Two and a half million viewers tuned into Love Island’s opening show on Monday night. But, while we’re all in need of a bit of escapism and sunshine by proxy, there’s a clear problem with its set-up: the absence of consent.
For the handful of you not watching the show, opening night always involves “coupling up” (essentially becoming in-house boyfriend and girlfriend, at least until their next opportunity to “recouple” with other people). Five women line up while men are individually brought in for their perusal. With the entrance of each man, the women are invited to step forward if they’re attracted to him and interested in pairing up. The problem is that, whatever the women do, the man is still allowed a free choice of the partner he most fancies.
In Monday’s programme, Kaz Kamwi and Faye Winter stepped forward for Aaron Francis. But, instead of opting for one of the women giving him the green light, he chose disinterested Scottish model Shannon Singh. Singh seemed somewhat taken aback and a little nervous about this, although laughed it off politely. She later said: “I know what I want … and that’s not it.” While Aaron, without a hint of irony, justified his choice by saying: “If you’re not attracted to someone then there’s no point really, you’re not going to fall in love.”
The inherent suggestion is that consent is a nice bonus, but by no means essential when it comes to making a move on someone. This is reinforced as the show goes on, with both men and women able to select new people to pair with based purely on their own desires, and awkward games of dare that encourage hesitant contestants to sexy dance, snog or even suck toes on camera. That’s without even mentioning the concept of “grafting”: a word repeatedly used on the programme (even by presenter Laura Whitmore) to imply that participants really need to put in the work when it comes to grinding down a reluctant partner. We often pull apart problematic rom-coms for the message that persistence in the face of rejection equals high romance, but this old-fashioned trope is still alive and well at the Love Island villa. And it’s a hugely dangerous behaviour to normalise.
I actually enjoy many elements of the show: getting to know its cast, watching the development of in-jokes, and, of course, the meme culture that is spawned annually. I’m not calling for its cancellation (and I’d have a fat chance, with those viewing figures). But, as someone who specialises in writing about sexual violence, and helping survivors to find their voices, it worries me that ITV are feeding into rape culture in such an unnecessary way. Particularly when they’ve frequently talked about their commitment to protecting contestants’ mental health, in light of several tragic deaths connected with previous series. Pressurising participants into non-consensual relationships should have been one of the areas they explored — for the individuals themselves, and also for its impact on a young audience.
Producers are naturally required to create tension in any reality show. And, of course, no one is exactly looking to a programme that rewards showmances with cash prizes for moral guidance. I imagine that many people feel that the show’s game rules are innocent entertainment, and don’t apply to the world outside the villa. Perhaps if we lived in a country where rape culture wasn’t rampant I might agree. But when you look at our abysmal prosecution rates, or the prevalence of sexual violence (one in five adult women and one in 10 adult men have experienced some form of it), it’s clear that this is a problem that sows its seeds in subtle ways.
Rape culture isn’t just about high profile court cases, it’s about how we absorb ideas around consent, power imbalances and what healthy relationships should look like. If 2.5 million people, many of whom are very young, are receiving the message that whether someone is interested in you sexually or not, they’re fair game for a bit of “grafting”, then I’d suggest we have a problem. There must be other, fairer ways to create drama without overriding consent — or, at the very least, encouraging contestants to have open, honest conversations about consent, rather than forcing them to swallow their feelings and laugh things off. Modern TV stars, and their audiences, deserve better.