I can’t be the only one who’s confused about how to approach my love life. The dating climate has changed rapidly thanks to the internet, Tinder and our (ahem, my) increasing apprehension of meeting strangers IRL. Many of us are eager and willing to seek external help landing a relationship. Just look at the popularity of programmes like First Dates, Love Island and Married At First Sight. The latter saw women apply in their thousands this year alone, to be matched by science and legally bound to a person they’d never met before.
But have you noticed that the newest additions to the British canon of 'fix my love life' TV shows have focused less on finding a relationship and more on how to keep it going? The problem we seem to be having as a society is sex. At least, it’s through this lens that we're talking more and more about relationships on screen.
Why the sudden fascination with the sex side, you ask? I turned to relationship psychologist and vice president of Relate, the UK’s largest provider of relationship support, Anjula Mutanda for answers. She also happens to host Channel 4’s newest sex and relationship programme, Sex Tape, which sees three couples film their lives for a week (the ups, the downs, the fights, the forgiveness and, yes, the sex) before reviewing their 'sex tapes' with the rest of the group.
"When people think about these programmes, they don’t recognise how much courage it takes for people to put themselves forward," Anjula tells Refinery29. "They’re motivated to do something about their relationships. People are like, 'Oh they just want to be on telly' but they don’t. A lot of these people are struggling and don’t have anywhere else to turn. Sometimes it’s easier to do it in this way than to bumble along and be in denial."
I admit it seems odd, particularly as someone who couldn’t think of anything more horrifying than hanging my dirty relationship laundry out to dry on prime-time telly, but the reason for that might have something to do with why I, like so many others, will continue to tune into these shows regardless. Discussing something as intimate as sex is terrifying, but deep down we know that the fear, confusion and thrill of it all is something that we all share. So, I suggest to Anjula, perhaps it’s a matter of audiences taking what we learn from people brave enough to talk about it on TV, and try and self-therapise from the other side of the screen?
"I always feel like I’ve got two clients," Anjula says. "I’ve got the people in front of me who I am supporting, and I’ve got a second client which is the person at home. They may not feel confident enough to put themselves forward or even confident enough to go and see a therapist, or even confident enough to talk to their partner. And they’re watching a show like this from the safety of their own sofa. And they’re thinking about things, they’re reflecting on things, and it kind of gives people the permission to start the conversation."
It makes sense. How often have you watched a show about relationships, mental health or an aspect of life that’s not often discussed openly and then found yourself chatting away about it with your mates because it’s not your problem but rather that of the strangers on TV? In the case of sex, Anjula says, "it brings it out and makes it transparent and therefore just another thing we talk about with relationships."
Sex Tape comes not far behind Sex On The Couch, a similar offering from the BBC in which couples at breaking point seek a therapist's guidance to bring the spark back to the bedroom. My biggest surprise watching that show was the age of the couples asking for sex help. I too am guilty of jumping to the conclusion that relationship therapy is associated with older couples who have been there and done it all, when in actuality it’s far from it. As a professional who’s worked in the industry for a long time and even hosted a show called How To Have Sex After Marriage on Channel 5, nine years ago, Anjula says that one of the biggest changes she’s noticed in how we discuss sex on mainstream TV is the age of people joining the conversation.
"I have [noticed] that younger people who I have come across and worked with are far more open. They want to know, they see stuff on social media and they want to discuss it. They’re like, tell me more!" She explains that our generation seems unabashed about approaching sex and relationship trouble head-on, rather than it being "something that we’ll brush under the carpet, or just go to Pornhub," like others might’ve defaulted to 20 years ago. And that’s all down to this really open, accessible and intimate context in which we’re growing used to hearing about sex. "Looking at sex in the context of relationships is very healthy as opposed to people rushing off to watch porn secretly and having this idealised versions and visions of what sex looks like or should be like," she explains. "Instead [young people] have got real people talking about real issues in the context of how they got together, what was going well, what went wrong and that’s something I think people need to see more of."
Sex Tape is on Channel 4 on Thursdays at 10pm