The finale of The Bachelor’s 23rd season aired this week and followed the panic-driven narrative that Colton Underwood must lose his virginity by the night’s conclusion lest his journey end in vain and he turn back into a pumpkin. A picturesque date in Mallorca, Spain and an awkward family meeting were punctuated by Chris Harrison’s repeated inquiries as to whether Colton would remain a virgin forever. In the end, in keeping with the tradition of Bachelors past, we never got a straight answer as to whether Colton did the damn thing, but we could assume as much, based on some winks and nudges.
A quick recap of the two-night finale that left us all saying, “um”: On night one, Colton breaks up with the two remaining women: Tayshia and Hannah G. Hannah, in a surprisingly ballsy performance, grills Colton on “After the Final Rose” and asks if he was thinking about Cassie whilst on dates with her. He says he was.
Back in Europe, on night two, Colton finds Cassie to tell her that he wants to try again, and after all the tears and heartache from the night prior, she shrugs and says she’ll give it a go. They head to meet Colton’s family where Cassie starts crying immediately and tells them everything she told Colton, which translates to: I’m not that into him but I’ll do it for the Instafame. The journey ends for them in the Fantasy Suite, where Colton is so eager for alone time that he rushes the cameras out before getting his mic removed. Finally, we are left to confirm, based on his dismal poker face the following morning, that Colton finally shed his virginity to blossom into the spiky-haired butterfly we saw before us.
Now that the season is behind us and Colton has bulldozed Cassie into dating him, the question on all of our minds has finally been answered: How many times was Colton’s virginity mentioned over the course of 12 episodes? A whopping 70.
Perhaps surprisingly, Colton isn’t the first virgin on the show. And this isn’t the first time ABC has treated sex and discussions surrounding it as a venereal disease (better not had). Ashley I. was famously a virgin through Chris Soules’ season (along with Becca Tilley), and two stints in Paradise. And it’s worth noting that Ashley was lightly chastised for being vocal about her virginity, unlike Becca, who was a perfectly demure “lady” with regard to the issue. It’s also worth noting that when Ashley presumably had sex on The Bachelor: Winter Games, she, like Colton, kept her lips sealed. Because Bachelor logic denotes that pleasurable and consensual sex is the only kind not worth discussing.
Which leads me to a point that is both painfully obvious yet perennially under-dissected: The Bachelor has a sex problem.
Most of the contestants this season, and certainly the front-runners, spoke of sex as a shameful vice, something they participated in during moments of utmost weakness. Cassie said it’s hard for her to talk about the fact that she’s no longer a virgin, especially considering friends and family may be watching. Tayshia only had sex with her ex-husband at a time when she thought he would be her sole partner. Hannah B. mentioned, on her one-on-one, that her sexual past induces immense guilt. All three stories serve to bolster the idea that Colton is nothing but strong and noble in his abstinence.
Unfortunately for Colton, his virginity was commodified and turned into constant fodder, treated much like that of a young bride of another era: sacred yet up for grabs to the highest bidder. It was deeply unsettling and diminishing to Colton as a human being, not to mention annoying.
One of the biggest problems with the constant mention of virginity is that it never took into consideration the countless interpretations of sex that don’t include penetration. Heteronormative, penetrative sex is one iteration, yes, but it’s 2019 y’all and the spectrum of intimacy is broader than Colton’s shoulders. He said in the penultimate episode that he had done “everything but,” so did producers really need to go around touting Colton’s chastity? He’s been close to a woman, he’s been in bed with a woman. And just because her (or his) preferred intimacy didn’t include what is often referred to as “sex,” doesn’t make Colton a leper nor a saint.
Considering this franchise serves as a kind of cultural touchstone to its millions of viewers in matters of love and intimacy, its continued treatment of sex is cause for concern. When Kaitlyn Bristowe had sex with Nick Viall before the Fantasy Suite in Season 21, she was encouraged to tell her remaining suitors and was shamed by producers. When Bachelor Juan Pablo had sex with Clare in Season 18, again before Fantasy Suite dates, he squarely placed the blame on her for instigating something he later regretted. Raven (the runner up on Season 21) mentioned that she had never had an orgasm and it was later implied that she experienced her first one with Bachelor Nick Viall via a storyline spliced together to suggest his magic touch delivered something that had evaded her for years. Framing it as something he was able to give rather an experience she controlled effectively robbed her of her sexual agency. And while creative editing may be the name of the game, when it comes to matters of sex, the line between good TV and foul play is dangerously thin.
Beyond pleasure exists the question of safety. Based on the awkward conversation between Colton and Chris Harrison during Becca Kufrin’s season of The Bachelorette, it would appear that producers don’t communicate to contestants any expectations for the overnight date. After the spinoff Bachelor in Paradise was nearly canceled in 2017 because of a scandal centered around alcohol and consent, I would expect a more explicit policy to be established to ensure health, safety and comfort, sparing contestants from these awkward conversations and unspoken expectations.
In the end, Colton did experience physical intimacy with Cassie, but not before Chris Harrison corralled past contestants into a round table discussion to speculate on the status of his sexual pursuit by way of cheeky, voyeuristic euphemisms. For a franchise so obsessed with sex, its ability to continually regress on the matter is almost impressive. I suppose all we can hope for now is that references to Colton’s sexual status will end once and for all. And more importantly, that Colton will stop making jokes at his own expense, because I don’t think he realizes that he’s not the comedian, but rather the mouthpiece.
Photos by ABC/John Fleenor.