Even if you haven’t seen the trailer for the latest season of the Bachelor, which premieres Monday, and even if you think the entire franchise is somewhat of a silly joke (it is) that often relies too heavily on sexist stereotypes (it does), you have probably been made aware that its star, Colton Underwood, is a virgin.
Underwood is also a blond, beefy former professional football player whose questionable breakup tact provided the brunt of the drama on last summer’s Bachelor In Paradise. But mostly, at least seemingly in the eyes of Bachelor producers, he is a 26-year-old virgin, who, let ABC remind you, has never had sex before, not even once.
In the trailer, the word “virgin” is mentioned four times in the first 40 seconds. The implication is pretty clear: The main hook for the season will be the question of whether or not Colton will like a girl enough to have sex with her, ideally during the franchise’s notorious “Fantasy Suite” episode, in which the Bachelor/-ette can choose to spend a camera-free night in a ritzy hotel — each night with a different suitor.
For anyone who has seen an episode of The Bachelor, this is all both extremely standard and extremely predictable: Virgins who have appeared on the show in previous seasons have had their sexual status be the subject of much fascination, most notably Ashley Iaconetti, whose transition from weepy virgin to the now-fiancée of her longtime co-star Jared Haibon was a mathematically perfect, years-long Bachelor franchise storyline.
Most Bachelor contestants who have said they were virgins, however, of which there have been about nine, have been women — and this season will be the first time that the virgin in question happens to be the Bachelor’s lead star (well, sort of — season 17’s Sean Lowe was celibate and identified as a born-again virgin, but it wasn’t a major part of the narrative).
Underwood, for his part, has called the decision to discuss his virginity on national television “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.” While a contestant during Becca Kufrin’s season of The Bachelorette, he explained that “I spent a lot of time working on football Colton and I sorta forgot who personal Colton was. And because of that, I still am a virgin.” Throughout his tenure on The Bachelorette and Bachelor In Paradise, he’s implied that he isn’t remaining a virgin for religious reasons or waiting for marriage — instead, it’s about “finding the person that’s for me.”
But despite the fact that he’s said that he doesn’t want his virginity to define him, Bachelor host Chris Harrison said before the season had even begun filming that the show was planning to craft storylines around this fact. Asked by Ryan Seacrest whether its star would remain a virgin by the season’s end, Harrison replied, “Not if I do my job right.”
It’s difficult to imagine the show treating a female lead’s virginity with the same sort of blithe, jovial tone — the trailer borders on mockery. According to a sociologist, it’s because male virginity, when dissected on a cultural level, is often more complex. Virgin women, for instance, fall into the category of “pure” and “chaste,” yet we don’t necessarily impose these same narratives on men.
Laura M. Carpenter is a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and the author of the book Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences. “You have to be manly to be the Bachelor,” she explains, “and so [there is] a very deliberate decision to play with that in a way that if they had a woman Bachelorette who was a virgin the story would be different. If it [were] a woman, then historically it would be a tantalizing thing: ‘Will I be her first?’ And although there is kind of a countercultural narrative about male virgins in that way, there’s also a stronger narrative that you see it in things like The 40-Year-Old Virgin: ‘What’s wrong with this dude for not having had sex?’”
Yet in the Bachelor universe, Underwood is clearly portrayed as a hot commodity — in the trailer’s very first scene, he’s taking a shower, shirtless, while a gaggle of girls drools over him from afar. The incongruity between Underwood’s physicality — 6’3”, muscular, with an almost comical aura of old-fashioned American manliness — and his presumed sexual inexperience appears to provide an element of humor for the show. It’s similar to the way the virginities and born-again virginities of athletes like Tim Tebow and Russell Wilson have been picked on in public.
The wait is almost over...for #TheBachelor premiere, that is.— The Bachelor (@BachelorABC) December 4, 2018
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Men, throughout Western history, haven’t been subject to nearly the same stigma as being “damaged goods” as women once they have sex. Carpenter explains that the fixation on women’s “purity” stems from anxieties about women’s sexual activity as it relates to determining the paternity of a potential future child. Men in the Victorian era, meanwhile, weren’t seen as bastions of sinlessness and purity, and therefore were freer to have sex or not without it determining their entire worth.
But over the past few years, male virgins have made headlines far more frequently than female ones, a major departure from the golden age of the pop star purity ring in the mid-2000s. Men who say they’re unable to find a sexual partner have committed multiple violent attacks under the banner of the “incel rebellion,” while others have voluntarily abstained from sex and porn for a variety of reasons, whether they think “semen retention” will give them special powers or because they believe porn is a massive Jewish conspiracy.
Colton Underwood, it can be presumed, is not one of these men. But he is still, in the eyes of the show, a strange outlier, a person to either mock or venerate. “In the trailer, it seems like they’re trying to walk this fairly narrow line — it’s a thing you have to do in a culture where we have really, really different beliefs about sex,” Carpenter says. “So they’re sort of mocking him, because some people in the audience are going to see this as ‘Oh, what an idiot for not being sexually active.’ But then other people who would value that, think it’s wonderful and special. In pop culture, you don’t know where all of your audience is coming from, and so [creators] need to give them multiple narratives to keep open the possibility of people drawing both interpretations.”
Because the Bachelor is a rather campy show on network television, it likely won’t hammer too hard on the moral value of virginity. Instead, all it will do, week after week, is remind viewers that Underwood is a virgin in every way that it can. The trailer — and tonight’s premiere — will only be a fraction of the many times viewers will be forced to listen to the dissection of a man’s sex life during this season. Which is exactly what the Bachelor has always been most interested in doing.