I'm going to start this by getting an ugly confession out of the way. I'm a fan of "The Bachelor". I know that the show is, as my boyfriend put it, "the height of anti-intellectualism in America." I know it's warped and scripted and everything wrong with our society. But I can't help it. I kind of like it.
However, that doesn't mean that I can't analyze and be disturbed by it as well. And in the embarrassing amount of time I've spent watching and rewatching episodes during the past several weeks, I've come to a conclusion. The worst thing about "The Bachelor" isn't that it's sexist, or that it perpetuates negative stereotypes about women, or that it exploits emotionally vulnerable people, or even that it reinforces illogical ideas about what makes a lasting relationship. It isn't even the franchise's weirdness about sex, or the double standards to which Bachelors and Bachelorettes are held when it comes to sleeping with their potential mates.
No, the most sinister theme on the show is the woman-on-woman slut-shaming.
The Timeless Art of Shaming People for Having (or God Forbid, Liking) Sex
The site nobullying.com defines slut-shaming as "the act of making a girl or a woman feel guilty about certain sexual behaviors that deviate from societal norms. Slut shaming includes women who wear provocative clothes, women who showcase promiscuous sexual behavior, women who have casual sex or premarital sex, women who request access to birth control and women who have an abortion. Feminist researchers present the case as 'drawing a line' for women to be 'sexual, but not too sexual.'"
They also write that, "Slut shaming starts as mere girl-on-girl gossip." Nowhere does this play out more clearly than on "The Bachelor."
While I shouldn't be surprised to see these behaviors on a show like "The Bachelor," in which 25-30 women compete for the love of (and an engagement ring from) one man, I still find it troublesome and think that it's worth discussing, because slut shaming isn't just a thing that happens among a gaggle of dating show contestants. It happens all the time in our society, with much more dire consequences than being broken up with during a tearful elimination ceremony on national television. And it's most damning when it comes from other women.
Two women on this season's cast are virgins. One of them, Ashley I., told her castmates and the producers (and millions of viewers) that she was a virgin well before she told the man she was trying to marry. The Mic piece referenced below addresses the bizarre reactions some of the other women had to this news, including Mackenzie, a single mother, saying she was jealous that she didn't have the virginity card to play in her quest for Bachelor Chris Soules' heart.
Naturally, critical viewers took to Twitter to discuss Ashley I.'s announcement, several of whom were quoted by Mic. The Twitter responses illustrate so much of what enrages me about our culture and how women use sex to shame and deride other women, for sport or personal gain. One woman quoted her mother's conclusion that Ashley was a "lying whore," while another insisted she was lying because of the way she "ate [Chris'] face off," referring to her enthusiastically making out with him. Former "Bachelorette" contestant Constantine Tzortzis said Ashley's was "def not a kiss of a virgin," whatever that means. Another guy tweeted she was "too confident" to be a virgin.
Too confident and too passionate a kisser to be a virgin? What fucking century are we living in?
At least one of Ashley's castmates shared the bitter Twitter commenters' opinions. Carly, who became uncomfortable to watch throughout the season, due to her insecurity-driven, mean-spirited comments about the other women, cattily remarked that Ashley's "mouth isn't a virgin."
I was no fan of Ashley I.'s, but I thought the criticisms were unfair, and indicative of deeper societal issues around women's virginity and sexuality. Even many people who are otherwise fairly liberal seem to subscribe to the age-old idea that a woman's worth is directly proportional to her sexual purity, and that there's a very fine line between "respectable woman" and "dirty whore."
As Mic editor Ellie Krupnick writes in her article "Last Night's 'Bachelor' Episode Was Everything Wrong With How We Talk About Virginity", the Twitter reactions highlight the impossible standards to which our society holds women. We're supposed to be sexual, but not want sex. And if you're a virgin, you'd better act like a virgin. No sucking face or provocative behavior from you, lest people think you're an opportunistic tramp or, god forbid, a slut. Laurie Penny explores this topic with appropriate outrage in her book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution.*
"The Bachelor" is a study in this kind of hypocrisy. Every woman on the show parades around in bikinis, cocktail dresses, and ballgowns, clearly to show off her physical attributes. These women, understandably, want to be sexually desirable to the bachelor. This is OK as long as the women aren't too sexually aggressive, even when discussing the elusive Fantasy Suite dates. This attitude reinforces the idea that women's highest priority should be being beautiful but also pure, molding themselves into a supposed ideal that appeals to men and to our Victorian-minded society at large.
But back to Ashley I.'s confession. Implicit in a snarky remark like, "her mouth isn't a virgin" is the suggestion that just because a woman hasn't yet had sex, she can't be sexual. Since when can't virgins make out with people they're attracted to, or get turned on by someone they're dating?
It's an absurd sentiment, because virgins make out and fool around all the time. What do you think everyone from high school kids to sexually active adults are doing before they choose to sleep with someone? They're having hot make-out sessions and getting handsy under each other's clothes.
Criticizing Ashley for being too passionate to be a virgin is just a thin excuse for using her sexuality to put a woman down, whether it's because you don't like her or are intimidated by her. And obnoxious though Ashley could be on the show, she doesn't deserve that. No one does.
But Carly wasn't the only contestant criticizing the other women for affectionate or sexual behavior.
I'll admit to being a bit of a Britt fan from the beginning of the season, but I was disappointed by her sex-shamey criticism of Kaitlyn and some of the other women during a private talk with Chris in the fourth episode. Britt questions him about a group date she wasn't part of, an overnight camping trip at a lake. During the day, Ashley I. and Kaitlyn are shown taking off pieces of their bikinis and jumping into the lake. Kaitlyn confessionals, "He saw my tush, I'm feeling A-OK here." Good for you, Kaitlyn.
The infamous Kelsey, from astride her very high horse, deems it "inappropriate" to start taking off your clothes in front of a guy in this "awkward date scenario." She confessionals at the lake that the outing is a "date for bimbos," and implies that some of the other women (presumably those jumping bare-assed into the water) lack "dignity and self-respect."
Britt confronts Chris after learning he gave Kaitlyn a rose during the camping date. She says, "I know you gave [her] another rose, but I heard that it was after, you know, she was like, taking her clothes off and having other girls do that and there was like, a lot of talk about sex ... I just want to know why those actions and behaviors are being validated."
Ugh, so many things wrong this. Taking your clothes off is not inappropriate behavior, especially on a competitive dating show where you're trying to get someone to marry you. Wanting your potential beloved to check out your ass and think about hopping into bed with you is not inappropriate. And neither is responding positively to that kind of attention.
As for talking about sex — why wouldn't they? Again, this is a dating show, and people often have sex with the person (or people) they're dating. The women always gush about how hot the bachelor is, so clearly they're thinking about what it would be like to sleep with him. They seem to spend most of their time hanging out in a mansion, drinking free booze and gossiping with each other, so why not swap a few dirty fantasies or stories from their pre-"Bachelor" days to pass the time?
The fact that grown women on a dating show are reticent to talk about getting it on is evidence that our culture needs more conversations about sex, not to keep pretending that girls don't like to fuck. This show does enough to reinforce stereotypes about women (we like to shop, can't live without makeup, and just want a Prince Charming — or in this case, Prince Farming — to take care of us), without reminding us that wanting to be desired is good, but wanting to have sex is not.
I wish that these women, who are very much in the public eye for two months out of the year, would embrace sexuality as a positive thing and support their sisters in the struggle by encouraging them to own their choices and preferences about sex.
"She's not wife material."
This is another popular insult that gets thrown around, on the show and in real life. Even in 2015, society criticizes "fast" women who like to party and get their rocks off like men do. I can't help but think that this criticism, among the women on the show and women more broadly, is used to prove their superiority by virtue of their purity. Even if she's funnier than me, even if she has more chemistry with him than I do, even if she's smarter than me, I don't flaunt my sexuality, therefore I am wife material and she is not.
The thing that makes the weirdness around sex and nudity most uncomfortable is that it seems to come from a place of insecurity. Being a virgin, or at least being sexually demure, is like a trump card you can play against more promiscuous women. Those who flaunt their sexuality aren't playing by the rules, so they're less deserving of respect, love, marriage, and happily ever after.
This sentiment that women who are more pure or sexually reserved are better marriage candidates seems implicit in Mackenzie reassuring Ashley I. that her virginity will only help her in the competition because Chris is "looking for his wife." As if a sexually confident and experienced woman can't be a good partner.
This likely comforted Ashley, since she's shown saying she hopes that Chris respects her and "thinks of [her] as wife material" just before her big virginity reveal. The notion that a woman's virginity, or lack thereof, or that the number of sexual partners she's had makes her more or less "marriage material" needs to be done away with. And women should be leading the crusade against it.
Taking Sexual Power Back
In another "Bachelor" example of "this is what's wrong with how we talk about women's sexuality," we have Jade, the third runner-up who once posed nude for Playboy. During a conversation with Carly about her nude modeling stint, Jade says she's nervous that Chris will be "disgusted" by her decision. Both women fret over how his family might react to Jade having been a nude model, rightly saying that people can be judgmental about women who pose nude.
But you know what you say to those people? "Fuck you." When are we going to stop punishing women for loving and showing off their bodies, for making money off being hot, for feeling good about being photographed in the nude? Yes, some people are made uncomfortable by that. Yes, some are judgmental and think women who take their clothes off for money are fallen women, damaged goods who don't merit respect and affection.
But all of that is bullshit. I'd love to write this off as the stuff of stupid reality television, of backward people who haven't yet caught up with the progressive wave of sex-positivism and open-mindedness. But I don't think that's the case. Women are still judged for posing nude, judged for being "too promiscuous," "too flirtatious."
As soon as we're old enough to date, we're told not to "give it away," that boys won't respect you if you're "easy." Girls' and women's reputations are ruined by people who shame them for experimenting, shame them for having sex, shame them for doing what comes most naturally. That shame is a means of control, and to those who employ it, again I say, "fuck you."
If girls were taught about sex in an honest, positive way, and were encouraged to experiment safely when they want to, those who would shame and manipulate them would lose all their power. Sex isn't shameful. Having a lot of sex, with a lot of people, doesn't make you a bad person. Being a woman in your 20s who likes sex and is candid about wanting to have it doesn't make you any less worthy of love and respect.
None of this is to say that every woman on the show should walk around the mansion nude with a bottle of lube in one hand and a box of condoms in the other. Nor should women more generally feel that they need to go out and rack up as many partners as they can. Sex is deeply personal, and what works for one person won't for another. Some people see sex as both fun and deeply intimate and are OK with having multiple partners, while others only want to sleep with someone they're in love with or plan to marry. All of those choices are fine. What's not fine is shaming someone for their sexual choices and attitudes simply because it makes you uncomfortable or insecure.
No one benefits from women slut-shaming one another. It just perpetuates a circle of shame, insecurity, and repression. And it saves those who oppose women's sexual empowerment a lot of trouble by doing their job for them. If women are willing to use sex to police and manipulate one another, we will never see real cultural change. There are lots of reasons for women to dislike and criticize other women — some of them are obnoxious, bigoted, willfully ignorant, mean, rude, and violent. But having sex and owning your desires should absolutely not be among them. When we use sex to oppress other women, we give everyone else the permission to do that to us as well.
Kaitlyn has become a fan favorite and is rumored to be a frontrunner for the next "Bachelorette." That's great news to me simply because Kaitlyn is one of the few women I've seen on the show who openly references and seems comfortable with sex. Within seconds of introducing herself to Chris, she jokes about him "plowing her field" and seems comfortable with her body. Maybe we'll see a Bachelorette who embraces sex as a fun aspect of the dating process and allows herself to enjoy it, rather than being nervous about being judged or shamed for sleeping with more than one person.
The more we all take a stand for autonomy in our sex lives, the healthier our society will be. Shaming other women for having sex, talking about sex, or enjoying sex and doing so with multiple partners has serious consequences. It discourages girls and women from educating themselves about sex and taking advantage of resources to protect themselves against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. It also does nothing for men, telling them that the only women worth dating or marrying are those who keep themselves pure, or relatively so.
Certainly there are waves of liberalism and increasingly vocal sex-positive communities and individuals in the U.S. But it's still far too easy, and acceptable, to put other women in their place simply for enjoying sex or being assertive with someone they're attracted to. There should be no place for this way of thinking in a progressive, intelligent society, especially among women themselves.
*The link to Laurie Penny's book is an Amazon affiliate link, which means that if you use it to order her book, I make a few cents. So if you choose to buy it, and I encourage you to because it's a decent read, please consider using that link so I make a tiny bit of money from it. Thanks!