If you’re like me and haven’t been able to fill the reality-TV shaped hole in your life created by Love Is Blind, you may have seen the banner ads full of bright colors and tiny swimsuits promoting Netflix’s newest original reality show Too Hot to Handle.
The premise is simple. Put a handful of men and women who say they can’t get enough of sex in a Mexican resort for a month, then break the news that they’ll have to build meaningful relationships without sex, or even kissing. The big prize? A $100,000 pot—but that number decreases with every “infraction” the contestants commit.
I’m not going to lie, I’m a sucker for reality TV, especially shows I can half pay attention to. Although I was initially a little put off by the language, innuendos, and contestant behavior, I was surprised to find that past the flashy and scantily-clad marketing, the question of the show was intriguing: can these“sexy singles” create meaningful bonds that surpass physical attraction?
Building a foundation
I set low expectations early in the show, probably from the moment one woman admitted she doesn’t know where Australia is. The series is rated TV-MA, and for good reason. The contestants are in skimpy swimwear for most of the show, and between the cleavage views and the objectifying conversations between the contestants about each other and sex, there are a lot of scenes that are essentially soft-porn. As the show starts, the men and women complain—how will they go this long without any sexual release, not even masturbation? Even when the contestants understand their physical urges won’t be satiated, their conversations still largely center around what they want to do sexually with each other.
After the first couple kisses, which loses the group $3,000, the stakes become real.
The contestants begin talking as a group and having discussions about what they’re facing. Some are angry about the risky actions their castmates have taken. Others become defiant, saying they’ll do whatever they need to do to fulfill their sexual “needs,” regardless of the consequences. There are a few early pitfalls, especially when the producers introduce additional cast members, but for the most part, a team mindset emerges: don’t be stupid and don’t lose everyone money.
I noticed the dynamic shifting when some of the men begin having conversations with their male castmates about pursuing some of the women. “I don’t want to break the bro code” isn’t the most eloquent way of putting it, but, by not seeking sexual gratification, the men recognize that relationships are beginning to form, and they don’t want to step on their friends’ toes as they pursue certain women. The mentality starts to trend towards “I don’t want to hurt another person by screwing around.”
It’s not all sun, sand, and self-control, though. Throughout the season, the men and women are pulled aside, either by gender or all together, for self-improvement workshops. It was fascinating to watch the men, who wrote down their biggest fears and insecurities and shared them one-on-one with their male castmates. Many of them even cried.
The show sends a clear message—personal growth is necessary in order to grow romantic relationships. Men and women need to be vulnerable, taking a step back from physical intimacy in order to grow together. After their workshops, the contestants feel empowered, reaching out to the people they’re building relationships with and sharing more intimate details—such as one of the women revealing she’s a mother who misses her toddler-aged son.
As relationships among contestants start to form, many of the men and women start to recognize how sex too early in previous relationships prevented them from forming deeper emotional connections. Some contestants were even able to discover what past hurts had created the trust issues that put the physical over the emotional in romantic relationships.
The singles begin to express their frustration in one-on-one camera interviews: “Why can’t my castmates keep it in their pants? It really isn’t that hard.” This is a far cry from the show’s introductions to the cast, where many contestants brag about how many people they sleep with every week.
When the two notorious rule breakers are granted a night in a private suite, they have sex, and lose the group $20,000. The woman, Francesca, tells the group, “We’re closer than ever.” In the male conversation, another contestant remarks, “Physical interaction makes people closer.” They’re not wrong. We know that dopamine is released during sex, as well as oxytocin, which bonds partners. Although these singles have been having casual sex their whole lives, they begin to realize what it’s like to be invested in the person they’re attracted to—the butterflies, the desire to spend time together, and maybe even love.
This point is driven home when the rules of the game change midway through the season. Each contestant is given a watch to wear through the rest of their time on the island. The watch lights up for a limited time when show moderators see contestants form deeper emotional connections, giving the contestants a green light to exchange a kiss. The giddy contestants experience for themselves how much more meaningful physical affection is when it’s connected to an emotional connection.
So, who wins?
Because it’s reality TV, the season ends, of course, with a twist. While the castmates speculate about who will win the money, it’s revealed that everyone will be splitting the pot, as they’ve all grown significantly. The camera cuts to a sequence of the various cast members expressing their gratitude for the experience. “I’m going to share what I’ve learned with all my friends,” one proclaims. “Thank you for teaching me how to treat a woman,” one of the men says.
Previously, these contestants couldn’t be bothered to understand the link between sex and intimacy. Now, even though they’ve only lived with restrictions for a month, they’ve tackled many of the roadblocks that stand between sex as self-indulgence and sex as gift of self. Unsurprisingly, getting real with their partners—expressing fears, doubts, and vulnerabilities—was one of the practices that brought contestants closest.
The same applies in real life, not just on the TV screen. Sex with a foundational relationship leads to greater intimacy, a stronger bond, and, unsurprisingly, greater physical attraction and satisfaction. The show markets itself with sun-kissed, sexy singles, but the lesson is clear—sex isn’t just for fun. It has a real effect on both parties, emotionally and physically. While I don’t know that I’d recommend Too Hot to Handle as your next reality TV fix (definitely avoid pressing “play” in front of your grandmother or kids!), I was pleasantly surprised that the show’s message trended toward self-control and maturity, especially in an age when sex has less to do with intimacy than impulse. There were some surprisingly feel-good moments—and, of course some highly quotable moments as well.
“What’s the number for 911?” one contestant asks. Fumbling through the show together, the contestants manage to put out the fires of desire for the shared goal of self-respect.