Love Island is set to finish next week, leaving fans bereft of their nightly dose of contestants coupling up, turning each other’s heads and dumping each other.
The smash hit show draws in millions of viewers each night.
But more than just providing watercooler moments, the success of Love Island and dating programmes like it tell us something about human sexuality under capitalism.
The seven week-long programme sees ultra-fit, highly glamorous people compete for a £50,000 prize.
The catch? They can only win it by being voted the “best couple” by the public.
So there’s the cut-throat “coupling up” ceremony where contestants who aren’t chosen are unceremoniously booted out of the villa.
And contestants know they’re being watched by constant surveillance. So they have to display their affections—genuine or otherwise—convincingly enough at all points.
One challenge saw the women exercising wearing Playboy-style bunny outfits. Another saw the men compete in a “lad challenge”.
We are told to live up to these bizarre and objectified images of sexuality—and that extends to presenting ourselves to potential partners in these terms.
For a huge number of people, looking for a relationship is done through dating apps or messaging on a website. In Britain, seven million people are registered on dating sites with around one in three relationships now starting online.
This “dating industry”—encompassing over 1,500 apps and websites, is produced by a society where everything can be bought or sold.
And individuals become not just the consumer, but part of the product.
So the eHarmony website will reject anyone it believes has been married too many times or any user whose questionnaire answers indicate they’re depressed.
Something that feels so personal and so important to us is decided by computer algorithms and bosses looking to increase their in-app purchases.
Under capitalism, parts of our human nature are repackaged and sold back to us.
Karl Marx didn’t take on the question of eHarmony or Love Island, but his writings help give activists a framework for understanding the world today.
He argued that under capitalist society, working class people have very little control. And because workers lose control of their lives, themselves and specifically their labour it creates distorted relationships between individuals.
Marx said that people are encouraged to connect with others primarily through the buying and selling of commodities.
And, rather than capitalism nourishing and developing people, it converts all our needs and abilities into a means of making money.
It can be easy to see how bosses make profits off the most basic human needs such as food, clothing and shelter.
But what about our needs that are sometimes more difficult to articulate?
The “wellness industry” is a good example. It sees luxury brands flog meditation retreats, spa packages and crystals so people can buy the ability to be healthy in mind, body and spirit.
Millionaire actor Gwyneth Paltrow is in on the act.
She offers “cutting edge wellness” through her highly lucrative Goop brand. This flogs a “10 day detox supplement kit” that promises “a cleanse that has never been so easy to swallow.”
Or for instance, the businesses that have sprung up around the human need to connect with nature.
One such firm offers a “forest bathing” retreat where guests can enjoy the “medicine of nature” in a luxury cabin complete with hot tub, coffee machine and flat screen television.
When every human need and desire can be reduced to a product, it’s no surprise there’s a huge market structured around the sex and sexuality.
Corporate fatcats and advertising bosses are happy to use the idea of sex—and women’s bodies in particular—to sell completely unrelated commodities.
And in these adverts, women are constantly the objects of desire, but never seen with any sexual agency.
For some, this sexual objectification is so natural, it’s actually hard wired into our brains.
“Men’s brains are designed to objectify females” argue the authors of Billion Dirty Thoughts.
They write that for men, desire lies in the “shape and curves” of women’s bodies that “indicate how many years of childbearing remain”.
But this ignores the huge variant in human sexual behaviour, including LGBT+ relationships, older partnerships, those who don’t want children and so on.
Contestants on Love Island obsess about whether their partners match up to “my type on paper”.
But sexual identity and behaviour often changes through a persons’ lifetime.
And it’s hardly a celebration of different sexual identities and body shapes.
Maura, one this year’s contestants, came under ridicule from fellow Islanders for even discussing sex too much.
In some ways the contestants even look interchangeable—small thin women and big muscly men with very little deviation from this norm.
It’s not surprising that a Mental Health Foundation survey showed 24 percent of young people said reality television made them worry about body image.
Richard Cowles, Love Island boss responded to complaints. “Yes, we want to be as representative as possible but we also want them to attracted to each other”, he said.
So, television bosses think only people whose bodies they judge to meet a supposed ideal are permitted to have and act on sexual desires.
For socialists, how people form relationships and express their sexuality is profoundly shaped by how society functions and the dominant ideas in it.
Marx argued that “individual, family and social needs were subordinated to the market and reshaped in order to serve the needs of capital”.
One of the easiest ways to see this is through the lens of the nuclear family unit which plays a vital role in regulating relationships and sexuality.
There is enormous pressure to conform to a stereotypical ideal family, with two parents in a stable and seemingly perfect relationship raising children.
Today, women perform most of the childrearing and domestic labour for free. It suits those at the top of society for women to continue performing this role.
And modern society piles yet more pressures on women. For many working class women it is necessary to get a job as well as being forced to provide free childcare. Yet when they find work it is more often badly paid, and worse paid than jobs done by men.
But does this set-up suit working class people?
Under capitalism, ordinary people often don’t get much of a say about how their lives are run. They might not be able to afford to leave a relationship, or be able to care for the children by themselves.
Or maybe people don’t have the time to invest in multiple relationships. So regardless of how people see it in their heads, their real life conditions shape their ability to form romantic and sexual connections.
Longer working hours, cuts to benefits and worse accommodation also shapes opportunities for sex and relationships.
Ultimately, sex is pleasurable and the ability to form complex, intimate, relationships is part of what makes us human.
Relationships provide joy and support in the face of an often cruel world. And for the first time, advances in contraception mean that sex can be reliably separated from childbirth.
Do we live in sexually liberated society now? Does Love Island flow from the demands of socialists and feminists for a more open attitude to sex?
It’s actually the opposite—it reflects how society regulates sexuality, and only represents a narrow distortion of human sexuality.
It’s not a welcome development that men’s’ bodies are sexualised alongside women—the aim is not equal objectification but none at all.
Love Island is popular partly because it’s genuinely entertaining, and people are interested in how relationships work.
The point isn’t to decide which television programmes or website pass a hypothetical test about how politically pure they are.
But rather to look at how capitalism permeates into every area of our life—taking all our desires and making money off them.
So bosses can sell us subscription fees to dating services based on how we can find our “soulmate”.
Or entice us to spend hours at home watching a reality programme about other people coupling up rather than meeting anyone ourselves.
Sex and sexuality would be different in a socialist society because ordinary people would have a say over themselves and their lives.
It would be a world where everyone has the choice, the ability and the freedom to live exactly as they choose.
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