The Bachelorette, like all reality TV shows, eschews calm. Drama, or really “drama,” that genre-specific concoction of outbursts, anger, petty quibbles, tears, kissing, jealousy, rumor-trading, and relentless gossip, is always what it aspires to provide, even as its contestants insist it is always what they are trying to avoid. This season of The Bachelorette has been unusually dramatic and Monday night the drama involved what has become the franchise’s most reliable rabble-rouser: sex. Kaitlyn, the titular bachelorette, both had sex and was told off for having sex, though not in that order.
At the beginning of the episode, Ian, a Princeton graduate, left the show on his own accord, after telling Kaitlyn, not a Princeton graduate, that he, a Princeton graduate, was much deeper than she, not a Princeton graduate. (Ian, despite being a Princeton graduate, is either an idiot, or very eager to have his own reality TV show. Both desires belie his continual assertions that Ian, Princeton graduate, is a “deep” “intellectual.”) Ian, in hangdog tones that could not mask his grotesque self-regard, told Kaitlyn that he had come here to meet the girl who had been heartbroken on a previous season by Bachelor Chris, “not a girl who wanted to get her field plowed by Chris,” which had been Kaitlyn’s unfortunate opening line to Bachelor Chris. Ian, Princeton graduate, was “not looking to plow [Kaitlyn’s] field” but to meet his wife, and all he saw in Kaitlyn was a woman “here to make out with a bunch of dudes on TV.”
Setting aside the monstrosity that is Ian (“I am an enigma and who I am is a present you must unwrap for life”), it is true that Kaitlyn has made out with more dudes than the bachelorette usually does. Defending herself from Ian’s charges, Kaitlyn insisted that “intimacy is an important part of a relationship. I don’t care what people say or think. It’s important to me. This is a marriage. I’m not ashamed of that. I’m a make-out bandit. I don’t judge anyone. If the physical part of the relationship isn’t there for me, that’s a dealbreaker.”
Kaitlyn is, of course, absolutely right. If we are to believe that anyone on the show thinks they are there to find a husband or wife, than, yes, plowing ye fields while ye may is a perfectly decent idea. If we don’t believe that anyone on the show thinks they are there to find a husband or wife, well, Kaitlyn is only behaving with a bit of gender reciprocity: The bachelors all plow fields from time to time. Furthermore, in the vernacular of the show, women have typically been presented as either wife material or make-out bandits and never the twain shall meet. But here is Kaitlyn, a wife-to-be, making out. In the bubble of The Bachelorette, this can be construed as progress.
Still, The Bachelor/ette isn’t about to go from prudish to sex positive in one cycle; Kaitlyn spent much of the rest of the episode demonstrating just how complicated sex remains on this show, mainly by having some. Kaitlyn slept with Nick, a former contestant best-known for publicly shaming a previous bachelorette for having sex with him, who had returned last week. Vast portions of the episode were devoted to shots of Kaitlyn and Nick traipsing around Dublin kissing. At the end of their romantic dinner, Kaitlyn invited Nick back to her suite, a break from protocol that Nick responded to with a grinning, “are you fucking with me?” They went back to her hotel room, drank, cuddled, and went behind closed doors to make moany sounds.
The next morning, Nick returned to the guys looking like the cat who ate the canary—or is it the bachelor who had plowed the fields?—barely able to contain himself. Kaitlyn stood out on her balcony, talking about the night with some unseen interlocutor, presumably her producer. The only place where Kaitlyn straightforwardly admitted that she had sex with Nick—the only place she used the word “sex”—was standing on that balcony. The Bachelorette is obviously a highly produced show, but it has rarely used footage like this. Conversations with producers either happen off-camera or in the talking head interviews. But without this bit of tape, Nick and Kaitlyn’s sex would have been like all the other sexual encounters on this show, which is to say vague, ambiguous, likely sex, but maybe not.
I want to call out this scene and its attendant clarity, because it is a big part of Kaitlyn’s make-out banditry: The Bachelorette finally wanted a make-out bandit. It went so far as to include footage it usually avoids just to confirm that Kaitlyn really did have sex. The Bachelor and Bachelorette do not take place in a vacuum. They play out not only onscreen, but in the tabloids, where Kaitlyn’s dalliance with Nick was reported weeks ago. The producers of these shows must have noticed that the most talked-about events of the last few seasons have all involved women and sex and shame. The lascivious Juan Pablo, and the show overall, slut-shamed Clare for maybe having ocean sex; Nick slut-shamed Andi for “making love” to him though she did not love him. But despite the attempted slut-shaming, both Clare and Andi emerged as the wronged party. Us Weekly recently had Kaitlyn on the cover saying she’ s “not ashamed” of having sex on the show.
The show, in other words, has given us a sexually active protagonist because it is now confident that kind of protagonist can elicit audience sympathy. It’s a cynical move undergirded by something genuinely positive: If The Bachelorette is only giving its audience what they want, at least what its audience now wants is a kind of gender equality: wanton smooching is no longer just a guy thing. If this is not one of feminism’s most shining accomplishments, it’s at least one of its lesser ones: it should be the right of every woman, after all, to behave as heedlessly as a man.
This is a significant turnaround for The Bachelorette, and Kaitlyn can be forgiven for not knowing quite how to react. Though she said she had no regrets about sleeping with Nick, she was immediately wracked with teary guilt about how her behavior might make the other guys feel. So profound was her guilty conscience that when poor Shawn B., a personal trainer who looks like a pugilist Ryan Gosling, stormed up to her hotel room, all roiled up that she was kissing Jared and clueless about Nick, she immediately assumed it was the sex he was distraught about. The Bachelorette may be over slut-shaming its contestants, but, for now, its contestants remain more than capable of doing it for themselves.