Colton Underwood, at right, greets his prospective suitors during the Monday night premiere of "The Bachelor." It is the first time in 23 seasons a virgin has been cast as the show's lead. (Rick Rowell/ABC)

This story has been updated.

This past summer, Ashley Iaconetti and her mother were watching “The Bachelorette” when one of the contestants, 26-year-old Colton Underwood, announced he was a virgin. The Bachelorette was surprised — and so was Ashley’s mom.

“There’s no way he’s a virgin,” Ashley recalls her mother saying of the former professional football player. Many people think of male virgins as dorky and bumbling with women, while Colton resembles a confident Ken doll come to life. Ashley had also been open about her virginity while competing on “The Bachelor” and “Bachelor in Paradise” in her late 20s, so she was disappointed her own mother did not believe Colton. She remembers saying, “How could you say that when you birthed me?”

Now, Colton’s lack of sexual experience is returning to prime time. He is this season’s lead on ABC’s “The Bachelor,” which premiered Monday night. And a lot of viewers at home will probably also be saying: There’s no way he’s a virgin.

Well, there is a way — and ABC will not let us forget it for a moment. The premiere referenced Colton’s abstinence dozens of times, with host Chris Harrison asking the audience to ponder: “Will he lose his virginity?” One woman introduced herself while dressed in a sloth costume, saying: “I … heard … you … like … to … take … things … slowly.” Groan. Another popped a red balloon and called it his “cherry.” Another flat-out asked him why he was waiting. (He’s not waiting for marriage, he says, just for “the right person.”)

Conversations with past Bachelor Nation virgins reveal the reality show and its spin offs often use wholesome things — such as virginity and the search for a husband and wife — as ways to talk about the more titillating aspects of dating, in ways that can feel exploitative. “The Bachelor,” in its first season with a virgin in the main role, seems poised to focus on sex in every episode and could end up feeling sleazier than ever. Or will it redefine virginity in a way that is constructive?

“It’s so bizarre that they focus on it,” Ashley says in a phone interview. “There’s a virgin every other season. Is that really so rare that it’s fascinating?”

Among young millennials like Ashley, who is now 30 and engaged, abstaining from sex is not that rare. A recent study shows that, among 20- to 24-year-olds, 15 percent say they have not had sex since turning 18 — more than twice the share that it was in the 1990s.

Suzannah Showler, author of the book “Most Dramatic Ever: The Bachelor,” sees something crass in “The Bachelor’s” obsession with Colton’s virginity. Viewers “might not notice the offering up of someone’s virginity as a prize in a game show, but that is what is happening,” she said in a phone interview.

Former Bachelor Nation contestants who were openly virgins say that immediately became their story line. Ryan Hoag, who competed on DeAnna Pappas’s 2008 season of “The Bachelorette,” wrote in an email every interview he did on the show “dealt with my virginity” and that he was constantly prodded to talk about it with other cast members and DeAnna, in ways that often felt forced. “The reason I didn’t last on the show was because I refused to say what they asked me to say or do what they wanted me to do,” Hoag writes. “They typecast you and if you fulfill your character, you stay around.”

Christen Whitney, a 2017 contestant, recalls being prodded by producers to discuss her virginity with Bachelor Nick Viall sooner than she was ready to reveal it. “They were always encouraging me to bring it up with Nick, but at the end of the day I was able to say: No, this is absurd,” Whitney says in a phone interview. “I would never bring this up on a first date, and he’s not bringing up with me his sexual past.” After that, Whitney says, the subject was “more or less dropped.” She lasted just three weeks on the show and later went on “Bachelor in Paradise,” where her virginity was part of her intro but was not discussed much, she says.

Sadie Murray, the runner-up on the 2007 season, was not too bothered by producers telling her to discuss her faith and her virginity with Bachelor Lorenzo Borghese. Sometimes she declined, but eventually she told Lorenzo, noting “it didn’t matter to him at all. I think it mattered more to the show,” she says. “You don’t realize that will be your only story line when you’re giving the one-on-one interviews” with producers, Murray says.

“It was clearly part of my story, and why wouldn’t it be?” Murray adds. “It’s a show, and there has to be different characters: She’s the crazy cowgirl. She’s the loudmouth. She’s the slutty girl. I just happened to be the virgin.” (Warner Bros., the show’s production company, did not respond to a request for comment on how the show treats virginity.)

The moment of reveal can be teased out for several episodes. When Colton finally told Becca last season, another contestant referred to it as a “skeleton in the closet,” which rubbed Ashley the wrong way. “I don’t like the way that they always have to make the virgin revealing their virginity as, like, this dark thing that is a turnoff for people,” Ashley said on an episode of her podcast this summer.

“The Bachelor” has a tradition of talking about sex by not talking about it. The lead dates multiple women — and meets several women’s families — while trying to determine who is “here for the right reasons” (read: love and marriage) versus “the wrong” ones (a quick romp or fame). Then the final two or three advance to the Fantasy Suite, for some “off-camera time.”

In the Fantasy Suite a Bachelor or Bachelorette can sleep with none or all of his or her finalists. But unless someone (ahem, Nick Viall) explicitly brings up sex when the cameras are rolling again, viewers at home do not necessarily find out what happens off-camera.

Unless a contestant is a virgin. Then that choice is vaunted into the category of: Information the Bachelor Must Know. And viewers wait to see if this makes a person too inexperienced to get engaged. In the same way contestants who lead with their sexuality are questioned as to their sincerity and readiness for marriage, virginity is cast as a red flag or an “obstacle to overcome.”

So what happens when that reveal has already been made before the show’s even begun?

Showler, the author, says the casting of Colton raises provocative questions, as anyone crowned as the Bachelor is supposed to be seen as the ultimate available person. “What does it mean that in 2019 that is somebody who hasn’t had sex?” she asks. “Is a virgin the new ultimate male?”

More than a year into the #MeToo era, it is a timely question. Are daters — and TV dating series — looking for a man who is inexperienced and therefore has less of a chance of being a liability?

Especially a TV series that has had its own controversies surrounding consent. In 2017, its “Bachelor in Paradise” spinoff briefly halted filming after an investigation into alleged misconduct between two contestants. Warner Bros. found no misconduct had occurred but set a limit for contestants of two alcoholic beverages per hour. On the 2018 season of “The Bachelorette,” one cast member was found to have been convicted of indecent assault and battery, after groping a woman on a harbor cruise in 2016.

Former contestants say there is another positive potential in the show harping on one man’s lack of sexual experience: It could challenge preconceived notions of what a virgin looks like. ABC and Judd Apatow recently shared revised versions of the movie poster for the 2005 comedy “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” pasting an image of hunky Colton where a nerdy Steve Carrell used to be.

Christen, who on the show was abstaining from sex for religious reasons, notes that in pop culture, virgins are usually portrayed as “super-insecure” (and guys get judged even more harshly than women do). “But I think it’s the opposite,” she says. “It takes a lot of confidence and security to make a decision and stick with it.”

For Ashley and Colton, the decision to wait has not been linked to religion. It is more about wanting to be in a strong, committed relationship before taking that leap.

Though Colton now sounds confident in that decision to wait, he has not always. During last season’s “Men Tell All” episode, Colton described once feeling ashamed of his lack of experience. “I feel like people think I’m less of a man because of that, and that’s the hardest thing for me to hear,” Colton said, his voice breaking.

In the four years since she first discussed her virginity on the 2015 season of “The Bachelor,” Ashley has had to deal with her own accusations of: Virgins don’t look like that. Virgins do not kiss like that. But she’s also had heartwarming experiences of young women reaching out via social media and in real life to say: Hey, thanks for making me feel normal.

Now that a man is owning his decision to wait, Ashley thinks Colton could have a similar effect on men, who might think to themselves: “This really hot guy is also a virgin, so why would I feel behind or like I’m missing out?”

She adds, “He’s really making virgins cool."

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