of getting physical with the right romantic partner that much sweeter. Because when the time comes, you’ll feel ready – and very grateful.”
No one could have predicted when Too Hot to Handle was being made that life would soon imitate art. But what would have once been viewed as trashy TV fodder has instead become a mirror to our own dystopian reality. The difference is that the contestants on the programme have to abstain from sex for just one month. Given the constantly conflicting reports about when lockdown might be lifted, and suggestions that social distancing might last until at least the end of the year, it’s unlikely that anybody – not even Netflix – can predict what the sexual prognosis will be for the rest of us.
*Names have been changed