For a show running 20 seasons and counting, “The Bachelor” still doesn’t get modern dating.
The show, in which one enticing man whittles 20 women down to just one, and vice versa for “The Bachelorette,” takes participants on dates only millionaires could afford in exquisite and exotic locations.
As the tipsy contestants try to stay upright, the directors and editors walk a thin tightrope of trying to create a show that fosters real relationships but ignores a central part of most adult ones — sex.
The omission represents a shell of authentic dating today — a facade without the real emotional substance that comes with sex and physicality.
Host Chris Harrison calls the show a “search for true love,” while also embracing the awkward, hard-to-explain dating period before a relationship is serious — read: exclusive. It’s “The Notebook” meets “It’s Complicated.”
The show romanticizes the wholesome feelings of “firsts” — the first meeting, the first date, the first kiss — as the participants slowly get to know each other and determine if they are compatible. In a distinctly American way, it wants to be the image of modern dating without dealing with all the debauchery and sex.
That detail of the show targets an outdated, but loud, part of our culture — the one that still abides by 1950s values of domesticity and family sanctity. But pretending sex isn’t a prevailing part of our modern romantic relationships, however committed, is foolish and simply inaccurate.
Sex isn’t explicitly banned in “The Bachelor” by rule, but it’s an unspoken one. Once only three contestants remain, the Bachelor/ette can offer “overnight dates.” It’s assumed this means sex, but contestants rarely kiss and tell.
What’s strange is that a show like “The Bachelor,” with its serial-dating formula, resembles the kind of non-committal flirtation that seems decidedly progressive, and yet still harbors its conservative stigma against sex.
During the 2014 season’s post-finale, live reaction show, “After the Final Rose,” runner-up Nick Viall torched bachelorette Andi Dorfman, saying, “If you weren’t in love with me, I’m not sure why you made love with me.” The words were a thinly veiled attempt to gain viewer sympathy for himself while sending criticism Dorfman’s way. Dorfman called the shot “below the belt.”
“The Bachelor” universe exists much like post-war America did, where sex was more of a theory than an open practice. The show discusses hypotheticals, but actual events are rarely brought to light. It was fair to assume Dorfman and Viall would have slept together, but having it confirmed still sent tremors down many viewers’ spines.
In today’s world of shrinking religious affiliations, hook-up cultures and dating apps, sex is as accessible as an Uber ride. It is not held as collectively sacred as it was just 50 years ago in our country, but sex still is not easy to talk about or allude to for some reason — shows like “The Bachelor” may have something to do with that.
While kissing, and even serial dating, remains uncontroversial to viewers — even a more family-oriented show like “Modern Family” has plenty of that — “The Bachelor” loves to tempt its participants with sexual possibility, if only to scold them for indulging later. As if playing a morally divine matchmaker, the show tests who can look and not touch.
When contestants are self-proclaimed virgins, they spend most of their camera time saying they were waiting for “the right person,” which seemingly makes them more desirable. In this season, for instance, bachelor Ben Higgins told contestant Becca Tilley that he interpreted her virginity as a sign that she would be committed in a relationship and was serious about finding love.
Conversely, those who have had lots of sex, like Jordan Branch in season 19, are considered to not be serious about settling down, both by participants and fans.
Ignoring the grossness of judging someone’s personality by their sexual history, this trend displays the show’s affinity for more restrained women.
It also shows how many viewers praise and root for a participant who is abstinent. In a way, praising abstinence and criticizing having sex often is about society wanting to control how women, and to a lesser extent men, use their bodies.
The biggest case of sex taboo was in 2015, on the 11th “Bachelorette” season. On the seventh episode, the bachelorette, Kaitlyn Bristowe, went on a date with contestant Viall — the same from Dorfman’s season — which ended in them sleeping together, weeks before the scheduled overnight date stage. Bristowe’s guilt about potentially hurting the other eight contestants, particularly frontrunner Shawn Booth — now her fiance — led to her informing them about the night.
Bristowe was the first known case of someone having sex before the overnight date stage. While it may be reality television, the contestants are acting on some level. They play along with the traditional romance of long ago, when in reality are modern, sexually active adults like their audience. They’re real men and women, not Barbie and Ken dolls.
It’s possible Bristowe did feel guilty about hurting the other men, but the show definitely wanted viewers to think the encounter was a big deal, strategically focusing the final five episodes almost entirely on the events of the one night.
Bristowe drew massive fan criticism as well, including death threats via social media.
Instead of celebrating Bristowe’s sex-positive person, the show chose to reaffirm its outdated stance of sexual conservancy, particularly toward women, perpetuating the social-sexual stigmas that still exist in our society today.
Bristowe threw the franchise into dismay by sleeping with a guy she liked. But there were many who loved Bristowe — including me — for breaking the show’s rule on sex.
Bristowe was a genuine person, and she broke out of the show’s dollhouse. Perhaps one day, the rest of America will break out as well.