NEW YORK — There may be no show on television as twisted about sex as “The Bachelor.” ABC’s long-running dating show, now in its 18th season, purports to find a man a wife, a mission in which it is only very sporadically successful. Despite its failure rate, “The Bachelor” continues to present itself as romantic, out to find a good man a life partner, a soul mate, a true love — all while behaving like a pimp.
The show assembles a harem of attractive women who attempt to woo one man not just with their charm, but their bodies, their insecurity, and their willingness to suppress any part of their personality that might make them seem difficult — in particular, their innate discomfort that this man is availing himself of numerous other women as he speaks to each of them about feeling a “real connection.” To distract from the ickiness of this set up, “The Bachelor” plays the prude, only ever speaking of sex in the most coded, vague terms, like a pimp who blushes at the word “vagina” and claims his clientele are just playing cards.
Typically, “The Bachelor’s” resemblance to an unusually public escort service is kept under wraps until late in the season, when the bachelor has narrowed the field down to three suitors. They are then invited — or not invited — to spend the night with the bachelor in a “fantasy suite,” an evening in a romantic, usually tropical location where the cameras will finally leave these two people alone to get up to whatever they want to get up to. Having one off-camera sexual encounter with a person who may soon give you a grapefruit-size engagement ring seems like a good idea. But in practice, it means a man has sex with three women, three evenings in a row, and professes his deep and romantic feelings to each one of these women, all of whom are fearful of behaving in a way he might not like. It’s callow, sordid behavior made somehow acceptable by the use of Hallmark Card language and a really fly hotel room.
But the show’s sex issues have come up much earlier than usual in the latest iteration of “The Bachelor,” starring Venezuelan soccer player and apologetic homophobe Juan Pablo. Juan Pablo has a small daughter at home, increasingly one of “The Bachelor’s” favorite props for signifying that its protagonist has pure motives (because no single parent ever just wanted to screw around). He has deployed his daughter strategically in the last few episodes, using her as an excuse to kiss only those women he really wants to kiss.
“I don’t want my daughter to see her dad kissing 20 girls,” he has said, though he is apparently fine with having his daughter see her dad kiss six of them.
With one woman, Juan Pablo went much further than kissing, a pretty scandalous turn of events in the “Bachelor” universe, where sex always arrives in the penultimate episode and always at the behest of the john. Clare, a 32-year old, high-strung hairstylist, is the woman Juan Pablo kissed first, and they have barely stopped since. On a group date in Vietnam, Clare and Juan Pablo ignored everyone else while goofing around in a small Vietnamese rowboat. After lunch at a farm (“We should have these in America,” said one contestant, a 21-year-old former-NBA dancer), Juan Pablo continued to shower Clare with attention. After the group dinner he hustled her up to his hotel room, so they could take a solo dip in his pool. He then gave her a rose, meaning she had “won” the group date, and was guaranteed not to be sent home the following night.
After receiving all this attention, Clare decided to show up at Juan Pablo’s room at 4 a.m. and ask him to go swim in the ocean with her. He did. And then they had sex — or at least, that is the only way to make sense of what followed, even though “The Bachelor” hewed to its strict policy of never being explicit, as if language alone can make the show demure.
The next day, Clare gave a toast “to finding love, being loved, and making love,” only for Juan Pablo to take her aside and tell her that, “I hope nobody knows. It was a little weird for me. I’m too fair with people … Maybe it wasn’t right. I have a daughter, I don’t want her to see what happens, if she sees it.” Clare, who thought she had had sex with someone who wanted to have sex with her, was mortified and embarrassed.
“I knew when we were in the ocean, that it was a mutual feeling. If he didn’t think it was right he shouldn’t have done it. I would have respected that,” she said to the camera, crying.
Clare did exactly what the show and Juan Pablo purport to want the women on the show to do: to be themselves, to do what they would do if the cameras weren’t there, to try to have genuine interactions with the titular bachelor. But because she ran afoul of the show’s selectively Victorian sensibility and did not leave decisions about when to have sex on television to the show or Juan Pablo, she basically got slut-shamed by both. At her own expense, Clare exposed “The Bachelor’s” sexual ethos, which is that the women are supposed to be relatively innocent and chaste, up until the moment the man calls on them to stop being so.
If Clare had bided her time and waited however many episodes until Juan Pablo invited her into his fantasy suite, she would have been celebrated as a woman willing to make herself vulnerable for love. Instead, she got the easy-woman edit and a scolding about sexual propriety from a guy proudly wearing multiple women’s spit.
It may be hard out here for a pimp, but it’s way harder for a bachelorette.
Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, has written for New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Salon.com.