Who has been binge-watching the reality TV shows Netflix has recently added? (/me raises hand!) We haven’t had cable television in over a decade and I had forgotten how horrible reality TV shows can be. My COVID TV consumption has led me down some dark paths — “Are You The One?,” “Alone,” “Strong,” “Survivor,” and there was another one about couples who were sex “fiends” and lost money every time they did anything physical with another contestant. <insert eye roll emoji here>
There is lip service paid to positive intentions behind shows like this — builds character, educates on healthy relationships, inspires connection with nature, exposes to new cultures, and/or creates a newer, healthier body. These intentions are promoted by the contestants themselves to further their progress in the show/game. Unfortunately, we know that the ultimate goal is not the betterment of the individual but the content that makes the most profit off the drama, using the vulnerabilities of contestants on the show. For COVID TV time it is candy for the brain, a quick hit of entertainment with little substance, in order to put aside the larger stressors of life for 45 minutes — at least that’s the excuse I use for watching it!
Focusing on relationship-based reality TV, through my sexology lens, all I can see are the harmful myths and perpetuation of shitty behaviors. Glaringly, these shows are hetero-dominant, overflowing with toxic masculinity, and emphasizing the madonna/whore roles for females. There are no redeeming qualities in shows like “The Bachelorette” or “Are You The One?,” but I’m going to push for an opportunity to educate!
Social lubricant? Yes.
Fun? Can be.
Great way to start a relationship? Fuck no!
The best time to have deep, meaningful conversation? Absolutely not.
In the first season of “Are You The One?” the level of alcohol consumption was breathtaking, and obviously, encouraged by the shows’ producers. I’m not here to say don’t drink (definitely, don’t drink and drive), but if the idea is to meet and develop a relationship with another person I will definitely argue against getting sloppy drunk together for the first number of dates. Trust me, you are never as sexy, intelligent, charming, or witty as you think when you are ten tequila shots down.
Beyond being able to have a coherent conversation and remember it the next day, we need to discuss what happens, physically, to the body and its ability to have sex when alcohol consumption is high. Alcohol affects your entire body and chronic abuse of alcohol can do long-term damage. For our purposes we’ll focus on the suppression of hormones that lead to sexual dysfunction. Chronic alcohol use or even a heavy binge-drinking event will lower the libido, preventing the production of natural lubricant in female bodies and causing erectile dysfunction i.e. no boner, in male bodies. It can feel like alcohol has freed your mind so that you can say and do the things you wouldn’t normally do but in fact, alcohol has turned off your brain.
If alcohol is being consumed with the hope of hooking up, it is best to remember that any amount of alcohol consumption prevents a person from giving full, informed consent to sexual behavior. This is true for all parties involved. Over half of all sexual assaults include some level of alcohol consumption. Best Practices: Don’t drink and have sex.
I am picking on alcohol but any mind-altering substance is going to interfere with a person’s ability to provide informed consent. Even consenting ahead of time before imbibing can go terribly wrong. When we alter our brains with drugs or alcohol, we can’t always account for how we will react once we are under the influence, which prevents anyone involved from retracting their consent. To be absolutely clear, saying yes once does not mean that someone cannot change their mind and say no later in the sexual activities. Anyone can say no at any time and all parties need to immediately stop the sexual behavior. Being fully aware to hear lovers and change behaviors can be deeply impaired when under the influence.
So how do we have sex without booze or drugs? Communication, consent, and lube.
Hetero-dominantI’m not going to spend much time here. Sexual orientation is a spectrum, not an either/or determination. I would argue that societal norms have quashed the population’s ability to see beyond straight or gay and recognize that there is an infinite number of options between the two. Rather than accepting one box or the other, live your life without the restrictions of a label and stop attacking folks who are different than you.
Toxic MasculinityThis, by far, is the most cringe-worthy aspect of these shows. There is so much here that I don’t know where to start!
Sadness/fear shown as anger
Mental illness as a joke
Disrespect is celebrated
I doubt I’ll be able to fully capture the horror played out in these shows in this issue. I was blown away by how damaging it must be to be a boy or man in the world today who is trying to avoid these types of behaviors.
There’s a moment in “Are You The One?” when a male contestant is in conflict with a couple of the female contestants, and rather than using his words, the male contestant reacts with violence by throwing something at a plate glass window. Great drama for the reality show, but a horrible human interaction that does nothing to resolve the situation. It is obvious that this male is emotionally hurt, but without support, he’s unable to communicate that hurt without a physical explosion of anger — which is the only acceptable response in a toxic environment.
Admittedly, I struggle with spending time talking about the struggles of men because I feel it is a betrayal of my feminist goals and focus. However, it is not females that need to change (some do!) it is men who have to change. We have to work not within our siloed, feminist spaces but start to push out and change the focus from how to be strong as womxn to inviting men to embrace all their emotions rather than anger and physical responses.
This is the space that needs attention and work. How do we shift a culture to support emotionally connected men without debasing their inherent drive as protectors and providers? How do we encourage and celebrate strong, assertive womxn without also asking them to be the only emotional laborers in all spaces?
A good start may be to not consume fictional, reality TV shows.
Please consider the following organizations for your end of year giving:
Movement for Black Lives - m4bl.org
Fair Fight - fairfight.com
SURJ - showingupforracialjustice.org
National Bail Fund Network - communityjusticeexchange.org
RAICES - raicestexas.org
ACLU - aclu.org
NAACP LDF - naacpldf.org
Black Live Matter - blacklivesmatter.com
Erin Brandt (she/her/hers) has been a sexologist for 15 years. When she’s not spreading sexual knowledge, Erin can be found learning from her child, hiking with her partner, cuddling with her pitbull, knitting with her cat, dancing with friends, and searching for the nearest hammock and ocean breeze. Want more? Visit www.positivesexed.com