Love Is Blind is a Netflix reality dating show in which well-groomed millennials meet through an emotional glory hole and agree to marry without having ever seen each other. After “dating” for a few days (in some cases, a few hours), separated into “pods” like astronauts in a Wayfair-sponsored space station, they get engaged through a solid wall. When they finally meet in person, we follow their relationship to find out: “Is love truly blind?”
“Psychologists believe that emotional connection is the key to long-term marital success—not physical attraction,” says the show’s cohost, who introduces himself as “obviously, Nick Lachey.” But that’s not exactly true.
Despite Lachey’s claim on behalf of the show, psychologists—and researchers, and sociologists, and couples counselors—actually tend to agree that physical attraction and physical touch are important ingredients in the tricky-to-mix cocktail of long-term affection.
Even the most streaming-addled, binge-drunk, Netflix-loving optimist probably will not confuse Love Is Blind, which is essentially a mash-up of reality dating’s greatest hits (The Bachelor, The Dating Game, Are You the One?, Dating in the Dark) with a double-blind randomized controlled trial. Though the participants and hosts continually refer to the dating show as an “experiment,” viewers are probably savvy enough to know that it is highly produced entertainment, not a precursor to a New England Journal of Medicine article.
Still, as Love Is Blind ubiquity takes hold, the show’s apparent thesis—that love grown completely independent from physical appearance or physical touch is “really pure, true love”—is bound to have an impact. And as the show’s catalog-model-hot stars take the leap from reality sensations to permanent influencers, it seems like a good time to remind everyone: “Is love blind?” is in fact a question science has addressed many times.
In general, sex and desire can’t be taken out of the equation of relationship satisfaction and success. "Emotional and sexual aspects of intimacy in romantic relationships are important correlates of couples’ relationship satisfaction,” Yoo, et al., wrote in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy in 2014. In a study of 335 married couples, researchers found that “sexual satisfaction significantly predicted emotional intimacy for husbands and wives, while emotional intimacy did not appear to have a significant influence on sexual satisfaction.” The concept of Love Is Blind builds emotional intimacy but doesn’t allow physical contact.
A major study of almost 39,000 heterosexual-identifying American adults in relationships for three or more years, published in 2016, found that people who report feeling sexually satisfied in their relationships also report higher relationship satisfaction overall. Essentially, the people who had sex were happier about their relationships. Sex and touch, these studies suggest, are central to long-term relationship happiness, so starting a relationship without knowing whether either party is physically attracted to the other isn’t particularly logical.
The study even found that those people reported similar levels of attraction to each other at the time of the study as that they did at the beginning of their relationships. Basically, attraction based on looks, sexual satisfaction, and happiness in relationships are linked. (The study does not mention raising relationship satisfaction by retreating into separate pods.)
Even kissing—which couples on Love Is Blind aren’t allowed to do until after their engagements—is “a mechanism for mate choice and mate assessment," Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, has said. Some studies have even suggested that saliva can help determine compatibility, and one found that couples who kissed more reported greater relationship satisfaction. Women, overwhelmingly, say that first kisses affect their feelings of attraction, and that kissing is important in relationships. (If this is true for women and kissing, think about how important it is for heterosexual women, who are less likely to have an orgasm during partnered sex, to make sure they are sexually compatible with their partners before committing to them for life.)
What couples and producers on Love Is Blind may be getting at is the fact that research finds that sexual desire decreases after the early infatuation stage in a relationship, and fluctuates throughout relationships. (We’re often told that women are the main culprits here, but that’s not totally true.) But if you do want to help maintain a “long-term happy partnership,” Fisher has said, a key way is to sustain your sex drive by having sex with your partner—even scheduled, perfunctory sex. The promise that you and your partner will wish to engage in regular sex just seems harder to guarantee if you get engaged without knowing whether you are attracted to each other.
So there you have it—sex and relationship satisfaction are inextricably linked. Most people probably knew that already. But even if you could somehow untangle them and experience romantic love distinct from physical attraction or sexual compatibility, it wouldn’t make for purer or truer love. Physical desire for another person’s body isn’t dirty, or unhealthy, or diminishing. Love Is Blind is obviously extreme, but it’s a version of an outlook that plenty of people hold—that love is beautiful but desire is next to sin. There’s no question that our culture is damagingly, sometimes violently, obsessed with bizarro standards of beauty. Conventions that reward thinness and punish body fat, conventions that are just racism disguised as aesthetic preferences, ageism, toxic masculinity, pinning female worth to physical appearance—they all have to go. But humans are never going to extricate ourselves from our love of beauty and the desire beauty sometimes ignites.
But an ideal outcome would be a world where every type of person and body could be seen as beautiful and desirable, not one in which physical attraction doesn’t matter.
Taking appearance and physical touch out of the equation isn’t a brave stance against superficial culture; it’s fanciful at best and wildly sex-negative at worst. (By the way, actual blind people aren’t part of an elaborate “experiment”; they experience love and desire like everyone else.) At risk of going too hard on a perfectly delightful reality show, part of what makes Love Is Blind feel so absurd is the fact that every cast member has the glossy, unremarkable hotness of a model in a college brochure. Producers don’t think audiences will choose to look at people of varying levels of conventional hotness for even 40 minutes, so why contend that appearances should have no bearing on entering into a lifelong commitment?
It feels safe to assume that Love Is Blind’s legions of new fans won’t be initiating dates that take place in adjacent toilet stalls or on either side of a confessional. But the message is still potent—the concept of the show is “the opposite of what modern dating has become,” one cast member enthuses in the show’s opening minute. Decrying the superficial side of dating apps is popular, though it’s hard to imagine that people are much more shallow now, in the age of apps, than they were in the age of mail-order brides or matchmakers or pickup bars, or the long, long history of men selecting women based on their looks and women either acquiescing or, if they had a choice, sometimes rejecting them. Desiring a whole person—their mind, their body, even (thanks, researchers) their saliva—isn't shallow. It's lovely.
In our tech-driven world, the show’s cohost Vanessa Lachey intones in the show’s introduction, “your value is often judged solely by the photo on your dating app. But everyone wants to be loved for who they are. Not for their looks, their race, their background, or their income.”
That’s true. Everyone wants to experience something pure, something real. But the realest, truest thing would be to be loved not in spite of your identity but because of it.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour