Some people (wrongly) believe that 5G is the cause of the coronavirus. A better conspiracy is that the producers of Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle are to blame. The dating show’s premise is so well suited to the rules of social distancing, you wonder whether those behind it paid a scientist to engineer something in a petri dish for the sake of ratings.
Though it’s similar to Love Island in its combination of sunbaked abs, watered-down cocktails and neon-cushioned interiors, there’s one major difference. If the contestants of Too Hot to Handle engage in sexual contact, money is deducted from the £100,000 money pot waiting for everyone at the end. The idea is that they’ll build deeper emotional connections if the physical element of relationships is removed. Or at least, that’s how it is sold to us. We’re actually watching to see people who would’ve been mean to us at school squirm.
The characters are nothing particularly new. All of the women talk about “girl code” until they’re breaking it. All of the guys profess to be “an arse man”. Sharron is full of masculine bravado, using his pieces to camera as an opportunity to announce that his dick is the size of an air freshener can. Later on, he confesses to doing gender studies at university because it gave him the “blueprint of how to pick up women”. Judging from his pseudo-spiritual ramblings (“a bird can’t fly if it’s holding onto a branch”) and the horrifyingly low crotch of his trousers, Matthew is the hippy wildcard who probably bores people to death with accounts of that time he saw dancing elephants when tripping on Mescaline. Floridian sorority girl Haley is smart but chooses to pretend she isn’t: when Harry arrives and says he’s from Australia, she responds, “I literally have no idea where that is.” It gets worse: when Matthew arrives in a beanie, she asks, “Is that religious?” Harry, meanwhile, was probably the sort of boy who spent much of school pinging girls’ bra straps and peanutting his mates’ ties – and from the way he stares at everyone’s boobs, I imagine he’s still immature enough to find that sort of thing funny.
Before you despair, there is a point proved amid all the back-stabbing and eye-f***ing. Too Hot to Handle reasserts the age-old maxim: you always want what you can’t have. When they eventually learn about the sex ban, the contestants become deranged. Chloe is so worried they won’t manage it, she prescribes advice: “Think of your nan!” Harry’s horniness leads him to admit “I’m starting to look at the fish differently”, while another sighs, “I’m going to f*** a wall.” They hump mattresses and drum fingers as though waiting for someone to tell them dinner is ready. Considering the average person has sex 54 times a year, it shouldn’t be that hard (pardon the pun) to go a month without it. Maybe Netflix really has managed to collect the world’s top shaggers? Or maybe we only love shagging when it’s going to cost us?
Needless to say, the contestants find each other too hot not to handle. Twelve minutes into the second episode, Harry and Francesca are laid out on the bed snogging. Later that day, Francesca kisses Haley as a way of retaliating against the criticisms levelled at her for breaking the rules the first time. There are shared baths, fondling under duvets, more snogging. This seems wild considering £3,000 is taken away for every snog, £20,000 for sex. Personally, I’ve never had a kiss that was worth the cost of a second-hand car, or sex that was worth a deposit on a house. Londoner and self-proclaimed “King of the Jungle” Kelz is the only one with any sense: he rejects women who try to kiss him and sighs, “That’s like a week in Dubai” after another couple break the rules.
Though I was bemused at first, as the show progressed, I started to have sympathy for those who continued to fritter away months’ worth of pay for a couple of seconds with someone else’s tongue in their mouth. Aside from those using the services of sex workers, prior to the pandemic, the only price people put on sex was the cost-benefit of putting makeup on and missing an episode of Line of Duty. But since social distancing put a two-foot gap between us and other humans, sex has become a rare commodity for those not living with partners. And so its market rate has skyrocketed. How much would you pay for a kiss without the risk of infection? Or even just the opportunity to have another person wrap their arms around you? I don’t have £3,000 to hand, but I might pay £20, even £30.
If I just happened not to have sexual contact with another human for the duration we’ve been in lockdown (28 days), it would seem mildly bothersome, but acceptable. A predictable outcome of someone who increasingly chooses sleep over sex. But now that the law prevents me from going out and finding someone to have sex with, I’m so deeply frustrated, I think about sex more than I do whether or not to go downstairs and make myself another tea. Which is to say, a lot. When I go to the shop and catch eyes with a guy, I find myself fantasising about pushing him against the snack aisle and kissing until our jaws stiffen and our lips bruise. I scroll through Instagram profiles and everyone seems so much hotter than I remember, especially now they’ve shaved their hair off. Often, the best sex you’ll ever have is the sex you don’t have. Something hard against a jean zip. A mouth on a neck.
When the game ends, the camera turns off and the contestants of Too Hot to Handle are free to have as much sex as they want, they may well wonder what they were so looking forward to. Hands in the wrong place. An arm on hair. A vague jabbing sensation. Even on the show, seconds after someone’s broken the rules, you see how much it wasn’t worth it written across their faces. Chloe’s nose scrunches up after pulling away from her kiss with Bryce. “Not much good has come from this,” groans Francesca after snogging Harry. The only sex worth paying £20,000 for is the sort in your head.
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