The Bachelor/Bachelorette: Women Shouldn’t Have Sex/Men Shouldn’t Say I Love You

As yet another season of ABC’s The Bachelor/The Bachelorette franchise has drawn to a close, once again the show broadcast loud and clear the double standards that exist for women and men on the dating scene, both onscreen and off. On this season’s final episode, the star of ABC’s The Bachelor, Ben Higgins followed protocol and proposed to contestant Lauren Bushnell. Two weeks prior, however, he committed a big show no-no: he said he loved her on camera … right before he’d said he loved another contestant, JoJo Fletcher. While Higgins wasn’t the first bachelor in history to say he was falling in love with two contestants, he was the first to say it directly to the women (while caught on camera at least).

The trope of a bachelor torn between two women, in fact, has sort of become a staple of the program. Loyal The Bachelor fans will certainly remember the iconic balcony scene wherein Jason Mesnick sobbed over his conflicted heart, and the more infamous moment wherein weeks later he dumped the woman he selected at the Final Rose ceremony, Melissa Rycroft, on live television in order to reunite with the runner-up, Molly Malaney, with whom he later married and started a family.

Regardless, Higgins’ loose lips infuriated fans. One viewer (@karachristine16) tweeted “Why on earth would Ben say I love you to two different girls. Whoever gets sent home is going to be crushed.” Another (@JacquelyneAnder) posted: “I really can’t stand Ben. He doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘I love you’, if he says it to two women.” While many tweeters were concerned with the ethics behind his multiple confessions of love, others were simply angry that he broke the show’s so-called “rules”: “Ben’s already broken two rules. Never say ‘I love you’ & never ever say ‘I love you’ multiple times. Someone’s in the dog house” (@MrsEllis4Eva).

Higgins defended his actions in an interview with E!News: “I don’t know of a rule book, maybe there is one, maybe (one) fans out there are hiding… (I) keep hearing I broke all the rules. I didn’t know there were rules to this.”

Although his over-emoting caused some negative fan reactions over the past few weeks, it paled in comparison to what unfolded during the previous season’s The Bachelorette. On 22 June 2015, the Twitterverse erupted when ABC’s bachelorette had sex with one of her male suitors prior to the show’s pre-approved, pre-scripted timeline. Far from being a PG-rated reality TV program, the long-running show is well known for broadcasting a slew of make-out sessions, and an entire episode devoted to speculating on whether the bachelor or bachelorette will have sex with any or all of his or her final three contestants in the fantasy suite.

Yet when an episode aired revealing that Kaitlyn Bristowe, the show’s star, and repeat contestant, Nick Viall, had slept together at the close of their one-on-one date, Bristowe faced a wave of criticism from fans through social media. More than 70,000 tweets with the hashtag #TheBachelorette appeared in the 24 hours surrounding this episode; a vast majority of them were negative posts consisting of judgmental quips and derogatory slurs focusing on Bristowe’s sexual activity. These tweeters, the majority of whom were female, were quick to affix all the normal labels used to discuss so-called female promiscuity. Among the tamer tweets were chastising posts like this one: “Kaitlyn needs to learn how to keep it classy & not so trashy” (@otrat_rowyso).

Amid the caustic remarks were also hundreds of tweets defending Bristowe. For example, comedian Amy Schumer (@amyschumer) posted: “Oh no someone slept with a guy they’re dating and considering marrying! Showing love for @kaitlynbristowe”. Tweets that challenged slut shaming began to fill the feed, as did posts that specifically called out ABC”s producers for the ways in which the show was participating in and encouraging such shaming. (For example, the network promoted the episode as “Kaitlyn’s Sex Scandal”.)

The attention paid to this episode resulted in some productive social commentary both on and off the twitter feed. Social media users and journalists alike drew attention to the continued sexual double standard that exists — one that’s broadcast loud and clear on the series. Bristowe and Viall both spoke out against the criticism as well. The evening of the episode, Bristowe tweeted: “Just remember, when you judge me, you do not define me, you define yourself”, and Viall posted numerous tweets drawing attention to the problematic ways in which people, particularly women, are judged for their sexual activity.

Through a series of posts, Viall praised Bristowe for having the courage to admit on national TV to having sex, “knowing that she [would] be unfairly judged by some”, and further arguing that “sex is not shameful” and that “both men and women have an equal right to have sex without judgment”.

While some important conversations resulted from this sensationalized reality television episode, the initial social media response it provoked reveals how, even in the 21st century, expectations for single women on the dating market are entrenched in problematic sexual double standards that have remained unaltered for decades. Consider, for example, this live tweet (@HeatherGossman) that aired during the episode: “you can turn a housewife into a hoe. But you can’t turn a hoe into a housewife”. As the negative twitter posts prove, many still believe that certain behaviors determine whether a woman is good girlfriend or wife material, and at the top of the list remains sexual activity.

The fact that Bristowe’s character was torn apart in social media — she even received death threats — because she dared to be physically intimate with a man, while Higgins was criticized, albeit to a lesser degree, not for his three fantasy suite encounters with women (which likely involved sex), but for his verbal intimacy, is interesting. Perhaps these reality television tweet-inspiring scenes received such attention because they flip the gender script. After all, it’s the girl that’s supposed to be overly emotional and the guy that’s supposed to be the horndog, right? Sigh. Maybe live tweeting our reality shows is a new way to police gender norms.

What’s even more telling is how antiquated and uneven the criticisms launched at these contestants are once we step back and view their actions within the context of everyday real dating practices. Although our romantic ideals tell us that love should proceed sexual relations, for the great majority of people navigating 21st century relationships, the simple fact is that physical intimacy is often part of the process of determining romantic compatibility. It’s therefore more common for someone to be having sex with someone they are dating casually than it is for someone to be proclaiming love to two people simultaneously.

Yet Bristowe was more heavily criticized for doing something relatively normal, while Higgins was less chastised for doing something that would be seen as pretty cruel in non-reality television settings. (Imagine for a second a female friend told you she discovered the man she was in love with was proclaiming his undying love for her and another woman at the same time.) Again, it’s clear that when it comes to judging men and women according to societal norms, women are often held to the more unattainable standards.

What these little blips in the Twitter world indicate is that we not only want to hold reality television stars to standards we ourselves don’t consistently reach, but we also want to do so while turning a blind eye to the problematic aspects of the programs that house them. After all, isn’t it a bit hypocritical to critique any The Bachelor/The Bachelorette star for their sexual encounters when the show almost necessitates that contestants who makes it to the end become physically intimate with the star once they reach the fantasy suite stage? Isn’t it unfair to bemoan the emotional pain a star might cause a constant by expressing feelings when the show itself is structured not only to cause such emotional pain, but also to broadcast it nationally?

Rather than critique those who participate on these reality television programs, it seems viewers (myself included) might need to turn inward and consider why we continue watching this show season after season, and what it might reveal about the double standards that still exist for women when it comes to navigating romantic relationships.

Melissa Ames is the author of How Pop Culture Shapes the Stages of a Woman’s Life: From Toddlers-in-Tiaras to Cougars-on-the-Prowl (2016), Time in Television Narrative: Exploring Temporality in 21st Century Programming (2012), and Women and Language: Gendered Communication Across Media (2010).