The “Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” franchises have always been a bit dicey about sex, which is normally not discussed, and is not supposed to happen outside of the Fantasy Suite, where the man or woman at the center of each season retires with the final contenders toward the end of the competition. But the past two seasons of “The Bachelorette” have worked us into a particular tangle. Though the relationships that are forged on these shows don’t have a terrific track record, the series are at least ostensibly about the search for marriage. In this bizarre context, where the search for a monogamous partner gets carried out in decidedly nonmonogamous circumstances, what’s the line between slut-shaming and emotional investment?
Nick, who’s become part of this season’s sexual kerfuffle, was also at the center of the last “Bachelorette” sex controversy: That time, Nick confronted Bachelorette Andi Dorfman about why she’d slept with him if she didn’t love him. As Slate’s television critic Willa Paskin wrote last year, “Nick’s provocation was the first time that anyone on the show has explicitly mentioned sex—and revealed what goes on in the fantasy suites, those fancy, usually tropical hotel rooms introduced very late in the season for the obvious (though previously unstated) purpose of an off-camera sexual interaction. It was Nick who broke the implicit rules surrounding the fantasy suite, but his revelation has, perhaps inevitably, led to a referendum not on male sexuality, but female sexuality.”
I don’t necessarily disagree with Paskin that the franchise is governed by the expectation that “men basically get to decide what is kosher.” But is it really so strange for people who’ve had sex in these highly unnatural circumstances to have intense feelings about their situations?
“Kaitlyn’s guilt over her dalliance with Nick drives her to break down in tears by the end of the episode, referring to the whole thing as a ‘mistake,’ ” Emma Gray noted in Huffington Post. “When Clare Crawley had her ocean rendezvous with Juan Pablo during Season 18 of ‘The Bachelor,’ she too ended up in tears. In ‘Bachelor(ette)’ land, consensual sex cannot happen before week nine without regret attached to it.” And Ali Barthwell was even blunter in Vulture: “She feels guilty because she’s in relationships with a bunch of other guys and she’s never had to feel this guilt, but she does now. You see that? She’s never had to feel this guilt before because this guilt is something you have to do. For someone who described herself as a bandit when it came to intimacy, she sure has bought in to the idea that sex is sacred. Everyone needs to relax. She’s on a show where she is dating 15 guys at once.”
At the risk of sounding terribly old-fashioned, I wonder if there’s a little bit more to it. Nobody should have to feel ashamed for having whatever kind of consensual sex they want with whoever’s consenting to it with them. But “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” are built on the core contradiction of our sexual ideals: the idea that liberation means that we have to have varied sex lives, even as all that experience is supposed to lead us to contented monogamy. And rather than having a progression of those experiences, the franchise forces them to take place simultaneously. The participants don’t even have the emotional protection of being able to go home to their own places. They’re forced to live together, and to watch the man or woman at the center of the show go on dates with their competition.
Is it really so weird, or even so unfair, for someone who’s just declared their love for another person to feel stressed and upset upon learning that the object of their affection spent an intimate evening with someone else? “I can’t do that,” Shawn B. told a staffer on “The Bachelorette” after finding out about Kaitlyn’s evening with Nick. “Trust, to me, is like the biggest thing ever. I’m telling you, I’m not going to make it. I can’t do that anymore.”
Maybe in the aggregate, this sort of jealousy serves to police women’s sexuality. But I can’t help but feel for Shawn B. “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” both depend on participants feeling this kind of pain. Resisting it would require a sort of superhuman detachment that most of us aren’t actually capable of.
And as for Kaitlyn’s upset the next day, I’m sure there’s an element of sexual policing to it. “I didn’t mean to do anything that would cause anybody any problems,” she said tearfully on the episode. “The Bachelorette,” which is normally supposed to be a chance for women to get the kind of control and choice that’s afforded to men on “The Bachelor,” flipped its script this season, making two women compete for the slot, and starting things off on a sour note that’s persisted ever since.
Maybe punishing Kaitlyn for having sex with Nick is just another way of making her a little less free, a little less in control. But her conflicted feelings are also a natural response to the conflicts we all feel when we try to balance what we want for ourselves and what we want for other people we care about.
An important part of sexual liberation and feminism has been to think more critically about what sex, and having had it, means. It’s absolutely progress that a woman’s value is no longer inextricably tied to her virginity, and that being a good lover means being attentive to your partner’s experiences. But just because sex has shaken loose of some of its bad old connotations doesn’t mean it’s wrong or regressive to feel that sex is meaningful, that it’s an emotional experience as well as a physical one.