Love is Blind: The “Social Experiment” that Skirts Regulation
Netflix has coined its hit reality dating show Love is Blind a “social experiment.” But it’s not an actual scientific experiment, and therefore doesn’t need to follow the critical ethical and legal regulations we have for research and other scientific ventures. This is the loophole that reality television has been exploiting; because their shows are “entertainment,” they are not required to protect people’s physical or mental health.
Although the show openly acknowledges that contestants should expect to face “public ridicule” for how they are edited and portrayed, it doesn’t provide accessible psychological support or significant financial reimbursement
Contestants on Love is Blind sign a contract in which they agree to waive many rights that we otherwise consider a given- privacy, accurate representation of self, and freedom to speak freely about their experience, among others. I know, because I’ve read their contract. It has contestants acknowledge that being on the show may reveal information about them that is “personal, private, surprising, defamatory, disparaging, embarrassing, or unfavorable in nature” and expose them to “public ridicule, humiliation or condemnation.” Contestants are well informed of what to expect should they choose to participate, but it begs the question: Why do reality television shows involve this degree of possible emotional harm?
Although the show openly acknowledges that contestants should expect to face “public ridicule” for how they are edited and portrayed, it doesn’t provide accessible psychological support or significant financial reimbursement (per their contract, it’s true that contestants only get paid $1,000/week, up to “a total cumulative amount of up to Eight Thousand Dollars (USD $8,000)” for contestants who get engaged and film to the last episode). And because the contract states that their participation is “not a performance and is not employment and is not subject to any union or guild collective bargaining agreement,” the show is not required to provide contestants with any of the benefits that actors, members of the Screen Actors Guild, enjoy.
Without legal protections, many of the contestants of this show have suffered. I know this, because I spoke with two contestants who told me about how they felt manipulated, pressured, unsupported, and then cast aside once filming was over. One of the contestants left after ten days of blind dating, while another made it all the way to the altar.
Without legal protections, many of the contestants of this show have suffered.
In Love is Blind, 15 men and 15 women go on dates in “pods” where they can’t see the other person, hoping to make a meaningful emotional connection without the distraction of appearance. They have ten days to date each other, establish meaningful emotional connections and relationships, and get engaged. The couples who get engaged are then allowed to see each other before going on a brief vacation (“the reveal”) to see if they are physically compatible. During this vacation, they meet the other couples who got engaged, which usually include some people they were dating days earlier. Then the couples have four weeks to integrate their fiancé into their regular lives, introduce them to friends and family, and plan a wedding before they are (contractually obligated) to appear at the altar and decide about marriage.
In July 2022, a contestant from Season 2, Jeremy Hartwell, filed a lawsuit against Netflix, its production company Kinetic Content, and Kinetic’s casting company, Delirium TV. Mr. Hartwell claims that producers pumped contestants with alcohol; at times deprived them of access to food, water, or sleep; and paid them below minimum wage. Due to the ongoing lawsuit, Mr. Hartwell declined to comment. However, I was able to speak with two other former contestants of Love is Blind. What I heard corroborated Mr. Hartwell’s claims and brought up more significant issues about the psychological ramifications of being on this show.
The two contestants who spoke with me and were willing to be sources did so with the requirement of anonymity. They were fearful of retaliation by Netflix. They shared that more people would probably come forward about their treatment on the show if they weren’t afraid of being sued, edited unfavorably, or otherwise smeared.
And, per their contract, if they left the show early without approval from their producers, they were liable to pay $50,000 as “liquidated damages.”
Both contestants corroborated the allegations in Mr. Hartwell’s lawsuit. Like him, they said they weren’t allowed to leave their hotel rooms without permission, had limited access to food and water at times (but almost always had access to alcohol), and got very little sleep. And, per their contract, if they left the show early without approval from their producers, they were liable to pay $50,000 as “liquidated damages.” As the contract states, “I agree that Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000) is a reasonable estimate of the amount of damages Producer is likely to suffer in the event of any such discontinuation, considering all of the circumstances existing as of the date of this Agreement." This is a big number that could compel people to stay, even if they wanted to leave.
Contestants reported feeling pressured and influenced. When I asked one contestant if she felt manipulated, she said, “I 100% believe that they were manipulating us the whole time. A lot of the girls in my season would say we were just puppets and they were controlling us. Because they were watching us, like I said, those 22 hours a day, and they were knowing our background, our vulnerability with dating someone, and they would use that against us.” She felt producers gave “bad advice” such as, “Don’t get married to this person because I don’t think they’re good for you. Someone else is good for them. And it was a lot of manipulation, and gaslighting, and… we were just tired, and I guess we didn’t know until after.”
“You can either go home, or you can marry this person and keep getting more airtime.”
Not all the engagements were forced and fake, but some were. The contestants told me stories of other contestants from their seasons being pushed to propose or being coached to give specific answers to proposals. One told me she was given two options by her producer when it came to getting engaged to someone she didn’t want to be with (and whom she knew did not want to be with her), “You can either go home, or you can marry this person and keep getting more airtime.” I asked her what her response was, and she said, “I don’t really cry a lot… but, at this point, I just bawled.”
They felt there was pressure to “stick it out” and make it as far as possible in the show. A contestant told me, “There was another couple that made it to the very end and there was a conversation that was had where someone asked him, ‘Do you love her?’ And he said, ‘No, but if the producers convince me to marry her, I will.’ And he’s married now, so they were convincing!” This is a scary thought- that some contestants go on this show for the right reason, to find a spouse, and could end up with someone who was convinced into marrying them just to get more airtime.
Couples who got engaged were separated for several days after the reveal. They weren’t allowed to see or speak with their fiancé until they started filming again, and this experience was distressing. As one described the time following the reveal, “Then you’re back to your hotel room for 2 to 3 days and you’re sitting in there… and you start, you know, kind of gaslighting yourself in a way… because you’re sitting there, in isolation, torturing yourself over your own thoughts because you can’t see or talk to this person that you’ve been in this intense situation with.” According to this contestant, couples are separated so that all their on-camera interactions are “organic,” but noted, “The situation they put you in, it’s not organic… It’s actually going to be two people in a heightened, anxious space… Both of us thought that the other person wanted out.”
As they were being pushed to their emotional limits, they were not given immediate or easy access to a therapist. The contestants told me there was no counselor on the set. The only exception was that if contestants requested a session with their own therapist, the show would arrange for them to speak with their therapist. Regarding the emotional state of the contestants, one contestant said, “I think everyone had a mental breakdown at one point, at least on the girls’ side.” The other contestant told me he believed the show offered to cover therapy but was confused about how to access it. He said, “They verbally say to you, ‘You should take advantage of our therapy offering.’… I didn’t understand and I tried to understand- is it, do we find a therapist? Do you have therapists? What about couples? What about individual?” He inquired about how to get this benefit but never found out how to get sessions covered. In the contract, the show said it would reimburse couples up to $5,000 plus the cost of court filing fees for a divorce mediation, but doesn’t mention covering therapy. Netflix, Kinetic Content, and Delirium TV did not respond to a request for comment.
“I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard that our producer was incentivized for us to say “Yes.’”
Instead, contestants could turn to their producers for support. But producers aren’t qualified therapists. They don’t have the education and training needed to provide this type of support, and they also can’t be unbiased, given their role. Plus, they have motives for any advice they give, and could give advice to build the narrative they want. A former contestant told me that couples are loosely pre-matched before filming, meaning that producers have an idea of who they think will be a good fit. These preconceived matches could potentially influence how producers advise contestants. Further, a contestant who got married told me, “I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard that our producer was incentivized for us to say “Yes.’” When I asked if this meant a monetary bonus, the answer was, “Yes.” The contestant admittedly could not confirm it but told me this information came from another contestant, who said an associate producer disclosed this to them. When it came to the marriage, the contestant also added, “They wanted a success story, but they didn’t really care about the individuals or what our relationship was actually like, or where we needed support.”
Once filming was over, the two contestants I spoke with felt discarded. A contestant told me, “There were other people on the show and from Season [deleted]… that were also struggling. To this day, from Season [deleted], people are struggling. They’re not feeling supported, and they’re feeling very chewed up and spit out, in a sense.” The contestant also felt this way, noting that after the wedding, the show packs up equipment and leaves without giving enough guidance or resources to reintegrate into their lives or navigate a new marriage. As the contestant said, “You literally get dropped the day after you’re done filming your wedding… We had no idea how to assimilate our lives… And there’s no guidebook, there’s no anything. There’s no support.”
The interactions viewers saw were not just heavily edited, they were manufactured and manipulated.
The contestants I spoke with said that watching the show, even a season that they weren’t on, was distressing. A contestant told me, “Even recently when the new season came out, a lot of girls didn’t want to watch it. A lot of things are going to come back up, I’m just not ready for that… I’m still going to therapy; I can’t do it.” The other said that after his season aired, “Some people had to take a mental leave from work.” And contestants who were married had to hide their relationship from the public while the show aired so it wouldn’t ruin the finale, forcing another separation during a “crucial time when you really need to lean on each other.” While understandable that the show needs the outcomes of the relationships to remain secret, they did not provide support or resources for the couples in this situation. One of the contestants concluded, “It’s just mean and cruel. These breaks they make you take from your relationship.”
The interactions viewers saw were not just heavily edited, they were manufactured and manipulated. Contestants suffered psychological damage as a result. The contestants I spoke with reported lasting effects, such as anxiety, anger, trust issues with romantic partners, and low self-esteem. One contestant described it this way:
“I’m pissed that I was lied to. I’m upset, I’m angry about it… If I’m having these complex feelings, and I’m getting stuck, I can only imagine what some of the other people are.”
“We’re all really close from my season…We’re like, ‘Are we trauma bonding? I think that’s what we’re doing.’ But we figured out a lot of our connections are because… we were just traumatized.”
When I asked the other contestant if she stayed in touch with others from her season, she told me, “We’re all really close from my season…We’re like, ‘Are we trauma bonding? I think that’s what we’re doing.’ But we figured out a lot of our connections are because… we were just traumatized.” They have a running joke on a group text chain about who’s going to therapy that day. The punchline is: all of them. And, in no surprise, she said the show isn’t footing the bill.
Contestants may be fully informed of what they’re signing up for, but why is this the way reality television operates? Shouldn’t an effort be made to prevent any psychological harm? Do drama and viewership truly require this type of exploitation and manipulation? And if producers of reality television insist that the answer to the last question is “Yes,” then why don’t we require them to at least provide meaningful psychological support during and after filming?
Without regulation, the dating genre of the reality television industry has not provided the necessary support or protection for contestants' mental health. Reality dating shows need to stop misleading contestants with the fairytale lie of how a few lucky people could meet the love of their life. The show needs to acknowledge that their “social experiment” is really to test the limits of human fortitude. If their goal really was to help people find love and enter happy marriages, they would create conditions that allowed couples to actually build a foundation for their relationship instead of continually tearing them apart. As one contestant said, “In concept, it can work. I know it works, I fell in love… it’s the pressure of the other stuff. It’s the inhumane conditions. It’s the lack of support.”
Love is Blind, like most reality TV dating shows, is emotional and relational Survivor, and it’s time we all acknowledge it.