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We Need To Talk About Love Island

I was about to draw the blinds last week in case my posh neighbours saw me watching ITV’s annual summer ratings hit, when I saw that they too were watching it. I left the blinds open and settled down to watch my guilty pleasure, vindicated.

As a therapist specialising in groups, I’ve always had a fascination with certain reality shows – Big Brother, Shipwrecked etc. Beyond the voyeurism and vacuity these shows are the compelling human equivalent of nature documentaries, albeit offering up a very narrow subset of society: the young and the beautiful. Sure, these shows have become more scripted, more cynical and way more fixated on looks, but it’s the authentic moments that keep us hooked: the persistent good-guy thawing the heart of the formerly broken-hearted ice-queen or the previously unchallenged, arrogant player getting his comeuppance. Yes it’s a game, confected and manipulative, but some things can’t be faked and the result is as addictive as sugar.

For a show ostensibly about sex, there is remarkable little of it. Instead it focuses on group dynamics, friendships, competition and vulnerability. People tune in for the nubile bodies and sexual banter, but they stay for the soap opera of attachments forged and broken.

Love Island is often derided as trash TV and blamed for an increase in the prevalence of poor mental heath among young people (more on that later) but I argue that there are more layers to this show that it firsts appears and, don’t shoot me, that Love Island is in fact educational.

The show has done more for teaching young people about the unwritten rules and pitfalls of dating than any PSHE lesson could. From the cruelty of gas-lighting (last year’s Adam), the impact of low self-esteem (Yewande) and the power of loyalty (er, Georgia?), to spotting authenticity, understanding your impact on other people and asking for help, Love Island is not only (bronzed) skin-deep. After five series’ we all know that winning this show is not about how you look, but your personality: authenticity and likability – not a bad lesson. Parents need to exercise caution, clearly it’s not for the very young, but for adolescents it’s a far better teacher than sex education via pornography on a smart phone.

There is also something reassuring about seeing these super confident young people such as Anton, now small fish in a big pond and likely so used to adulation on a night out in their hometowns, face hot competition or even rejection when an even more impossibly good looking rival enters the villa to stir things up. It humanises them, teaching them a valuable lesson in humility and perhaps instilling some empathy for future interactions.

The romances are full of intrigue and drama (Lucy and Joe anyone?), but it’s the same-sex relationships that offer some of the greatest and uplifting moments of genuine affection on Love Island. Less of a surprise are the friendships that blossom between the women which are often a beautiful thing (to counter some of the bitching and backstabbing). But seeing these masculine, modern men open up to their friends about matters of the heart with endless hugs, reassuring pats and even kisses without self-consciousness (and barely a ‘no homo’ to be heard) is joyous. Without realising, they are teaching a new generation of boys that talking about emotions and treating women well is in – today’s modern man can be sensitive, articulate and respectful.

And what about Maura?! Proving that a woman can be as sexually liberated as the horniest man but woe betide anyone who mistakes this liberation for ‘easy’ – Tom felt the full force of her articulate rage.

Okay, we do need to talk about the dark side of the show: namely the psychological impact that Love Island has on its vulnerable viewers and on the contestants themselves. It sets a dangerous precedent for body image in young people and they must be taught that these people do not represent the norm – they are sculpted, plucked, tanned and trained within an inch of their lives – and it’s a full time job to look so Insta-ready 24/7. But after the first couple of days don’t most of us see past their appearance and see them as just a bunch of young adults trying to navigate the show without too much humiliation, hoping to find love, but mostly to boost their brand once released as this year’s crop of reality stars? The show is, disappointingly, very narrow in its definition of beauty and it definitely needs to up its diversity credentials to include a wider variety of body types and skin tones, to avoid the alienation of some of its viewers.

Then there is also the uncomfortable truth of the suicides of Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon. I don’t think the show is directly to blame for their deaths, but I think by its nature it attracts damaged people, longing for a validation that can never been given. Such people need to be spotted sooner and offered support, not flung into the Horny Hunger Games and then abandoned. These desperately sad deaths have provided a violent jolt for the world of reality TV and gave viewers a peak behind the curtain: even the most attractive, seemingly happy people we see on TV can be suffering beneath that Instagram sheen. I hope that contestants are now given much greater support throughout the whole experience: more thorough assessments, producers who show restraint in goading contestants into emotional situations that they can’t handle, and, perhaps most importantly, solid aftercare. How is a person suddenly thrust into the public domain, becoming a household name for the summer, supposed to deal with being dropped back into obscurity after their brief but brightly-burning star fades and burns out?

These (big) caveats aside, Love Island has plenty to offer many of us through its universality. It’s not the best example for young people, but it’s not the villain that some insist and has a place within popular culture, alongside other, more wholesome, programming. News that there will be an additional winter visit to Love Island based this time in sunny South Africa will no doubt prove wildly popular too. And as long as kids are encouraged to see beyond the superficial and the show pushes its narrow definitions of beauty, injects more diversity and provides better mental health support, I will continue to enjoy my not-so-guilty pleasure with the blinds open.

We’ve come a long way, but it’s still unsafe to be gay

On the bus today I watched as a young straight couple two seats in front of me kissed and laughed so unselfconsciously it was as if there was no-one else in the world but them. The immediate warm, fuzzy feeling I felt at their oblivious mutual affection was quickly replaced by a rush of envy – could I ever feel so free to display affection in public towards someone I love?

A recent spike in attacks on gay couples has confirmed that ancient gay-person fear of reprisal from displaying any overt sign of your sexuality in public. Why tempt fate? Better to hide it, keep it behind closed doors.

As a demographic we are tolerated at best, hated at worst.  Whether it’s the straight man’s fear of his own homosexual side or an incel-inspired rage projected onto the women who prefers women, gay people bring out some strange reactions in people. Thankfully it’s the tolerance that usually prevails, the hatred dampened down, casually expressed in banter between friends: ‘that’s so gay‘ or the arch, promiscuous gay best friend fetishized in movies. Whilst the day to day lives and rights of gay people have improved over past decades, homophobia is sadly alive and well, perhaps less raucous, but driven underground where it festers.

Until it comes out in an ugly, inexplicable rush of homophobia and misogyny as with the lesbian couple on the bus in West Hampstead this month, goaded into kissing for the titillation of teenagers, left with blood-stained blouses when they declined. Or what about the mostly Muslim parents in Birmingham furious at their children being taught that we exist, insisting on passing the torches of ignorance and intolerance to the next generation? That’s not to mention those Muslim/Jewish/Catholic children who will turn out to be gay – what chance do they have? I’ve seen those children as adults – it destroys them.

We are not all hiding in the shadows: there are many men and women in gay partnerships who feel able to display their sexuality and relationship in public, particularly millennials and generation Z who seem to possess more confidence and carefree defiance than those before them. Whenever I see it though, I cynically see it as a show for others, taking a brave stand rather than enjoying a spontaneous interaction like the couple on the bus. Most gay people I know, through life or work, are far more self-conscious, refraining from affection in public, or only after a quick glance left and right as if crossing a dangerous road before kissing the person they love.

For me (and most), this can be traced back to school, where, in the vulnerability of my burgeoning sexuality, affinity with the female sex and quiet, sensitive nature, I was pushed around and teased, not as badly as some, but enough to dampen down certain instincts, creating an ambiguous, masked persona in which my sexuality might not be immediately apparent (which I would take as the highest compliment, before realising what self-sabotage this is). At the gym, which I assume I took up, like many gay man, in an effort to distance myself from the stereotype of the weak gay man in mastering my muscularity (if not emotionality), I would never reveal my sexuality with the other guys there, some I’d known for years, preferring to blend in, avoid any rejection or even danger that being myself could bring.

You would think that we gay people would band together, like Attenborough’s penguins for warmth in the storm, but you only have to spend an hour on a gay dating app to see a snapshot of the internalised homophobia on the inside: rampant racism, fat-shaming and fem-bashing: a case of the bullied becoming the bully. Not only do gay people not feel safe, merely outliers in society and often excluded from their own gay community, but after a lifetime of rejection they turn this hatred inwards where it manifests as depression, anxiety, self harm or worse. The hatred therefore comes from all sides, within and without; a pink prison.

It’s not all gloom: London is one of the safest places on earth to be a gay person for the most part (the stories I hear from other places where we are brutalised make me weep and rage). But you find ways to covertly express affection with your partner in public – a glance; a brush of the hand; a squeeze of his bum when no-one is looking, which can be exhilarating – but seeing that couple on the bus today and their easy affection opened up a deep sadness in me. Straight couples don’t even need to think about their day to day interactions, but gay people come with a built-in hypervigilance.

So how do we change this and protect a new generation of vulnerable gay people? We can start by introducing young people to the fact that we actually exist.

Intro: Musings of a therapist

As a psychotherapist and counsellor I am pulled daily into the weird and wonderful lives of others which leaves me with quite a unique view of the world. Add this to my own curiosities, daydreams and musings on my place in this crazy world, by the end of any given day my head is so crammed full of thoughts, ideas, rages and inspirations that I figured I should write some of it down.

This may just be me talking into a void, but I also think that some of the things I have to say could inspire or motivate others, make them angry, make them think, or just feel less alone. It’s my way of reaching out into the world in an attempt to find resonance with others, rather than just staying in my head. A blog as a therapist’s therapist.

I’ll opine on all sorts of subjects – themes from my patients, current events from politics to tv shows and beyond. Join me on this journey of the weird and wonderful.