When Sharron Townsend, a cast member on Netflix’s reality dating show Too Hot to Handle, heard the show’s actual premise for the first time, he thought it was a joke. It was only their second day on set in sunny Punta Mita, Mexico, and the swimsuit-clad twentysomethings had just barely begun the get-to-know-you activities, like blindfolded kissing and groping. That’s when “Lana,” the omniscient robot who serves as the show’s host, steps in to break the news. “You have been selected because all of you are having meaningless flings instead of genuine relationships,” she tells the group. “You will have to abstain from sexual practices for the entirety of your stay.” From that point on, Lana reveals, all sexual activities will be penalized with deductions from the show’s $100,000 prize fund. Kisses begin at a steep $3,000. The 10 cast members look at each other aghast, some breathing deep, hands on hearts.
“My experience with [reality] shows was from [watching] Jersey Shore and Love & Hip Hop,” says Townsend, a special education teacher from New Jersey. “I thought we were just gonna be living life, drinking, and hooking up. So when I found out the rules were real, I remember saying, ‘Is this a church retreat? Is this therapy? I could do that at home!’”
Soon enough, “the hottest, horniest, commitment-phobic swipesters,” as the show describes the cast, are back in the game. Sex is swapped for self-reflection and emotional development. They attend intimacy-building workshops that include long stretches of eye-gazing, sharing their deepest shames, and examining their “yonis” (those who have them, anyway) with mirrors.
What gives? While reality TV has long been about the wanton drunken hookup — even series like The Real World, which started as a social experiment in cohabitation, quickly devolved into who’s-screwing-who — the new trend is all about keeping belts firmly buckled. Too Hot to Handle comes on the heels of another Netflix hit, Love Is Blind, which has cast members get engaged before they’ve ever laid eyes on one another. Even the most recent season of MTV’s Are You the One?, while not sex-free, incorporated a relationship coach to help its queer couples strengthen their bonds. In 2020, emotional horniness, it seems, is all the rage.
Too Hot to Handle executive producer Jonno Richards says the show had its genesis in “the fact that millennials and younger generations were jumping into bed with each other too quickly.” (Its working title was “Love Doesn’t Begin With a Dick Pic.”) His team also took some comedic inspiration from “The Contest” episode of Seinfeld, in which Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer compete to see who can go the longest without masturbating. Those two concepts combined, Richards says, “to create this funny idea of these serial swipers not being able to do anything sexual, and using that rule book to help them grow.”
“The idea is that you can have a deeper connection with others if you spend more time working on yourself,” echoes executive producer and showrunner Viki Kolar.
The cultural lament that relationships have become superficial and sex hollow in the age of social media is not new. It’s only logical that, eventually, television might offer a correction by pushing abstinence and cool-headed courtship where copious liquor and hot tubs once ruled. Yet, the show is not quite as virtuous as it sounds.
“Too Hot to Handle is ostensibly about chastity, but it’s actually about sex more than any reality show I’ve seen in a while,” says Danielle Lindemann, an associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University. “In the first episode, the cast members are all talking about how they want sex and are going to climb all over one another. They talk about sex all the time. There’s a guy comparing his penis to a can of air freshener.”
That guy is Townsend, who finds love on the show (though distance and a global pandemic have since thwarted the budding relationship) and now says he’s a changed man thanks to what he learned during all those intimacy exercises. But he also says that if he had known what he was getting into beforehand, he never would have applied.
The cast of Love Is Blind, on the other hand, went in with lifelong commitment as their goal. Created by the same production company behind the long-running arranged-marriage series Married at First Sight (now in its 10th season), Love Is Blind posits that pure, true love is possible for those who choose a partner based on personality, not looks. The show cuts appearances and pheromones out of the equation by having its 30 men and women go on “dates” through the sound-permeable walls of individual rooms it calls “pods.” As secrets are confessed and flirtations exchanged, intimacy deepens, sexual tension grows, and the physical separation becomes harder for some to bear. After 10 days, six couples become engaged, followed by the big reveal where they finally meet their new fiancé in person. Then it’s off to a romantic resort vacation, with four weeks to go until their made-for-TV wedding.
“There are more people in the world than ever, yet people seem to be struggling to find someone they want to spend time with, let alone spend the rest of their life with,” says Love Is Blind creator Chris Coelen. “The idea we based the show on is that physical attraction is one of the least important things to the success of a long-term relationship. Study after study shows that. And yet, I think as people date, physical attraction is right up front.”
Indeed, the bulk of Love Is Blind follows the couples as they settle into “normal” life together and plan their nuptials, all while trying to reconcile a disquieting reality: The disembodied voices they fell in love with are somewhat different than the real people they belong to. The couples who fare the best seem to be the ones whose emotional chemistry carries over quickly to the physical. Lauren Speed and Cameron Hamilton acknowledge having sex on their first night together; so do Amber Pike and Matthew Barnett. They go on to become the only couples who get married and remain together today.
Meanwhile, other couples, like Jessica Batten and Mark Cuevas, slip into an awkward purgatory that looks a lot like the friend zone. And, having spent so much time buying into the show’s core concept, the partners who just aren’t feeling it hang on until the bitter end. After she dumps Cuevas at the altar in the final episode, Batten tearfully reflects on what went wrong: “I connected with someone so deep, I could have never imagined. But I couldn’t translate that from pod to real life. For some people, love might be blind, but for me, it’s definitely not. It’s a mixture of mind, body, and soul. And I never got there, so that’s really hard.”
Similarly, Kelly Chase breaks up with Kenny Barnes on their wedding day, after saying that she’s just not as “infatuated” with him as she wants to be. Carlton Morton, who was briefly engaged to Diamond Jack, is a different case, but one that still comes back to sex in its own way. After proposing, Morton admits that he’s bisexual, setting off an explosive fight that ends in the couple’s breakup.
In the end, the altruism of the no-sex dating show may be nothing more than canny move by producers to make us obsess over sex in a whole new way. “Explicit sexual situations have saturated the reality TV industry,” says Rachel E. Dubrofsky, associate professor in the department of communication at the University of South Florida. “This trend is packaged to look like a focus on relationships and emotional intimacy, but really, sex is re-centered. The desire for sex, the anticipation of sex, and the breaking of the rules to have sex all propel the storylines.”
In Love Is Blind, cast members agonize about sexual feelings that just aren’t there. In Too Hot to Handle, cast members agonize about the fact that they want to have sex but “can’t” if they want to win the prize money. So is this newfound dating-show Puritanism just smoke and mirrors?
Townsend, for one, says he’s passing along what he learned on Too Hot about self-respect and the benefits of abstinence to the teens he teaches and coaches. He describes his new philosophy in terms that reflect both his sincere personal growth and the cynical equivalencies that come from learning morality through a reality TV dating show.
“I tell them, ‘It sounds cliché, but your body is a temple,’” Townsend says. “I tell them, ‘What if you had $100,000 in your bank account, and you had to give someone $3,000 to kiss them, or $20,000 to have sex? If you can say you don’t mind giving them that money, then you have your answer.’”