The Bachelor doesn’t have the best track record with handling thorny topics or legitimate tragedy. From the sexual assault accusations of Bachelor In Paradise season 4 (an internal investigation found no evidence of misconduct) to Blake Horstmann’s whiplash-inducing reveal as a survivor of a school shooting, which ended in a Betty Who concert, the franchise missed the nuance necessary for these subjects.
As the 2019 Bachelor season slowly — and somewhat disturbingly — began teasing pageant queen Caelynn Miller-Keyes’ upcoming disclosure as a rape survivor, it was difficult to feel confident the reality show could handle such a delicate issue with Monday night’s “Week 4.” Would Caelynn, who says she was assaulted during her sophomore year at Virginia Commonwealth University, be forced to slow dance to a B-list country singer's performance seconds after revealing the most painful period of her life?
Mercifully, no such distasteful moment came to pass. Instead, Caelynn fearlessly shared her story from beginning to end, sparing no detail. Not only did she break barriers on what Bachelorette contestants can or should talk about — she changed how the Bachelor, and all of Bachelor Nation, talks about sexual assault. With one painful conversation, Caelynn Miller-Keyes pushed The Bachelor, which has maintained its relentlessly neutral “fantasy” bubble since premiering in 2002, towards an evolution almost 20 years in the making.
“Week 4” boasted the highest viewership for The Bachelor season 23 yet, with 6.35 million viewers. That means well over 6 million people watched Caelynn detail the very real pains of her sexual assault — which she says included drugging, rape, and invasive photos of her naked, unconscious body — and its aftermath. Viewers heard how difficult it was for Caelynn to obtain a rape kit. They learned it’s illegal for a hospital to deny anyone a rape kit, and just one of her group of attackers faced expulsion for his actions. They understood it’s normal to feel triggered by PTSD for years and need support from your loved ones, no matter the misplaced shame one may feel.
On Instagram, the Bachelor contestant posted statistics about the prevalence of sexual violence, promising followers, “You are not alone.”
Who knows how many viewers or their loved ones decided to seek help after hearing Caelynn’s story? Especially since the episode closed with the information for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, and the Bachelor’s Twitter account shared those same details. During the episode, RAINN also tweeted out its hotline using the Bachelor hashtag. The organization shared a guide for helping loved ones who may have been sexually assaulted.
This holistic approach to supporting sexual assault survivors also extends to how Colton handled hearing Caelynn’s story. Rather than flee the table — as Arie Luyendyk Jr. did last year during far less hectic moments — Colton models the kind of ally behavior his date needed at that exact moment. He allows Caelynn to finish talking before assuring her she was safe. He then speaks openly and honestly about previously dating a woman who was sexually abused. Colton explains that experiencing his “first love” with someone suffering from that kind of sexual trauma contributed to his decision to remain a virgin. It is suggested Colton avoided sex with this woman out of respect for her healing process.
Thanks to a very human moment, the pair confirm sexual assault isn’t a form of violence that only harms the survivor; it ripples out towards everyone around them. At one point, Colton questions whether he even has the right to “feel the pain” of Caelynn and his ex-girlfriend’s trauma when he wasn’t the one was injured. “I don’t think that’s true, though, because I’ve seen how it’s affected my family,” Caelynn explains. “It’s affected every single person in my life. It’s not just something that I’ve been through, it’s something everyone in my life went through with me.”
While the butterfly effect of sexual violence is strong, so is the influence of Caelynn's honesty. Countless members of Bachelor Nation spent the hours following Colton and Caelynn’s date speaking out against sexual violence. Ashley Spivey, who competed in Brad Womack’s 2011 Bachelor season, explained “a very similar situation” to Caelynn's happened to her during her own freshman year of college. “The lengths at which the school, his friends, and the Greek community went about to protect him and not me was devastating,” she added. “I cannot reiterate enough how important #TitleIX is.”
I had a very similar situation happen to me my freshman year too and the lengths at which the school, his friends, and the Greek community went about to protect him and not me was devastating. I cannot reiterate enough how important #titleix is. #TheBachelor— Ashley Spivey (@AshleySpivey) January 29, 2019
Title IX is an education amendment that protects students from discrimination on the basis of sex. It states that schools that receive federal funding can be held responsible if they ignore harassment or sexual assault. As a result, it has been used to defend survivors in sexual harassment and assault cases. The Trump administration has been eroding the power of Title IX since taking office. Now, Bachelor Nation is talking about the important issue, all thanks to Caelynn, who also used her Miss North Carolina platform to defend the legislation.
Across the Twittersphere, 2018 Bachelor alum Jacqueline Trumbull was also inspired to note Caelynn's concern about a prospective partners not being able to “handle” her story. The former Bachelor contestant advised men, “You don't need to know how to handle it. Learn to sit with fear and guilt and helplessness. She has.” Leading Bachelor(ette) commentator and success story Evan Bass simply wants to see Caelynn handing out roses this spring, jokingly writing in all-caps, “If Caelynn isn’t the Bachelorette, I will quit this franchise forever.”
Caelynn mentioned that many men don't know how to handle her story and clam up or shut down. Men, you don't need to know how to handle it. Learn to sit with fear and guilt and helplessness. She has. #thebachelor ps- thank you Caelynn, you're so brave.— Jacqueline Trumbull (@trumbullina) January 29, 2019
Right now, Caelynn is still in the running to win Colton's heart, but if she isn't victorious, it's clear she can also lead The Bachelorette into the future.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call theRAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).