Sex sells, but does the lack of sex? The new season of ABC’s The Bachelor is framing its latest ill-fated love story around a square-jawed lead who is a 100-percent real-life virgin. That means discussions of sexual experience, appetite and prowess have become the overt foundations of a show that’s always kept sex (literally) behind closed doors. In compelling fashion, it’s been as scandalous a season of television as anything the show’s exhibited before.
Colton Underwood is your new Bachelor, with a capital B. He’s 26 and on the retired side of a short professional football career. Colton’s biography on the ABC website mentions he runs a charity for cystic fibrosis, enjoys country music and hikes the Colorado Rockies with his two rescue dogs. The site says he’s an “all-American looking for a teammate,” “part of a loving, blended family” and fresh off a “summer of growth and a new perspective.” You don’t need a picture to know what Colton looks like. He’s your high school quarterback. He’s the lifeguard at your local pool. He’s the hot camp counselor.
Only one thing runs counter to Colton’s Friday Night Lights-caliber persona: his virginity. Maybe you would point out that Colton’s sexual history shouldn’t contradict his stud-centric image, but that’s part of the point: The Bachelor presents Colton as a paradox. How could this man, with all his obvious physical and emotional assets, possibly be an NFL veteran but a rookie in the sheets?
Here’s the short answer: Colton is not a virgin for spiritual, religious or moral reasons. He says it wasn’t his priority when he was younger and explains that pursuing a career as a professional athlete came at the expense of his romantic life. It’s an odd explanation, but the point is: It just hasn’t happened for him. Colton’s not waiting until marriage, either; he’s waiting for the right person (his words). He has to repeat this point a lot to the contestants, producers and cameras.
To admit the least, this situation is uncommon, and while The Bachelor understands the tension at work here, it only engages Colton’s blank sexual record with something like a bemused eyebrow raise. The Bachelor’s ratings success depends in large part on the popularity of the show’s lead, so ABC has to walk a delicate line whenever the Bachelor or Bachelorette could be perceived as having any type of baggage. Virginity, to state the obvious, is seen by much of the general public as a check-only sized rolling suitcase. And for some, it’s a downright dealbreaker.
However, even with that cultural context looming over The Bachelor, ABC can’t say Colton’s virginity is a bad thing. The Bachelor has to be aspirational on a broad scale (“women want him, men want to be him”), so presenting Colton’s lack of sexual experience as a fatal flaw might doom the whole season. Is the solution to present Colton’s virginity as an asset? ABC, and most viewers, don’t seem to agree.
Because while The Bachelor won’t frame Colton’s virginity as baggage, it doesn’t look at it as a virtue, either. Instead, they deflect affirmation from the virginity itself to the Bachelor’s treatment of it. The show talks of Colton having “strong values” and praise him for showing “vulnerability with a sensitive topic.” It would be silly to expect different, but regardless of your perspective on sex, the show’s strange skirting of the issue manifests as a strange “elephant in the room” dynamic, in which Colton’s virginity isn’t evaluated until the story demands it.
Of course, being a show about a man seeking engagement with one of 30 women, The Bachelor inherently demands its players to address sexual history and values, but for the most part, it morphs its bafflement with Colton’s virginity into a punchline.
The tagline for this season is “What does he have to lose?” and whenever there’s a joke to be made about a first time or a new experience or a cocktail without alcohol, the show’s producers seize the opportunity with both hands. The tone is playful, but there’s a fine line between poking fun at Colton’s virginity and poking fun at the tension around Colton’s virginity, and The Bachelor isn’t sure how to walk down the middle. The show has never been so deprecating toward its lead, and while it has become more self-aware over the past few seasons, it’s hard to interpret where “laughing with” meets “laughing at.” It’s cringe humor in every sense.
When Colton is made to discuss his virginity through the show’s private interview segments (between himself and Bachelor producers or host Chris Harrison), the laughs disappear altogether. In these one-on-one settings, Colton’s virginity is treated with a hush-hush seriousness that runs at odds with the surrounding jokes. It’s The Bachelor’s way of defending their star. This topic is important to him, so hey, everyone cut it out and show some respect.
The reverent tone doesn’t play next to the jabs about Shirley Temples. The Bachelor tries to have it both ways, but in this case the balancing act betrays a lack of conviction, and that lack of conviction communicates everything the show really feels about a virgin Bachelor.
Within the mechanisms of The Bachelor itself, the women competing for Colton’s heart aren’t as coy about their feelings. The first few episodes of each Bachelor season always contain an uncomfortable mode of objectification as the contestants struggle to describe people they barely know in ways other than “hot,” but on Colton’s season, discussion around him as both a physical and emotional match has come with stipulations. The women can’t talk about Colton being a stud in the same way they might talk about other Bachelors being studs. There’s a different connotation. It’s unfamiliar territory.
The season premiere of The Bachelor sees each contestant parade in front of the lead on their way into the house. Usually they deliver a dorky pickup line or deploy a prop to help themselves stand out, and these accessories serve as a nice field test for what will define this Bachelor, these relationships and this season. After all, the contestants only have what the producers have told them ahead of time about the star. They haven’t met the Bachelor himself.
So you can guess the angle many of Colton’s suitors took on Night One. One woman brought a cherry-shaped balloon and popped it, another performed a “pick a card” magic trick that lead to her stealing Colton’s v-card and another came in a sloth costume because Colton likes to “take things slow.” Some women made these advances endearing, most did not, but thanks to Colton likely being prepared for this kind of thing, the lead took it all in stride.
When the women were less playful in broaching Colton’s virginity, things became less inoffensive and more indicative of how this Bachelor’s sexual status clashes with the show’s cultural foundation. For example, one contestant met Colton and said, “I haven’t dated a virgin since I was 12.” That line raises a number of questions, but for these purposes, it positions Colton’s virginity as an obstacle before the prospective couple have even made small talk.
Not to say the small talk was any different when it did happen. During the cocktail portion of that first evening, the women can take Colton aside to have (slightly) longer, more intimate conversations with him. One contestant took Colton aside seemingly for the sole purpose of asking him why he was a virgin at all. It’s a compelling question both for the scintillating possibility in Colton’s answer (monastic values? troubled past? relationship baggage? the women have no idea), but also for the question’s inherent motivation. It calls back to the sense of perplexment with which the show treats Colton’s sexual history: If this guy’s a virgin, something must be wrong with him.
That same contestant, upon hearing Colton wasn’t waiting for marriage, just the right person, expressed a sense of relief best described as profound. She was relieved in a “the x-ray came back negative” way. For her, the wrong side of that answer was a dealbreaker.
Most contestants, though, seem to be forging ahead this season with a sort of begrudged reluctance. Colton, to them, appears to be worth jumping this particular hurdle. Many of the women are still skeptical—”If you only had a vanilla cupcake, how do you know you don’t like chocolate?” one asks—but others joke about it or even give a back-patting sort of endorsement, saying Colton has “the morals I’m looking for” or praising his “family values” (The Bachelor’s code phrase for traditional, conservative behavior).
Taking all of this in total, what The Bachelor communicates and reaffirms about modern sexual culture is that virginity indicates a lack of validity in certain aspects of someone’s romantic life. Sexual experience, in the eyes of the show’s producers, contestants and even lead at times, brings about a legitimacy that can’t be earned through other relational demonstrations. Colton could romance these 30 women from here to the moon, but until sex, it won’t be enough to know for sure if he’s the one, and proving yourself to be “the one” is what this show is supposedly about.
And for Colton specifically, this is a special challenge. He’s a former pro athlete. While many might snort at his thin NFL resume, it’s worth wondering if he’d see the same flak if he wasn’t a virgin. A virgin NFL veteran is no different in athletic prowess or ability than a sexually experienced NFL veteran, but in Colton’s case, it seems to make a difference in how he’s perceived.
Sex, therefore, doesn’t just serve to legitimize lovers in modern culture, but certain types of people. We already conflate sexual experience (or promiscuity, even) with specific occupations, but we also conflate sexual experience with certain demographics, social circles and backgrounds. That goes for Bachelors and Bachelorettes, in both the capital and lowercase versions of the word.
Today, virginity equates to naivete. That’s different from youth. Remember, Colton is 26, which isn’t old by any measure, but also not too young to find the person you want to marry. Him being a 26-year-old virgin, however, implies a deeper youth that paints him in an almost childlike light. He doesn’t just need a wife; he needs a wife to make him a man. Cue a parade of women trying on their most embarrassing “you be the student, I be the teacher” personas. A reductive overtone makes way for reductive behavior.
The Bachelor is not a moral show, nor is it trying to be one. If anything, the show’s job is to pander to viewers’ favorite brands of drama: love and sex. So much of our culture revolve around who’s seeing who and who’s sleeping with who, and that makes The Bachelor hard to shake a finger at. It’s not a cultural instructor; it’s just a messenger. We know you like this, so here, have as much as you want.
It’s not The Bachelor’s job, even, to lead a conversation about how to treat someone’s sexual history. Really, given the show’s premise, it can’t direct the way people engage with it. These women and this guy are going to do whatever they want, and the show is going to capture those actions in a TV-worthy light and show them to us.
And sure, what constitutes something as TV-worthy is up for debate, but nonetheless, The Bachelor is a reflection of what people are interested in. This season, watching people on TV deal with a lack of sex has proved to be just as captivating as the opposite. There really is a first time for everything.
Tyler Daswick is a senior writer at Relevant. Follow him on Twitter @tylerdaswick.