There’s been a spike lately in what I like to call “restrictive dating” shows: reality TV that follows the format of fare like “The Bachelor” or “Bachelor in Paradise.” A group of sexy strangers are marooned in some gorgeous locale. They flirt. They have sex. They possibly fall in love.
Central to each of these shows is a distinctive wrinkle: What if you removed one important aspect of the dating ritual?
“Love is Blind” took away the ability to see one’s partner before proposing. Now, Netflix’s next restrictive dating show, “Too Hot to Handle,” which premieres Friday, takes away all the physicality. According to the show’s trailer, contestants are competing for $10,000 each. All they have to do is find love by the end of the show’s run — without kissing, having sex or masturbating while dating one another. If they do, their prize money dwindles.
In other words, they have to decide whether money or sex is more important to them (which sounds like my nightmare).
But if you take a step back, what these shows are really playing off are “rules” that single people love to put on themselves and other single people. When I was unattached, I can’t tell you how many times I was told that I should be paying more attention to someone’s personality instead of their looks — which is exactly the conceit behind “Love is Blind,” which asks contestants to fall in love with a person they haven’t seen, based solely on their personality. And raise your hand if you’ve ever been fed this line: “If you want to have a successful relationship, don’t have sex with them too soon.”
I give you “Too Hot To Handle.”
But are these rules we should actually be living by? Not necessarily, says clinical psychologist Nancy Lee, PhD, author of “Don’t Sleep With Him Yet.”
“‘Love is Blind’ especially billed itself as an ‘experiment,’ but it’s a flawed experiment,” Lee said. “Physical appeal will always factor in, no matter when it happens.”
You can find a perfect example of this in the story of Jessica Batten and Mark Cuevas from “Love is Blind.” They agreed to get married before ever seeing each other, but while Jessica felt she was in love with Mark, doubt crept in once she saw him. Over and over from there, she’d comment on how Mark wasn’t typically the type of guy she was attracted to. The more time they spent together physically, the worse things got. In fact, one of the only “good” dates they had was when they ate dinner together in separate rooms, unable to see one another. It’s no shock that they didn’t end up together.
“Attractiveness bled in. You just changed the order,” explained Lee.
Indeed, piles of research point to the unavoidable importance of attraction in dating. A 2005 University of Pennsylvania study of speed daters found that, regardless of the daters’ stated values, the element they ranked as most important in terms of wanting to see a date again was attractiveness.
As with “Love Is Blind,” Lee sees flaws within the experiment of “Too Hot to Handle” — and with waiting to sleep with someone until you’ve “proved” your connection.
“My book is all about doing what feels right for you — not following some arbitrary rule,” she said. “I think any mass message that people give is a real disservice.”
Delaying sex with a partner ramps up anticipation, which heightens the payoff for our brain’s rewards system. But what, exactly, is the reward? Is it a great relationship or just a really, really great first time in the sack? “Neither is guaranteed,” Lee said.
“Too Hot to Handle” provides an added element, too, in the form of competing rewards: sex on one side and money on the other. “Money, like sex, triggers dopamine, so it gets you excited, which builds anticipation toward a goal,” Lee said. Nothing is guaranteed there either, aside from heightened situations — which, in turn, lead to entertaining television.
And that’s the real point, isn’t it?
So no — we shouldn’t necessarily be following the lead of these “restrictive dating” shows. If they influence your dating life in any way, Lee says, it should be only this one: “It makes us realize how these things affect our relationships.”
“You’re taking out certain variables, which only works to draw focus on them,” she said.
Maybe it will help you forgive yourself for allowing physical chemistry to factor into your dating decisions.
It may not be the stuff of titillating reality television. But it sure is important in reality itself.