Yes, on Monday night’s episode of The Bachelor, Colton Underwood will, at long last, jump over that damn fence. But before the leap heard around the world, our fearless star will head into the fantasy suites with his three remaining women: Cassie Randolph, Hannah Godwin, and Tayshia Adams. Historically, this one-on-one time, where there are no lurking cameras, is associated with sex. Lots and lots of sex. And for Underwood, one night with one special lady may, indeed, mark something of a fantasy: He may very well lose his virginity.
It’s a moment viewers have been eagerly anticipating long before ABC’s reality juggernaut kicked off in early January. In promos for season 23, Underwood, a former professional football player, recreated the movie poster for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, with “What does he have to lose?” plastered in the top corner. Just 20 seconds into the premiere, host Chris Harrison teased whether our bachelor “might lose something” on his proverbial journey. (And no, he wasn’t talking about dignity.)
The show typically, thus far, has made virginity seem like a weird thing to possess.
Sex – and lack thereof – has been a constant theme throughout this season, whether Underwood, 26, is poking fun at himself or explaining his decision to wait to his 30 women. (ICYMI, he’s not saving himself for marriage, he’s just waiting for the right person.) While exiting the limos on night one, a contestant proclaimed to have swiped his V-card with a deck of cards. Another woman debuted in a sloth costume, saying “I heard you take things slowly.” And one woman, so caught off guard by Colton’s lack of bedroom experience – “That’s just so weird. That just doesn’t happen nowadays,” she said in a confessional – straight-up asked him, “Why?” Underwood’s virginity, which he says does not define him, has become a hotly debated topic. When an old Snapchat selfie surfaced with the caption, “I f--ked a big tittied hoe last night,” many truthers, including Bachelorette alum Robby Hayes, adamantly questioned Underwood’s alleged celibacy. (According to TMZ, the picture is real, but the text has been altered.)
But here’s the thing, it’s actually quite ordinary to be a virgin today. In fact, a recent study from University College London, which tracked data from more than 16,000 people born between 1989 and 1990, suggests millennials are indeed waiting longer to have sex, with one in eight remaining virgins by age 26 – just like Underwood. Yet the reality show, which brings in around 5 million viewers an episode and boasts an ardent following known as Bachelor Nation, wants fans to believe otherwise. Producers hone in on a contestant’s sexual knowledge, often exploiting it for the sake of a storyline. If the end goal of the show is marriage, can someone who lacks physical experience be ready for a proposal in just eight weeks of filming?
“The show typically, thus far, has made virginity seem like a weird thing to possess,” Ashley Iaconetti, a contestant on The Bachelor, Bachelor in Paradise, and Bachelor Winter Games, tells Refinery29. “They make such a big deal out of it when a contestant is a virgin.” For her part, Iaconetti, 30, was caught off guard by how her own virginity became a regular talking point. “I was surprised that everyone thought it was fascinating,” she explains. “I can see it being discussed as part of a romantic relationship, but I was always surprised how much it was brought up.”
Time and again, a virgin plotline is pitched to viewers as a monumental, groundbreaking reveal. While vying for Chris Soules’ heart on season 19 of The Bachelor in 2015, “I tried to be subtle by just saying I had never been in a serious relationship, and I was really inexperienced in that department in pretty much every way,” says Iaconetti, now engaged to Bachelor Nation’s Jared Haibon. “I was later encouraged to be more blunt about it.”
They’re making this what defines Colton, which is too bad because he’s probably more than a dude that happens to have waited to have sex.
Though producers often goad contestants into confessing their sexual secrets on television, Ryan Hoag – a suitor on DeAnna Pappas’ 2008 season of The Bachelorette – was not willing to take the bait.
“I am an oxymoron: A professional athlete and a virgin, and that was a selling point for them,” he tells Refinery29. “They wanted to make sure that always got brought up, because that was something people will talk about at the water cooler the following day. Once they find something intriguing, they hyper-focus in on it.”
During a group date, the behind-the-scenes team prodded Hoag to discuss his virginity with his fellow contestants; he broke the fourth wall in the process. “They kept pushing it, and finally the guys were looking at me incredulously,” he admits. “I was like, ‘Well, the fact of the matter is [show producers] want me to bring up the fact that I haven’t had sex yet.’ The producers got all salty and were like, ‘Ryan, you’ve got to say that again, but you can’t talk about us.’”
Later, when he refused to open up to Pappas, producers found another entree into the story they so badly wanted to tell: “They put in her ear that she should be worried about being with a professional athlete because of all the jersey chasers,” Hoag reveals. “Essentially, they were trying to get me to say, ‘DeAnna, that’s nothing to worry about because I don’t have sex.’ But I never indulged because I was like if this is going to come up, it’s going to come up naturally. I wasn’t willing to conform to their script, so I went home early.”
Now, according to Hoag, producers are finally getting the virginity plotline they once dreamed he’d fulfill. (Though celibate during his season in 2013, Sean Lowe was actually a born-again virgin.) “They’re making this what defines Colton, which is too bad because he’s probably more than a dude that happens to have waited to have sex,” he continues. “ABC is making it out to be such an ostracized thing. It’s the exception to the reality, and they’re emphasizing that.”
Or perhaps producers are emphasizing a new way to characterize masculinity. Underwood is nothing like the nerdy, socially awkward man he emulates in his promo shots. He’s a perfectly sculpted, blonde athlete who women are clamoring to date. Has an episode gone by where we haven’t seen him slowly lather his abs in the shower?
“Our culture is really experiencing a redefinition of masculinity, and somebody like Colton challenges it perfectly,” explains Rachel Wright, a New York City-based psychotherapist and relationship coach. “He’s a professional football player, which is a stereotypical masculine thing. It’s challenging people to ask, ‘Okay, is he less masculine because he hasn’t done this act?’ No! For viewers, especially those who skew younger, seeing someone who can be sensitive, in tune with their emotions, strong, and masculine, is huge.”
Since she first opened up about her virginity, Iaconetti has experienced a wave of appreciation for her vulnerability. “So many virgins were thankful for me for being open about it and helping them not feel alone,” she admits. “I was told a lot of guys weren’t going to want the emotional baggage of being my first. I think that’s total bullshit now. If you’re a virgin, don’t feel ashamed of it.”
In fact, Underwood is heading into his overnight dates with confidence. “When I lose my virginity,” he mused in a teaser, “it will be tender, it will be passionate, and I want it to be the greatest thing that she’s ever felt.” It may also be relatively quick, but hey, you never forget your first. And neither will Bachelor Nation.