For most of Spring this year, I thought of nothing but my heart. I had succeeded in conquering the respiratory portion of the virus, but what dogged me were the circulatory issues: the arrhythmia, the tachycardia, the chest pains, the sensation that my blood had turned to tar. I read about much younger women having pulmonary embolisms, and I rarely took the stairs, and I got used to questioning every new feeling in my body, wondering whether what I was experiencing was benign, or the beginning of a cardiac event. I thought quite often of that famous opening line by Karl Ove Knausgaard: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.” In one sense, my life had never been more simple, since the trouble with my heart now occupied me in my every waking minute; in another, the intensity of feeling that accompanied my new preoccupation — my new hobby, my new specialism, my new full-time job — complicated my existence like no other adult experience other than, perhaps, falling in love. It had never been easier to see why we talked about the heart as if it held the whole of our emotional selves. I listened to it the way I might read text messages from a desired lover: neurotically, repetitively, attentive to every detail, aware of the possibility of mutually-assured destruction.
To distract myself from thinking about my impending doom, I binged a lot of television, much of it extremely stupid. Dating shows, not previously interesting to me, held a mysterious allure, maybe because the idea of a group of strangers being reckless with their hearts seemed apropos. In Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle, which I watched over a weekend, men and women with such perfect bodies and generic faces that they do not need to have thoughts, personalities or individual tastes are marooned on an island for a single sultry month. They are cocky, horny, young, and very bold, and they are less interested in each other’s hearts than they are in points further south. Sharron is “most proud of [his] penis,” which he once photographed next to an air freshener for scale; bisexual Hayley, a sorority girl, has a mysterious tattoo in a language she cannot identify; David, an Englishman, describes himself as a sex-party-loving gentleman. Harry is, per Hayley, “from Australia, and I have literally no idea where that is.” Rhonda, who is secretly a single mother, is so sane and reasonable in comparison to every other babe that it is unclear why she signed up for the show. Matthew’s “thing” is his resemblance to Jesus; Bryce’s “thing” is the fact he lives on a boat, which one of the other contestants notes might either mean that he is really rich, or stony broke. Kelz, another British hunk, self-identifies as “a lion,” in part due to his love of The Lion King, and Irish Nicola — somewhat alarmingly — loves “giving men the snip.”
As is common for reality TV, there is a twist. The sting in this particular dating show’s tail is that contestants, after the first eight or so hours on the island, are forbidden from any sexual contact with each other. Their celibacy will be policed by a small, cone-shaped robot, Lana, whose birthplace is listed in the chyron as “Factory, China,” and whose voice is clipped and British. (Lana, I am certain, is a Tory.) There is money to be won, but how much money depends on how many sexual infractions are committed, at a series of varying costs: $3,000 for a kiss, $6,000 for oral sex, and $20,000 for what the show classes as full sex, presumably meaning heterosexual intercourse. “This is like the worst horror movie you could think of,” Harry, who has obviously not seen many horror movies, says.
What the show suggests is that young people with good bodies and extremely active Tindr profiles are in some way living deviant lifestyles, choosing to avoid the kind of emotional, intellectual and intimate connections that might lead, under ideal circumstances, to a marriage and two children. That the best way to convince serial daters of the existence of soul mates might not be to force them to select one out of a limited group of other serial daters does not seem to have occurred to the producers of Too Hot to Handle. That some of them may be more adept at fucking than at talking, and that being more adept at fucking than at talking may in fact be beneficial in some contexts, has not either. For a dating show obsessed with sex, it is alarmingly uptight, more Republican-lite than RedTube. What is most bizarre is its suggestion that the ultimate in TV entertainment is not something like Love Island, where contestants are encouraged to “do bits” as part of forming a connection, but its polar opposite: a show in which a group of ostensibly sexy men and women are denied release for the purposes of reprogramming. The premise is, ironically, not unlike that of certain porn. Abjuration makes the heart — or maybe not the heart, per se — grow fonder.
“Bizarre” may be the wrong word for a TV show about hot people banned from sleeping with each other. More appropriate might be “old-school,” or “old-fashioned” — “out of time.” Two decades ago in 2000, an anonymous multimillionaire contacted Jive records, then the representatives of Britney Spears, offering the very precise sum of seven-point-five million dollars in exchange for her virginity. “It’s a disgusting offer,” Spears spat, understandably distressed. “He should go and have a cold shower and leave me alone. It’s outrageous how a man like that can offer something which is totally unacceptable.” The following year, she signed a ten million dollar Pepsi contract. Cannier by far than her detractors would allow, she knew the value of her image — sweet but sexy, girlish but possessed of womanly desires, innocent but not exactly unaware — enough to know that not only was the anonymous multimillionaire’s offer an insult on moral grounds, it was a lowball. Her extremely of-the-period combination of ostensible virginity and fuckability, a very literal interpretation of an ancient archetype, was then in-step with an American morality that preferred women who were passive but exposed, babes who at least feigned ignorance of their power. Paris Hilton, decidedly un-virginal and less popular with preteens, nailed the contradiction in a contemporaneous interview with Rolling Stone: “My boyfriends always say that I’m not sexual,” she suggested. “Sexy, but not sexual.” In her sex tape, she is thrilled to be on camera; she does not find the actual sex engaging enough to prevent her answering her phone. A truly brilliant businesswoman, after all, never clocks off.
Third-wave feminism, with its whole-hearted embrace of sluthood, put paid to the idea that women should be seen mostly naked, but not heard talking about their sexual histories; fourth-wave feminism, with its whole-hearted embrace of Twitter, allowed women to crack cum jokes at the same time as campaigning for their reproductive rights. Heterosexuality became a subject of some ridicule, the desire to have sex with heterosexual men being treated, albeit humorously, as a lapse in judgement. In this context, a show like Too Hot to Handle scans as boomerish, alarmist — too much like the worst episodes of Black Mirror in its fear of Gen Z tech. (“What if sex apps, but too much?”) Two female cast-mates in particular make fascinating studies for the show’s dubious premise: namely, that “meaningless” sex, absent emotion, is dysfunctional. The first is Chloe, a sweet-natured, funny, goofy twenty-year old who is either very dim, or a Marilyn-level genius at approximating dimness. “I’m not the brightest spark in the book,” she tells the camera, proudly, by way of an introduction. “Everyone here is, like, sexual. Like, proper sexual.” She is built like a gazelle, all arms and legs, perfect for pratfalls. In a sea of minute, regulation nose-jobs, she has a prominent nose. She does not laugh so much as cachinnate, finding at least one thing hysterical in every episode. Her understanding of perspective — “they look like they’re tiny little miniature sexy men,” she cackles, watching the boys swim out on the ocean, “in, like, tiny little bits of water” — is not unlike that of Father Dougal, another perpetually cheerful bimbo with a pure, unerring heart. She kisses several men, but does not sleep with anybody, largely because nobody is to her liking; generally, her attitude to sex is ludic, as lighthearted as if it were a two-player sport, like tennis.
Her less free-spirited, laser-focused opposite is the Canadian Francesca, an Instagram influencer who resembles a competitor-brand version of Emily Ratajkowski, and whose honest-to-God reaction to being told about the four-week sex ban is to say that it feels like her “mom just died.” She is chill to the point of unfriendliness, disinterested in anything other than sexual validation, and as mechanized in her delivery as the show’s actual robot host. She has a perfect body, but she does not feel embodied the way Chloe, who is all id and no superego, does — she is as symmetrical and as un-erotic as a doll.
Francesca is the closest thing the show has to a villainess, her eyes betraying very little unless she is feeling vengeful, or displeased. “I didn’t get what I wanted out of it,” she seethes when Kelz, the show’s most budget-conscious man, declines to kiss her; afterwards, she teases him by miming sex positions in his eye-line. She kisses the obviously smitten Hayley for the joy of costing everyone else money, and her disregard for the show’s vow of chastity depletes the prize until the rest of the contestants appear ready to revolt.
Francesca, who makes an extremely good living on Instagram, could not care less about the possibility of making money from the show. What does Francesca really want? It is unclear. She has the air of a goal-orientated person. She does not ever seem particularly joyful, even after getting laid. She and Harry, the Australian, are quick to form an on-and-off romance, their most intimate conversation being one about the correct way to pronounce “oregano.” By the show’s end, they have slept together several times, and coupled off with the intention of remaining a serious prospect in the outside world. By the reunion show, the two are affianced. Smiling grimly over Skype, each of them recalls nothing so much as the recently-reprogrammed Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, exclaiming with a note of quivering mania in his voice that he is “completely reformed!”
The remolding of an unenthusiastic easy lover into a factory-issue blushing bride might remind viewers of another relic of the nineties and the noughties, this time via HBO. The reveal that Carrie Bradshaw could not achieve orgasm unless she loved the man she’d slept with remains, in the face of some extraordinary competition, one of the most irritating and deranged storylines in Sex and the City, a show whose first season aired just one year before Britney Spears released her debut, Baby…One More Time. Bradshaw, a supposed sexual libertine, never removed her bra for sex, believed bisexual people were a myth, and spent six seasons looking for her happy ending, i.e. marriage to a very wealthy man who worked on Wall Street. Nothing looks more out of date than the suggestion that the viewer should identify with her marital designs on a man who treats her callously, juggles her with another woman, and then makes it up to her in the 2008 movie by purchasing her a very, very chichi penthouse on Fifth Avenue. As much as the show talked a big game about sexual permissiveness, season six ended in 2004 with all four women in heterosexual life partnerships, monogamous and settled, as if all that sex had only been for practice, killing time. The dream of a hot girl making the move from promiscuity to marital respectability, renouncing sluthood in favor of happy, lifelong wifehood, is an old-fashioned enough image of sexual liberation that it is the plot of Deep Throat, the 1970s porno whose adherence to the rule that movies have to end in marriage made it legitimate enough to be screened in certain movie theaters.
What Too Hot to Handle misses is the fact that it is not sex without love, but sex without pleasure or joy that kills the soul. Contestants may not form meaningful partnerships, but they may not particularly need to, either — they are all young and alive, and open to the possibility of something brief and mutually satisfying. “Do you see yourself with her long term?” Kelz asks Matthew about one or other of the girls, before adding, brilliantly: “When I say long-term, I mean about four weeks.” For the groin, as for the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. No contestant appears happier than Chloe, who is content to allow the soft animal of her body to shag what it shags, spending her life in service of her own desires. When the heart — the beating, bloodied fist of it, and not the abstract shape of love — looks apt to fail, desire goes first, the drive to live being more important than the ones that bring us pleasure.
By late June, I had learned that there was nothing irreparably broken in my heart, making catastrophe feel like less of an immediate threat. Life, modified to allow for my lingering weakness, commenced at a glacial pace. Still, my body did not — and still does not — feel entirely like my body; it no longer breathed as easily, or moved as painlessly, or did a number of the things it had been capable of with the same assurance or élan. More than ever, it seemed difficult to dismiss the idea of taking pleasure in one’s dazzling aliveness, and it seemed impossible to deny that this very quality had been what I had wanted to experience, vicariously, from Too Hot To Handle: an ambient sense of happy, brainless ease, a casual fearlessness about my body’s use. Racking up minor victories, I still occasionally checked the Instagram accounts of some of the contestants. In July, I walked two miles for the first time in several months, and felt the first real heat of summer on my face. Online, Francesca announced that she was no longer engaged to marry Harry the Australian, who “couldn’t do long-distance,” and leveraged her appearance on the show into a line of tiny, Barbie-colored loungewear. Chloe, underneath a picture of herself wearing a denim playsuit, kneeling on a leather couch, posted on Instagram that she was single, and had no immediate plans to change that fact. “Don’t look for the person you want to spend the rest of your life with,” she suggested. “BECOME THE PERSON YOU WANT TO SPEND THE REST OF YOUR LIFE WITH.” In the comments, fans left heart emoji after heart emoji.