This season’s Bachelor, ex-NFL player Colton Underwood, began the journey a ~virgin~. Every episode, including the cringeworthy finale, has been stuffed with jokes and references to Colton’s V-card. Viewers have been implicitly promised that he will lose his virginity on TV and explicitly promised that the process will be dramatic with a capital D. As we are constantly reminded, Colton’s heart and virginity (!!!!) are on the line.
All of this focus on is he or isn’t he has brought back a narrative of virginity that had been somewhat absent from media that pretends to be woke. It’s a transactional narrative of sexuality that relies on an oppressive morality. It’s a heteronormative narrative of virginity that relies on penetration for authenticity. It’s a destructive narrative rebranded as Bachelor-worthy and given it new life.
Sex in Bachelor Nation
The Bachelor franchise has always promoted a fucked-up version of romance and sexuality. Despite sexual tension being a cornerstone of the production, contestants restrict themselves to vague references about the act. Contestants can talk about physical connection and attraction but stay away the word “sex” and rarely have it outside of the oft-discussed Fantasy Suite. The closest the show ever came to discussing an actual sex act was when they were forced to clarify why a producer labelled an act between two contestants as assault. To have sex in the Bachelor Universe is to do it behind closed doors and with the approval of Chris Harrison.
But this season, sex is out in the open, or not-having sex is. Colton’s virginity creates a strange paradox where women are allowed to make jokes and ask questions about sex but must continue to follow the rest of the show’s rigid morality.
This reward-based morality the show relies on makes even the most conservative viewers comfortable with watching six weeks of polyamory. It follows the logic of familiar, slightly Christian, bootstrapping morality messages prevalent in the Disney-approved world of pop culture. It goes something like this: If you are bad and don’t follow the rules (too eager, too sexy, not blonde), bad things will happen to you (you will never find love). If you are good and follow the rules (sexy but demure, here for the right reasons), good things will happen to you (marriage and, yes, that sweet, sweet Fantasy Suite sex). Purity has always been an explicit part of this equation, but this season, it’s the whole damn thing.
Will You Accept This V-Card?
ABC knows better than to make a woman’s virginity a prize in 2019. It feels porny and offensive to the audience of women that watch the show each week. But that didn’t stop them from attaching Colton’s to the winning rose at the end of this season. By parading his virginity as the ultimate prize, The Bachelor returns to the commodity model of virginity, a model that generations of women have worked to undo.
For centuries, women’s bodies were assigned value for a trade between two men (a suitor and a Chris Harrison father figure) and virginity was a high dollar quality. Hannah G’s hometown date included a lesson in this transactional model: “All of Hannah’s life Hannah’s parents have been holding this umbrella…protecting her from things that could hurt her, keeping her safe. And so Hannah’s parents are looking for someone that would be willing to take that umbrella and say ‘I want to hold that umbrella over Hannah now.’” The transaction was one of commodity and trade: prove to me you’re worthy (or pay me a sick dowery) and I’ll give you my daughter and her intact hymen.
Thankfully times have changed. This narrative has retreated in favor of a shiny rebranding. As Jessica Valenti explains, “Now, instead of a women’s virginity being explicitly bought and sold with dowries and business deals, it’s being defined as little more than a stand-in for actual morality.” In short, if you want to be good, you just have to be virginal.
This circles us back to the reason The Bachelor is so hyped about Colton’s virginity: it proves that he is good, a hard thing to do for a dude in 2019, and lets them run the same tired morality tale (see above) between advertisements for prescription drugs and anti-aging cream. But this shortcut, using virginity as shorthand for innocence and goodness, is not only regressive, when attached to The Bachelor brand of morality, it is a dog whistle for all the evangelical underpinnings of the show. Though Colton promises that his virginity “isn’t a religious thing,” The Bachelor gives no such qualifications.
The writers of The Bachelor don’t consider that for many, staying chaste is attached to deep rooted shame and fear-based messaging. They don’t care that their audience has been told the majority of their teen years that their virginity (or lack of) is the whole of their character. They don’t give a shit that virginity is still the only option for sex education in 19 states (3 of which are among the top states to send contestants to the show). It’s virginity rebranded as a moral commodity, as something you might be able to swap in for your very own Bachelor moment.
Virginity: The Social Construct
The heart of the matter is that virginity itself is a bullshit label. There is no official or medical definition for virginity. Start to poke at the one we use culturally and it starts to deflate. By most understandings, virginity is the state of not having had penis-in-vagina sex. (As Colton assured us, he may be a virgin but he’s done everything else.) This neurotically specific, exclusively hetero requirement excludes the myriad of ways people engage in sex.
So what does being a virgin mean in 2019? Valenti argues it’s just shorthand for a type of womanhood. “Staying ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’ is touted as the greatest thing we can do…[it] is downright insulting because it suggests that women can’t be moral actors. Instead we are defined by what we don’t do—our ethics are ethics of passivity (This model of ethics fits perfectly with how the virginity movement defines the ideal woman.)” Sounds like every Lauren, Hannah, and Sarah in Bachelor Nation.
The Bachelor is using the Virgin Bachelor to remind women that to be good we must be passive, be ready for marriage, be here for the right reasons. After the final rose, the messages will have little effect on the straight, white, hot, Ken-doll Colton, but it is already reviving a dangerous narrative. Virginity is once again something to be praised and defended rather than questioned as a social construct.