The premise of The Bachelor and its spinoff shows has always been a bit slimy. The franchise presents as a given that a random sampling of fame-hungry heteros will all fall in love with the same random target. It doesn’t ask viewers to suspend their disbelief so much as revel in it.
This week, under the specter of alleged sexual assault, that foundation got even more slippery. After less than a week of production in Mexico, ABC has suspended taping of the fourth season of Bachelor in Paradise after a producer raised what Warner Bros. is calling “allegations of misconduct” that require a “thorough investigation.” TMZ has published several sources’ accounts of what they say went down. Two contestants, DeMario Jackson and Corinne Olympios, had a sexual encounter in a pool after a day of drinking. Sources close to Jackson say it was all consensual and he remembers the manual and oral sex in detail, while sources close to Olympios say she remembers nothing and wouldn’t have betrayed her boyfriend at home by hooking up with another contestant.
There’s an important third party to this encounter: the crew. People reports that three contestants saw the incident occur, and quotes one as saying that crew members “could have seen that [Olympios] was drinking too much and that he was taking advantage” and “stopped this before it got this far.” The contestant told People that the whole cast is “angry at the show.” Sources told TMZ that Olympios “doesn’t fully blame” Jackson, but “blames producers,” who also allegedly told the two before production began that they would be hooking as part of one of the season’s “storylines.” (Unlike the classic Bachelor set-up, Bachelor in Paradise is set up like a sexual musical chairs in which an uneven number of men and women must pair up at the end of each week to send the two unpaired members of one gender home. Two extra members of the other gender join the following week, and so it goes until the end of the season.) Some accounts of the footage say Olympios was “engaged” during the sexual encounter, while others say she was “limp.” According to an L.A. Times reporter, a producer that witnessed the incident is filing a third-party suit against the production company for allowing the “misconduct” to occur.
Anyone who’s ever watched a “reality” show will not be surprised to learn that Bachelor in Paradise appears to be a fertile environment for blacked-out, nonconsensual sex acts. By lubing strangers up with alcohol and forcing them into romantic scenarios, producers encourage contestants to do increasingly outrageous things that will get them airtime and kept for the next episode. Because the whole premise is rather silly and contestants in the traditional Bachelor format don’t usually do sex things until the end of the season, when finalists get to relieve their season-long sexual tension in a “fantasy suite,” it’s felt for the most part like good, clean (albeit deeply weird) fun.
Bachelor in Paradise is a bit different. Contestants are encouraged to find match-ups right away and sometimes hook up the first week—what took place between Jackson and Olympios allegedly happened on the very first day of production. But even in the original Bachelor series, which recently wrapped up its 21st season, the male star is encouraged to see the women vying for his love as willing potential marks. That premise seems a lot more sinister in the light of the recent accounts from the set of Bachelor in Paradise, the first sexual assault allegation in the franchise’s history. Contestants are saying they shared their concerns about Olympios’ inability to consent and intoxicated condition with members of the production team; production sources denied that account to TMZ. What’s undeniable, though, is that producers are incentivized to encourage drunkenness and sexual activity, and contestants are incentivized to get drunk and seduce one another. It would almost be more shocking if such a setup didn’t ever end in allegations of sexual assault.
NPR pop-culture reporter and noted Bachelor critic Linda Holmes tweeted on Monday that the Bachelor in Paradise story smelled a little rank. “Either something happened besides what the murmurs are suggesting or things DIDN’T happen in the past that seem to have happened,” she wrote. In other words, drunken hookups fuel the series’ “relationship” drama, its raison d’être. What’s different about this one? Either the previous hook-ups were totally staged, or this one was a far more clear-cut violation than initial accounts are letting on.
However the case shakes out, the decision to completely suspend filming of a show less than a week into production should be serious enough to make viewers wonder what exactly they’re watching when they turn on The Bachelor. Is it an innocent dating game or a breeding ground for sexual coercion? Can it be both? Either way, now that the show has generated accusations of sexual assault with the complicity of the production team, many fans will watch The Bachelor through a lens less fogged by its lovey-dovey innuendo and thin pretense of finding a soulmate. A premise that depends on a total break from the reality of romance may crumble when viewers finally get a glimpse behind the scenes.