It's very satisfying to watch these people not get what they want. Credit: Netflix

April 23, 2020   5 mins

“Nobody can keep it in their pants these days because hooking up is as easy as swiping right.” So claims the narrator of Netflix’s new reality TV show, Too Hot to Handle, released last week. A group of gorgeous young hedonists assemble in paradise, believing themselves to be taking part in a show akin to Love Island, enjoying a month lounging around in swimsuits and hooking up. But, soon after they arrive, the twist is revealed: there is a prize of $100,000 available, but every time the contestants give in to erotic temptation — which includes sex, masturbation, kissing, and “heavy petting” — money will be deducted. Individual loss of control will therefore have group-level consequences, encouraging contestants to police one another. “This is like a horror movie,” wails one contestant when he finds out what he has unwittingly signed up for.

The contestants have been selected, not only for their beauty, but also for their particularly casual attitude towards romantic love. “I don’t really do relationships” says one, while another claims to have sex with a different woman every night. All are accustomed to effortlessly attracting suitors with their Instagram-perfect good looks but, as time goes on, we discover that they are less confident in their ability to form lasting relationships. This is, supposedly, the high-minded intention of the show: to teach these shallow young things how to form meaningful bonds without recourse to sex.

Of course the real appeal to viewers is schadenfreude. How deliciously satisfying to watch vapid, beautiful people told that they can’t have exactly what they want all the time, although I must admit that I found myself feeling more tender towards the contestants as it became clear how psychologically fragile they all were. No one acquires a body like that without excellent impulse control, and yet it seems that an ability to resist refined carbs doesn’t translate well into an ability to resist lust, perhaps because the challenge for these young people was less physical than it was emotional.

When one woman failed in her efforts to persuade a fellow contestant to break the rules, she seemed to crumble, having never before experienced sexual rejection. What do you do, when the only thing you’re good at is attracting sexual partners, and you’re not allowed to do that any more? Like all reality TV, this show places people in painful situations, and then lets the camera linger on their pain. But, unlike other reality TV, this shows pretends to be noble while tormenting its contestants.

Too Hot to Handle is a product of our times. The contestants arrived on set expecting to have sex with people they had just met for the entertainment of a TV audience. And, for the first 12 hours, before they learned the true premise of the show, they got right to it, with the camera zooming in on undulating tongues and kneading hands. This is a show that feeds on the toxic combination of exhibitionism and voyeurism encouraged by social media. It also relies on, and then manipulates, the expectations of our hypersexualised culture.

How quickly things change. In 1994, Wonderbra’s ‘Hello Boys’ posters were blamed for causing traffic accidents, with passing motorists distracted by Eva Herzigova’s boosted cleavage. A generation later, sexually explicit advertising is just wallpaper on the streetscape, barely even noticed. Graphic sex scenes in films have also been normalised, so much so that the idea of cutting away as characters kiss, leaving the rest to the imagination, now seems bizarrely old fashioned.

In her bestelling book Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy described the environment for modern teenagers as like “a candyland of sex…every magazine stand is a gumdrop castle of breasts, every reality show is a bootylicious Tootsie Roll tree.” That was in 2005, when audiences could still be shocked by Big Brother contestants fumbling under the covers, whereas Love Island has long since jumped the shark when it comes to showing real sex on TV.

Of course, we mustn’t fall into the trap of assuming that our forebears were models of sexual propriety. For men who can afford it, prostitution has always been a source of sex on demand, often tacitly condoned. And, for men of particularly high status, sexual access to social ‘inferiors’ has frequently been accepted as a perk. But, for everyone else, and particularly women, our culture of easy access to casual sex — both real and virtual — is historically unique. The availability of reliable contraception and the decriminalisation of abortion has freed women from the fear of unwanted pregnancy, radically altering sexual politics among heterosexuals. Meanwhile, the arrival of the internet has heralded a new era of access to online porn, with an attendant shift in sexual norms.

Which means that, several decades on, hypersexuality doesn’t have the ability to scandalise us as it once did. In fact, it has become rather boring. Our culture has gorged on sex, so much so that it’s easy to glaze over when yet more taut flesh is paraded before us. The cleverness of Too Hot to Handle, and the secret to its success, is that it recognises this fact. If we can’t be surprised by sex any more, then what can we be surprised by? Chastity.

The continuing influence of the NoFap movement is a testament to this overloading of sexual stimulation. Founded in 2011 by the American web developer Alexander Rhodes, NoFap encourages followers to give up both porn and masturbation (‘fap’ being slang derived from the sound of a man pleasuring himself). Followers — overwhelmingly male — are offered freedom from the addictive power of porn, and the consequent sexual dysfunction that is shockingly common among young men, alongside more dubious promises such as greater energy and mental clarity. In general, NoFap adherents are not interested in feminist criticisms of porn, and in fact there is plenty of misogyny within the online community, with women often portrayed as succubi. Instead, NoFap is a movement orientated around self control as a masculine virtue.

This may be starting to sound familiar. NoFap is not an explicitly religious movement, but it undoubtedly draws from Christian themes, and Christianity is unusual among religious traditions in applying expectations of sexual continence not only to women, but also to men, framing the ability to resist the body’s demands as a sign of spiritual integrity. As the UnHerd contributor Tom Holland argues in his latest book, Dominion, we mustn’t underestimate the importance of Christianity in shaping our contemporary moral ideas, and the Christian emphasis on sexual restraint, however inconsistently adhered to, continues to resonate in our secular times.

Christians have often interpreted sexual impulses as opponents to do battle with. Saint Augustine writes of his body as an adversary:

“I was held fast, not in fetters clamped upon me by another, but by my own will, which had the strength of iron chains. The enemy held my will in his power and from it he made a chain and shackled me.”

Expressing the same idea, one of the Too Hot to Handle contestants speaks of her desire to challenge her willpower by resisting sexual desire: “I want to test my limits.” These old ideas lie in wait for anyone who wants to pick them up again, with or without any kind of religious framing, and indeed the vocabulary of chastity has already been put to good use by the diet industry, with much talk of temptation, indulgence, and sin. Much like dieting, which can only exist within an environment of abundant food, this form of self-denial can only exist within an environment of abundant access to sexual pleasure.

And we are living through an era of unprecedented sexual abundance. Historically, it is not uncommon for periods of Bacchinalian excess to alternate with periods of austerity, for instance the randy Georgians, reacting against their Puritan forebears, and in turn condemned by their Victorian grandchildren.

But then the Georgians didn’t have The Pill or the internet. Our culture is more pornified than any that has come before, so much so that perhaps we are about to hit a ceiling, no longer capable of adding any more breasts or buttocks to our screens or public spaces. And, in a culture that still honours Christian moral ideas, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a reaction against the decadence of hypersexualisation. When viewers become bored with a particular style of plastic sexiness, producers are forced to innovate, and may call upon older ideas about sex and the body that remain meaningful.

Too Hot to Handle offers up a lucrative combination of these two impulses, giving us the opportunity to drool over beautiful bodies, while simultaneously idealising chastity, or at least pretending to. And by playing with both hypersexuality and puritanism at an historical moment in which they are in tension, this shallow, exploitative, and compelling show, now tipped to be more successful than Love Island, may just have struck gold.

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.