Like many other women all across America, there is a gathering with wine, chocolate, and watching people “find love” at my apartment on Monday nights. Some may spend this time predicting who will get a rose or using the commercial breaks to swipe through dating apps. I, however, fluctuate between screaming about the horrible communication habits being modeled as “romantic” on primetime TV and making snarky comments from the kitchen about how The Bachelor would be better if contestants were polyamorous. (Hire me, ABC.)
So it will surprise zero people that the obsession over Bachelor Colton Underwood’s virginity this season is driving me bonkers.
Let’s be clear: Sex on The Bachelor has always been handled as untouchable. Discussion of physical intimacy is glossed over with a sweeping conversation about whether or not contestants will go to “The Fantasy Suite,” if they make it that far. Talking about sex in an honest way would require acknowledging the gray areas in relationships, and Bachelor Nation is all about a black-and-white decision on whether or not you’ll get engaged at the end of 13 episodes. Sex is weird and messy and, well, real — it’s hard to picture someone in the plastic world of reality TV talking about the excitement of exploring another person’s body in detail, or telling tales about avoiding wet spots on the sheets at a Fantasy Suite sleepover.
The absence of sex talk on The Bachelor only emphasizes this season’s obsession with Colton’s virginity. Before the show even started, it was ABC’s #1 marketing strategy. Everyone seems to want to know why Colton is a virgin. Some contestants are looking for a reason to explain the bizarre phenomenon of a 26-year-old, good-looking man who hasn’t done it — like Demi, who “hasn’t dated a virgin since she was 12.” Others are thinking he’s too good to be true, emphasizing how much they admire Colton for his choice — he thereby gains moral high ground simply by never having “done the deed.”
Colton’s virginity being his defining characteristic points to the incredible gaping holes in our society’s sex education. Rarely are Americans given the opportunity to explore questions about sexual choices outside of abstinence-only rhetoric. In fact, only 24 states mandate sex education in schools, but 37 states require that information on abstinence be provided. Most of us have been fear mongered about STIs, being “pure,” and what our future spouses will think of us. To unravel the glory placed on virginity takes a lot of work.
But it’s actually a Jewish value to prioritize education. While traditional Jewish teachings frown upon sex before marriage and masturbation, I’ve always interpreted my own sexual curiosity as an extension of my Jewish love of learning. Questioning in general is encouraged in the Jewish community, so I’d like to question a few of the ways that The Bachelor talks about virginity:
1. Sex = PiV sex
Colton’s virginity is defined by the fact that he’s never had sex, which is assumed to be PiV (penis-in-vagina sex). In this framework, if you’ve never had PiV sex, you’ve never had sex at all. This discounts so many other ways to experience pleasure, and places PiV sex on the highest pedestal. Talking about virginity this way assumes there is one “normal” path to sexual maturity, discounting the experiences of so many — particularly queer folks.
And although Colton isn’t queer (more on that in a second), we’re also dismissing his previous sexual encounters as insignificant. He told Jimmy Kimmel in a (pretty uncomfortable) Birds & the Bees segment that he’s made it to third base. No matter your exact definition of the baseball metaphor, it seems Colton has been sexual with another human being. The amount of value you place on a sexual act is a personal choice, but there is a lot to gain in the way we think about sex — for ourselves, and for our larger sexual culture —when we release the notion that PiV sex is the end all be all.
2. Colton hasn’t had sex, so he must be gay.
Oy! Glad we at least were able to cross this bridge in episode 2 with Billy Eichner. There’s a lot to unpack in Billy’s appearance on the show, but the main takeaway is that Billy tells Colton that he might be gay since he’s never had sex. But sexual acts do not define your sexual orientation. You could never have PiV sex and be heterosexual — you could never have sex with someone of the same-sex and still identify as gay. Sexuality is too nuanced and complex to be defined simply by where you put what in bed, so let’s leave it to Colton to decide if he’s not straight.
3. Colton’s sexual choices are a reflection of his morals.
It’s worth mentioning that this conversation would be different if this was a season of The Bachelorette. Women are constantly straddling the virgin/whore dichotomy: if you like/have sex, you’re a whore. If you’re a virgin, you’re a prude. (Ashley I. also was on the franchise as a virgin, and certainly tackled some similar backlash from the media.)
But interestingly, Colton is thrown into this dichotomy as well, just with a white male privilege twist. Contestants who are into his virgin status see him as safe, admirable, and a respectable choice for a partner. Those who are concerned are worried that he’s not ready for a serious relationship because he’s never had sex. The weight on his choices about sex is only slightly comical because when Colton talks about it, it’s almost like he simply forgot to have sex because he was focused on football. While he clearly takes sex seriously, the choice to wait seems to be more important to Bachelor Nation than Colton himself.
I’m not sure that this season will result in the sex education lesson I’m hoping for, but I am glad to see that many viewers are already over the virginity jokes two episodes in. Whether it’s because it’s a boring trope or because America sees that it’s deeply rooted in toxic values on sexuality is up for debate — if you’re in the latter camp, feel free to join me screaming in my kitchen next Monday.