Stop branding Love Island simply as trash: it is starting the conversations our society needs

Ex Co-Editor in Chief Alex Boulton explains how the cultural phenomenon has proved itself a sorely needed, if problematic, source of sex and relationship education.

This year’s Love Island has been a force to be reckoned with. In the last few days, Jack and Dani’s reunion (#teamjani), Georgia’s heroics and Alex’s shift from being played to becoming a player have succeeded in pulling in viewers in their millions, while the series as a whole has prompted debates surrounding society and its obsessions with body image, race and sexuality.

The show has encouraged conversations about modern dating more than any reality TV show that has come before it

For those who have not heard of or have succeeded in avoiding the show, Love Island throws a bunch of ‘sexy singles’ into a Mallorca villa and films their every move for 8 weeks. Many have questioned whether this artificial environment is anything more than light entertainment as, after all, Love Island is a reality TV show and its content is manipulated as such. Couples are forced to navigate situations that no new relationship would face in the outside world: re-couplings, evictions, Casa Amors and watermelon squat challenges, while producers can ask the Islanders to repeat conversations and dictate what time they wake up for better viewing.

Despite this manipulation and control, the show has encouraged conversations about modern dating more than any reality TV show that has come before it. This is where its real value lies- not as a nightly distraction from heatwaves and summer-induced boredom, but as a mirror to our society and the toxic behaviour that too often accompanies modern relationships.

To start, accusations of emotional abuse have been levelled towards 22-year old Adam. From the moment he walked in, Adam has played the pantomime villain and in the space of four weeks moved from Kendall to Rosie to Zara to Darylle, with a brief flirtation with Megan somewhere in the middle. Memes have compared his time in the villa to the life of original player Henry VIII, while more sinisterly the personal trainer has been accused of emotional abuse in the form of gaslighting, defined by the charity Women’s Aid as ‘a partner questioning your memory of events, trivialising your thoughts or feelings, and turning things around to blame you’.

When Adam dumped Kendall for Rosie, he blamed the move on her being ‘cold’ and history repeated itself when he told Rosie her jealousy was the reason he was ignoring her in favour of new contestant Zara. The problem is not the number of people he has been ‘getting to know’ but how he has handled each dumping, blaming each girl respectively for his decision and manipulating each situation to remove any possible wrongdoing on his part from the narrative. Gaslighting is recognised as a type of psychological abuse that distorts the victim’s reality and causes them to lose trust in their own judgement, ultimately impacting their self-worth and mental health.

Love Island has certainly played a role in exposing emotional abuse

Perhaps more telling than Adam’s actual behaviour has been the public reaction on social media through thousands of tweets, memes and polemics. Scrolling through the hashtag, it is clear Twitter is where Love Island has really taken off this year and conversations surrounding gaslighting and emotional abuse make up a sizeable amount of the discussion.

A key debate has been whether reality TV normalises or exposes emotional abuse. Commentators have argued both ways. Some have brushed off Adam’s behaviour, arguing it is just him ‘being a lad’ and the girls should have seen it coming based on his previous behaviour, emblematic of our problematic victim-shaming culture. It also fits the wider trend of emotional abuse normalised by reality TV as a key source of drama and subsequently entertainment; Spencer blaming Louise in Made in Chelsea for his cheating way back in series five comes to mind. In true Love Island style, Adam is set to benefit from the experience and is rumoured to have already scored club appearances and sponsorships, creating the dangerous impression this sort of behaviour has no consequences.

However, Love Island has certainly played a role in exposing emotional abuse, arguably much more than any other reality TV show. According to the Office for National Statistics, emotional abuse is the most commonly reported type of cruelty in relationships. It is by nature disorientating and hard to identify for the victim, who may feel that something is wrong but be unable to pinpoint what it is. It is hardly spoken about, owing to the poor state of sex and relationships education (SRE) in this country.

The current guidance on sex education taught in England was published in 2000 and focuses exclusively on the reproductive system, contraception and STIs, the cold hard facts rather than any teaching on what a healthy relationship actually looks like. New guidelines are currently being written before mandatory SRE is added to the curriculum in 2019 but, until then, Love Island has brought emotional abuse into the national consciousness and - owing to the number of people watching and commenting on the show - has made us better as a nation at recognising its signs and red flags.

We shouldn’t have to rely on Love Island for this education

Of course, we shouldn’t have to rely on Love Island for this education. It is less helpful in its almost-exclusive focus on male perpetration of emotional abuse, making use of reality TV’s typical ‘lad’ character who tries to sleep with as many girls as possible regardless of anyone else’s feelings. With 62% of women and 56% of men reporting to have experienced emotional abuse, the statistics prove that we cannot assume this type of behaviour goes one way. As well as marginalising the male experience, the invisibility of LGBT+ people on Love Island is also controversial. The LGBT+ experience is already side-lined in conversations about abuse; the repeated failure of reality TV to deal with these themes just encourages ignorance.

Love Island is more than the trashy TV it is often branded as. Although it falls victim to many of the typical narratives and double standards of other reality TV shows, the social media traction it has received has prompted important conversations about sex and relationships, much more than any education young adults currently receive. However, the fact Love Island can even partially fill this gap is unfortunate. Why should the nation have to rely on non-compulsory, often problematic viewing for its education on sex and relationships? The way the nation thinks about gender, sexuality and relationships has changed. It is clear that education in schools needs to catch up to ensure young people are prepared, both now and in adult life.

Featured Image: Twitter / @LoveIsland

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