Slight spoilers are ahead. The notedly sex-averse Bachelor Nation seemed like it took a big step forward when the openly sex-positive Katie Thurston was named as the new Bachelorette. But then at the start of the July 12 episode, Thurston decided (read: producers probably had something to do with it) that it would be super fun to challenge the contestants to abstain from masturbating for as long as they could. Thurston and hosts Kaitlyn Bristowe and Tayshia Adams proclaimed the challenge WOWO — which means Week Off Wack Off. Smdh.
Thurston showed up out of the limo on Matt James' Bachelor season with a vibrator, and she's continued to be open about reclaiming and celebrating her love for sex on her season. So for her season to pose a edict like this to the men, a challenge designed just to make them feel guilty for self pleasuring, is downright strange. The second Bristowe announced the challenge, the room quickly devolved into a shame game about which of the men masturbated the most; everyone was quick to call Blake Moynes out for taking "long showers." As Justin Glaze got ready for his one-on-one date, another contestant called out, "We’re timing that shower, my boy." We've wanted more honest sex talk for years, but getting the men to police each other's masturbation habits isn't exactly what we were talking about.
This "game" isn't even that much of a game-changer for the experience of the show. Sex has always been considered off limits on The Bachelorette unless it happens within the confines of the Fantasy Suite, which films towards the end of the season.
Even more frustrating is the fact that no one was even willing to speak the the word masturbation when talking about the rules of the challenge. Thurston danced around the topic by calling it "a little friendly handshake" and there was a whole montage of increasingly juvenile euphemisms used like "Friday night lights," "solo hockey," and "Saturday morning balloon races." Just say it. You're adults!
The series also didn't miss its opportunity to make the whole thing about virtue. Mike Planeta happily declared that the rest of the contestants were "screwed," because, as a virgin, he's been training for this his whole life. Did someone forget to tell him that virgins are allowed to masturbate? Pleasure doesn't negate virginity, and not masturbating isn't a virtue.
As the week wore on, Moynes and Andrew Spencer seemed to pride themselves on the ability to stick to the challenge as a way of showing Thurston that their connection was real. But masturbating has nothing to do with how real a relationship is or how much someone cares about a person, so this line of thinking is baffling. Thurston formed a connection on Matt James' season after waving her vibrator around like a magic wand for an entire evening; she, of all people, should know that the idea of abstaining to make a connection stronger is straight up puritanical nonsense.
After The Bachelorette teased the masturbation challenge ahead of the episode, Bristowe defended the challenge by telling people who were frustrated by the game that they just couldn't take a joke. Cosmopolitan reported that the host said in an Instagram story, "Alright I know this is a lot to ask but while watching this Monday’s episode please have an open mind and also a sense of humour because just reading some people’s comments I’m like, wait why do people not have a sense of humour?”
If this is a joke, it's a bad one. The franchise still has a notoriously unhealthy relationship with sex. It was only a few years ago that host Bristowe was widely slut-shamed by the fans for sleeping with Nick Viall before the hallowed Fantasy Suite week. In 2019, then-Bachelorette Hannah Brown faced similar reactions for simply talking about what happened in her famed windmill Fantasy Suite. And here we are again, with sexual pleasure being treated like a taboo. Thurston was rightfully celebrated for openly talking about masturbation on James' season, why curb that energy now?
I suppose we shouldn't be all that surprised that the show still has puritanical, and sophomoric views about sex, but that makes it no less disappointing. Especially after Bristowe and Adams previously teased that Thurston's season was sex positive. Bristowe told Refinery29 in May that she guided Thurston on the topic: "Sex was a big conversation on my season as well. I think I was able to tell her, ‘This is okay. Let’s embrace it. If somebody wants to be with you forever, they’re going to embrace it too.’ It felt like a really natural conversation to have. It didn’t feel taboo," Bristowe said. Adams added, "As her mentors, we needed to help her in all the aspects she needed help with. [Sex] is a big deal for her.”
Thurston probably isn't going to stop being open about sex on her season, especially as her connections grow deeper, so thankfully one dumb challenge didn't undo all the work she's put in. But it was a step backwards for a season that has thus far been pushing the needle. Perhaps the "joke" was an attempt to be fresh, edgy, and start candid conversations (fat chance, in such cloaked terms), but all it really did was turn the mansion into a locker room.