This season of ABC’s Bachelor in Paradise caused controversy before it had even begun. Two months before this week’s premiere, producers suspended taping within the first week of production in Mexico amid allegations of sexual misconduct within the cast. DeMario Jackson and Corinne Olympios had hooked up after a day of drinking, and she alleged that she was too drunk to really remember (or consent to) the encounter. Contestants who gave anonymous accounts to media outlets said they were angry at producers who saw the encounter take place and did nothing to stop it; one producer even sued the production company for allegedly letting an assault occur.
But an internal Warner Bros. investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by any cast members, so the remaining contestants returned to carry on with the season as planned. On Tuesday, the second night of the two-day premiere, they showed up on the beach like they were returning to the scene of a tragic shipwreck, uttering breathless musings like “I don’t think anyone expected to be back here” and “I hope this is a fresh reset on love.” Before they got to work finding love, host Chris Harrison sat the cast members down to have a heart-to-heart about alcohol, racism, consent, and restoring the reputation of the Bachelor franchise.
No reasonable person would expect a reality-show host to be an adequate guidance counselor—Harrison is far better qualified to coax romantic platitudes out of fame-hungry meatheads than to lead a reflection session on sexual propriety. He had to fill that position anyway, no matter how uncomfortably the “very special episode” shoes fit, because the sexual assault allegations had called the very premise of Bachelor in Paradise into question. Unlike the regular Bachelor and Bachelorette, this more gender-balanced iteration keeps a steady supply of fresh bodies coming in as others are eliminated, encouraging contestants to partner-swap and explore new options. With an equally steady stream of alcohol flowing and the pressure to do enough interesting stuff to get airtime and stick around for the next episode, it’s almost surprising that there hasn’t been a public accusation of sexual misconduct on Bachelor in Paradise before.
The main objective of the sit-down chat about the assault, then, was to convince viewers that nothing untoward happened during taping, that the media blew the whole incident out of proportion, that Jackson was a victim of racist stereotyping, and, crucially, that the events depicted on the show are spontaneous reflections of the true selves of the cast. Luckily, Harrison is well-practiced in feeding lines to willing participants. Did the cast trust the conclusion of the WB investigation? Did they think race played a role in the unfair treatment of Jackson in the press? Yes, they all nodded. “Taylor, have you ever had a drink on any of the Bachelor shows?” Harrison asked the one sober contestant, Taylor Nolan, in a back-and-forth on how involved producers are in the show. “I’ve never had a drink on the show,” she replied. Harrison pressed on: “Have you ever been asked to have a drink?” “Nope,” Nolan answered. Those answers may be true, but they’d be a lot more convincing if Harrison didn’t sound like he was direct-examining a witness for the defense.
Drunken hookups happen all the time on the show, but this is the first time both a producer and a cast member have made allegations of a sexual assault against a contestant. That suggests that something out of the ordinary went on: Maybe Olympios looked really out of it during the sexual activity, or was drunk enough to raise questions of consent among viewers, even if investigators saw no reason for concern. Either way, the producers of Bachelor in Paradise recognized that the show looked bad for allowing it to happen in press accounts of the alleged encounter. So they took a page out of the president’s book and started casting doubt on the press. “Journalism is dead, and long gone on every level,” Harrison told Variety in a promotional interview for the show. “What really astounded me was the level of incompetence—things that were said and printed by quote-unquote reputable media, and reputable print, and even TV.” He accused news outlets of printing things that weren’t true; during the cast chit-chat that aired this week, cast members said members of the media shamed Olympios for having sex and calling Jackson a sexual predator when he hadn’t been charged with a crime. “I think there was a lot in the media regarding the producers, as if they’re not our friends, and that they’re just using us to make us do things, like we’re gonna just do whatever they say,” one contestant said. “And maybe you can explain what really does happen,” Harrison urged. Another guy explained that the producers aren’t doing the “puppetmaster thing,” that all the friendships on the show are totally real. “You guys aren’t mindless robots?” Harrison asked with a laugh. It couldn’t have been a better plug for reality TV if they’d planned it.
For all the purported neutrality of the discussion, Olympios’ reputation came away with the bulk of the damage, while Jackson’s got a fair bit of rehabilitation. Nolan noted that the cast members shouldn’t expect to “be babysat by production,” that “the things we say, how much we drink, who we kiss, we’re responsible for all of it.” “Just like the real world,” a contestant named Derek said, shaking his head with a smirk. “If we order a drink, we order that drink. We request that drink.” The implication there is that neither DeMario nor producers should be held responsible for any overintoxication that led to a less-than-consensual sexual encounter—that any alleged harm Olympios suffered was her own fault. Harrison drove the point home: “In Corinne’s statement she referred to herself as a victim. Why do you think she did that?” The cast accused Olympios of trying to “save face” after being promiscuous, then hiding behind a vague “lawyer statement.” No one—not even Harrison, who was supposed to be leading an adult conversation on slut-shaming and consent—challenged that notion.
The most insulting part of the whole ordeal involved race, another complex topic a reality show about finding true love in two weeks is ill-equipped to confront. After Diggy Moreland, a black contestant, said he worried for DeMario’s future job prospects, a white woman, Raven Gates, chimed in with her experience as a Southerner. “We have a stigma where seeing a white woman with a black man is wrong, and that night, what happened wasn’t wrong,” Gates said. “And so I was super empathetic with DeMario, because … not only is consent important, but it’s also to get rid of the stigma that interracial couples can’t be, or blaming African-American men for crimes they didn’t commit.” Yes, there is a long history in the U.S. of black men losing their freedom and, in some cases, their lives because of white women’s false accusations of sexual assault. But invoking it in a case where there’s still a lot of unknowns trivializes a vitally important issue and may lead some viewers to question the truth of that history. Since there’s been no trial or verdict, it’s wrong to say Jackson committed a crime. It’s equally wrong to say Olympios lied, or that she did so to get Jackson in trouble.
By the end, what should have been a quick acknowledgement of the alleged misconduct and a run-through of best practices for sexual consent had turned into a self-exonerating press release for the Bachelor franchise and a thoroughly imbalanced trial of the woman who drew attention to the show’s potential ethical weak spots in the first place. Despite his leading questions, Harrison was unable to cover up one of those spots, leaving viewers with some unanswered questions. The WB investigation found “no evidence of misconduct by cast on the set,” he said at the start, choosing his words carefully. That’s the cast—what about the production team? How are the people who make the show and ultimately shape the experience of the contestants going to move forward? Harrison seemed to show concern for the safety of the contestants, but never contested any of them when they blamed Olympios for drinking too much or accused her of ruining Jackson’s life. Bachelor in Paradise could have made a genuine statement about the importance of consent without taking the side of either Jackson or Olympios. Instead, it used its platform to try and repair its reputation by making a case against the woman who threatened it. What a lesson for its national audience to learn.