When Bachelors Talk About Sex, The Bachelorette Gets Blamed

What Women Really Think
July 30 2014 1:36 PM

When Bachelors Talk About Sex, The Bachelorette Gets Blamed

Some relationships formed on The Bachelor do not last as long as the brouhaha that erupted Monday night after the season finale of The Bachelorette. During the After the Final Rose special, mumbly, heartbroken, nervous, jilted runner-up Nick had the bad manners to ask Bachelorette Andi Dorfman, now happily engaged to “former pro baseball player” Josh, “If you weren’t in love with me … I’m just not sure why you made love to me.” 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. Nick may have, as Andi said, gone “below the belt” with the question, but it’s Andi who has now been labeled both a “slut” and a kind of feminist hero for doing what men and women on the show have always done.

I have written before about the way that The Bachelor and Bachelorette franchise simultaneously pimps out its contestants while playing coy and classy, packaging its meat market as a kind of pure-of-heart undertaking: Please don’t mind all the women cattily competing for the sexual attention of one man they don’t know! They are doing it for true love! The two shows try for reciprocity, but there are different social dynamics and expectations at play when a man is flirting with a field of eager women, and when a woman is flirting with a field of eager men. Though Bachelors and Bachelorettes—and the contestants on both of these shows—often find themselves in similar situations, true-love-seeking behavior in a woman dictates a kind of sexual propriety that true-love-seeking behavior in a man does not.

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There is a reason that Nick is the first person on the show to bring up sex after being dumped, and that reason, at the risk of essentializing, is that he is a man. “Knowing how much I loved you, how could you make love to me?” is, within the context of The Bachelor/ette a hugely gendered question. It’s impossible to know the exact number, but Nick is certainly not the first person to sit on the After the Final Rose stage who could have asked it. But he is the first person who did ask it, because the jilted women before him didn’t need to ask. (They may have also been less confident about breaking the rules or revealing their own sexual exploits.) These women already know the answers, which are myriad, obvious, and socially acceptable: Because I wanted to! Because I could! Because I liked you at least enough to want to have sex with you! Because, duh, I am a man!

On its face, Nick and Andi’s interaction reversed these gender roles. Andi, the woman, had sex with two people and is being uncomfortably confronted by an extremely emotional Nick, the man, who thinks that the sex—the making love, to be more precise—meant more than it did. But the moment reinforced gender roles as much as it flouted them. Nick, operating under the auspices of hurt, sexual naïveté, and a dash of hubris, does not believe that Andi, the good, classy girl he loves, could have been sexually comfortable and voracious enough to have really good sex with someone— him!—if he was not “the one.” No woman who has ever appeared on The Bachelor suffers from this delusion.

By bringing up the sex, Nick is also upholding the specific gender roles of The Bachelor, in which men basically get to decide what is kosher. Women on The Bachelor do not appear to expect the fantasy-suite sex to mean more than it means (unless it happens way before the fantasy suite) because they understand that having sex in the fantasy suite is part of the game (and, to put it less crassly, part of building a relationship that could lead to marriage). Moreover, I suspect no woman has brought it up because she would worry that mentioning the sex would make her, and not the Bachelor, look bad. Nick suffered no such anxiety.

This kerfuffle only serves The Bachelor/ette as a franchise. The two seemingly at-odds aspects of the show—its faux-Victorian sensibility and its completely pervy setup—are, in fact, both entirely essential to its watchability. It’s not so prudish that it’s boring, but it’s not so crass that it’s gross. Nick’s question (aggressively prompted by host Chris Harrison) burnishes both of these aspects of the show: Look, sex is really being had! And look at how deeply felt it is! Anything that gives credence to the myth of The Bachelor as a crucible of real feeling is a boon to The Bachelor, even if its contestants end up as punching bags for a few days.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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