Inside the 'Bachelor' Franchise's Complicated Journey to Sex Positivity (Exclusive)
By Jennifer Drysdale
In the words of Luke Parker (and Salt-N-Pepa before him), let's talk about sex.
For a dating show that's been on the air for 17 years, The Bachelor actually doesn't talk that much about sex. Obviously, it's an important part of any relationship, but the most the franchise would mention in regards to the topic was an episode each season dedicated to the fantasy suites, during which the show's lead spends "off-camera time" with the final contestants.
The franchise didn't necessarily decide that 2019 was the year it was going to take on sex; it just sort of happened thanks to a virgin, a windmill and a weekend at Stagecoach.
Colton Underwood was announced as the Bachelor in September 2018. He had just come off a season of Bachelor in Paradise, but was best known to fans for his appearance on Becca Kufrin's season of The Bachelorette, where he revealed that he was -- at 26 years old -- still a virgin. The show had never had a literal virgin lead before (Sean Lowe was a born-again virgin on his 2013 season, and didn't reveal that until after his season aired), and leaned heavily into the narrative.
It was off to the races with virgin jokes -- Underwood's first poster cheekily asked, "What does he have to lose?", the next posed him like Steve Carell's 40-Year-Old Virgin posterand multiple women on his January season premiere made jokes about "popping his cherry." For the first time, sex became a common discussion on the first one-on-one dates, including one with future Bachelorette Hannah Brown, who candidly revealed some feelings of guilt over not having saved herself for marriage.
Virginity jokes aside, Underwood's season would become the space for a powerful discussion about sexual assault and consent. One of his frontrunners, Caelynn Miller-Keyes (who appeared on season six of Bachelor In Paradise -- more on that later), emotionally shared her story of being raped in college. It was that reveal that led to another by Underwood: that part of the reason he was still a virgin was because of his relationship with a victim of sexual assault (USA gymnast Aly Raisman) and his desire to respect her space.
"That is one of the most emotional, revealing conversations we have ever had on the show. We were all very much taken aback," Chris Harrison previously told ET during Underwood's season. "It is something that is going to change the course of the entire show."
In an interview after the episode aired, Raisman praised Miller-Keyes for sharing her story so publicly. Miller-Keyes, meanwhile, later told ET that she was happy to have made such an impact. "I have spoken to other survivors," she shared. "Different people have reached out, which I've been so grateful of."
Fans also applauded the show for airing such an honest conversation, a first of its kind for The Bachelor. Months later, The Bachelorette would have its own landmark chat.
Brown, an unlikely choice for franchise lead after finishing seventh on Underwood's season (usually the next lead is picked from the final four frontrunners), was announced as The Bachelorette on his season finale. As both she and Harrison have admitted, it was a rocky start. Her insecurity over whether the men were actually there to date her specifically, and not just to appear on the show, led her to fall for Parker early on. He pursued Brown heavily, and she had trouble letting him go despite their incompatibility.
Brown and Parker did connect over their Christian faith, but had very different ideas of what that meant for intimacy in a relationship. Their romance came to an explosive end just before the aforementioned fantasy suites, when Parker wanted to "talk about sex." He confronted Brown and threatened to leave the competition if she had been intimate with any other contestants. Her response? "One of the greatest lines in the history of television,” according to Harrison.
"I f**ked in a windmill," Brown declared to Parker, and the world. “And guess what? We did it a second time.”
The 24-year-old later confessed to ET that she was "frustrated" that she felt forced into detailing her sex life in order to get through to Parker, but still refused to be shamed for her decisions. While many viewers had her back, others mobilized online in outrage over such a statement being aired on TV, but Brown stood her ground.
"To ever have anybody make me feel that way, it's a little messed up, and I'm not going to stand for that. Because if I feel that way, I know there's other people out in the world that feel that way, and maybe if I can stand up for myself, other people can feel like they can too," Brown told ET.
Until this year, conversations around sex had made more of an appearance on The Bachelorette than The Bachelor, and those discussions were often used to shame women.
"Starting with Andi Dorfman's season, where Nick Viall revealed that they had slept together in the fantasy suite, I mean … that was a really low blow: that was meant to embarrass and it humiliated her,” ABC executive Rob Mills recently told ET. “But, that was the first time that sort of the lid was blown off, even though it was always speculated. You know: 'Who knows what happens in the fantasy suite?' Kaitlyn Bristowe's season [brought up sex] too."
Indeed, sex became a theme of Bristowe's 2015 Bachelorette season, after she also slept with Viall -- though this time, it was before the fantasy suites. She decided the best course of action was honesty, and told the other contestants, but the drama didn't end there. Once the episodes aired, Bristowe was met with death threats by viewers. She broke down on her Men Tell All special recalling how they had affected her. There was relatively little mention of sex in the following seasons, featuring JoJo Fletcher, Rachel Lindsay and Becca Kufrin (save for Underwood's virginity reveal).
"As we move forward, we should look and say 'OK, why is that?' And [see] if there's something we could or should be doing to just open up that conversation more," Mills continued. "I think you'll see the cast members, [including] the women on the upcoming season of The Bachelor, they won't be afraid to talk about things now, because they sort of know nothing is off limits anymore. [The door] was opened a crack with Andi, and Kaitlyn kind of opened it a little more. Hannah just kicked the door down."
The franchise took this new freedom in discussing sex and extended it to Bachelor in Paradise, which will air its sixth season finale on Tuesday night. Though, with multiple men and women involved, things got messier. Sex and all the implications that come with it were dug into heavily on the season premiere as Miller-Keyes detailed fellow contestant Blake Horstmann's back-to-back nights with her and Kristina Schulman at the Stagecoach music festival. Miller-Keyes and Horstmann's disagreement over the meaning of their sexual encounter was furthered where it started -- off-screen -- with him leaking their private texts about their night together on social media as BiP episodes aired. She was attacked for her words in those messages, and he was accused of slut-shaming her with the leak. It remains to be seen how this discussion will go down in the annals of franchise history; but at present the he-said, she-said seems less weighty, more watercooler.
But it was the most fans had heard about sex on (and off) Paradise since the show's headline-making scandal in 2017, when production on season four of the series was halted due to a third party producer's allegations of sexual misconduct between then-contestants Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson. Production was halted for nearly two weeks during Warner Bros.' investigation, which found no wrongdoing.
So now, the topic of sex on Paradise is going through a bit of an image makeover, with Underwood and Brown's seasons leading the way, attempting to chaperone it from the realm of scandal to important subject matter.
"This is Paradise evolving," Harrison told ET in August. "The fact that all of these people do go to Stagecoach, go to all these festivals… and they all hook up and they all mingle and they all talk. They are all constantly maneuvering and manipulating and that was happening heading into Paradise."
"The only big mistake they make is thinking that we don't know," he noted.
This season of BiP will perhaps best be remembered for featuring the franchise’s first same-sex relationship. Contestant Demi Burnett revealed on the premiere that she's queer, and open to exploring relationships with both men and women. A female love interest Burnett had met before the show, Kristian Haggerty, was eventually brought to the beach, and it looks like the show is headed for a historic same-sex engagement.
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'Bachelor in Paradise's Demi Burnett Opens Up About Coming Out on TV (Exclusive)
"It felt like, this is a great story, no matter who it was," Mills told ET. "I think that everybody feels really, really proud about this. This is a storyline that didn't get swept under the rug. … I'm excited for people to see it. It's done really well and tastefully, but not shy about it at all. It's really great for the franchise."
Most importantly, in all the landmark ways The Bachelor, Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise have dived into sex and sexuality over the past year, production has tried to do so with respect for the contestants and the subject matter -- and that's why it's been rewarded with both banner ratings and rave reviews.
During Underwood's season finale, Harrison asked him the question all viewers wanted to know: was he still a virgin? "It's something that we're going to keep to ourselves," he replied with his final pick and girlfriend, Cassie Randolph, seated beside him. Harrison didn't press further. The host also let Brown take the reigns on her finale when it came to her sex life: the Alabama native giddily offered up that she and finalist Peter Weber had actually had sex "four times" in the windmill.
"The show has always been a microcosm of what is happening in the real world, and I think there is more conversation about sexuality, sex, race, religion, all this stuff... I think it is just bleeding over," Harrison told ET. "That's always been the case for the show: We evolve with what is going on in the world."
So, while contestants continue their journeys to find love, the franchise will continue its quest to embrace sex positivity. This is the new normal, and it's for the right reasons.