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Netflix’s latest tawdry reality show, Too Hot to Handle, can barely stand itself. It begins as many dating programs do, with a bevy of attractive young people living together in a luxurious, tropical location. It takes the cast under 10 minutes to begin comparing breast size and massaging sunscreen into each other’s toned skin. The men proclaim themselves “deep thinkers” and the women announce that they are “not the brightest spark in the book.” The disembodied narrator is alternately snide and openly hostile in her descriptions of the cast members, the activities they’re given, and the clichéd quality of the entire show. Then Lana, a supposedly omniscient, Alexa-type device—who the narrator derides as a “talking air freshener”—informs the contestants of the catch: The cash prize of $100,000 is contingent on their collective celibacy. Every kiss, every hookup, every act of “self-gratification” comes at a price, for everyone.

The point, according to the snarky narrator, is to take the “hottest, horniest, most commitment-phobic swipesters” and force them to “form deeper and more meaningful connections.” The real point, obviously, is to gin up drama and sexual tension among people the show hopes you’ll be unable to look away from, even while the voice-over (and the contestants themselves) tell you they’re despicable. The show’s actual takeaway, though, is something else entirely.

In a bizarre twist, reality television finally echoes the current reality. The contestants, shuttered away from civilization, forbidden from seeking the physical intimacy they crave for fear of bringing about a calamity that stretches further than themselves, are basically social distancing. Too Hot to Handle, which launches today, isn’t a show about reforming shallow pickup artists. It’s a show about quaranthirst.

The show itself is, by no means, good. It doesn’t want to be. It is knowingly, unabashedly trashy and tells you so at every opportunity. The contestants, while comely, are not particularly charismatic. The self-improvement exercises Too Hot to Handle puts them through are parodies of woo-woo workshops: At one point, a man who refers to women as “females” helps the men become “heart warriors” by smearing mud all over each themselves. (I don’t know why either.) Worst is the bizarre retrograde sexuality of the entire setup, which basically says that physical intimacy is a barrier to emotional intimacy, that liking sex is a character flaw, and that twentysomethings should get off dating apps and just settle down already. That, and the villains—couples who hook up because they feel like it and cost everyone thousands of dollars, but then don’t get why people are mad—aren’t even hate-able in a fun way because, well, they’re a little too real.

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That said, being a little too real right now is Too Hot to Handle’s main draw. At the time of the show’s conception, pre-pandemic, its timely edge was probably supposed to be Lana, the show’s (sort of) AI referee. The narrator frequently mentions the device “gathering data” on contestants and watching their every move, whether they’re inside their bedroom or down by the beach. The contestants make “Hey Siri” jokes. Now Lana’s abstract no-sex regulations call to mind social isolation PSAs, and the contestants ripping their hair out in horniness reflect the frustrations many are having in their suddenly touchless worlds. Even the cash prize, dwindling each time a couple puts selfish needs over the greater good, seems like a grim metaphor for global health. At some point, you stop thinking about the contestants altogether and just start thinking about quarantine.

Quarantine, if horny tweets and Tinder profiles and Craigslist posts are to be believed, is an unexpectedly sexy time for some. However, there seems to be a sharp divide in how people are experiencing their sexuality in lockdown: Some report zero interest in sex, while others struggle with their frustrated quarantine thirst. That ambivalence is actually scientifically supported. “There is non-consensus in the literature,” says Marie Géonet, who studies stress and sexual desire at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. Some studies have suggested that stress inhibits desire; others that it decreases the rate of sexual activity, but not the satisfaction; still others have suggested that sexual desire can increase in the face of stressful life events. People who are extremely distracted by the pressures of daily life or are quarantining with a partner, Géonet theorizes, may not experience the same kind of sex drive spike, but the experience is highly individual.

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Janna Dickenson, who studies the psychobiology of sexual desire and arousal at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, concurs that stress is a huge factor in how horny people are while they’re sheltered in place. At very low and very high levels, you’re probably not going to be particularly interested in hooking up. But if you fall into that sweet spot of medium freakout, your stress may actually fan the flames. “We think about sexual desire as motivation, and like any motivator, when it’s presented with a surmountable challenge, it increases,” she says. “It works the same way with hunger. If we have to work a bit to get our food, we’ll be hungrier.” Stress releases the hormone cortisol, but along with it, oxytocin, which also gets released during sexual arousal and orgasm, along with everyday touching like hand-holding. “Oxytocin might mobilize the response to seek out social support,” Dickenson says. “Social support is how we reduce that stress, and sexual behavior is an extension of that social support.”

Despite what Too Hot to Handle might think, there’s no shame in your quaranthirst, or lack thereof. “As a sex therapist, I’m excited to see where this goes; it’s an opportunity for people to engage with their sexuality in a different way than they have before, to explore solitary activity,” notes Dickenson. “Allow yourself space to have the experience you have. The best thing we can do is to do the best we can do, and nothing more.” And, provided it all happens at a safe social distance, nothing less, either.


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