For anyone living under a rock–or not obsessed with The Bachelor franchise–ABC announced last week that this year’s Bachelor is former NFL player Colton Underwood.
Bachelor Nation is not pleased.
Underwood entered the franchise as a contestant in the last season of The Bachelorette, starring Becca Kufrin. The 26-year-old American football star made a splash when he came out to Becca and all of America as a virgin. It’s a storyline that ABC clearly plans to double down on in the new season, which premieres in January 2019: In its press release, ABC describes Underwood as the man “best known for his candor when speaking about his virginity.”
Underwood’s choice to remain a virgin could have been a good occasion to have some much-needed conversations about changing cultural attitudes to sex, and the role of sex in healthy relationships. But all it has done so far is serve as a cover for him to participate in the very same unhealthy hookup culture that has so often permeated the Bachelor franchise.
Put simply, Underwood fits to a T the description of what the internet calls a “fuckboy“–a word The American Dialect Society defines as a “derogatory term for a man who behaves objectionably or promiscuously.”
Underwood has had a long, public, and on-and-off relationship (though he often hesitated to give it that name) with former Bachelor contestant Tia Booth. He was eliminated from Becca’s season of The Bachelorette after Booth admitted she still had feelings for him, and he then went on Bachelor in Paradise, ABC’s summer franchise in Mexico, where his drama with Booth dragged on for weeks, until he finally broke up with her and left the show. One day later, ABC announced he was the new Bachelor.
This had prompted criticism that Underwood’s portrayal as a sensitive and emotional character, one not just interested in sex, belies what audiences actually saw in the way he treated a female contestant—which was disrespectful in ways that fans are all too familiar with on the franchise.
Skeptics might say that the premise of the show doesn’t exactly lend itself to genuine feelings and relationships. And while that’s true, every season features at least one contestant–usually, a woman–who is there for what the show refers to as “the right reason.” Tia Booth was one of those people. She was consistent in her feelings for Underwood, from before The Bachelorette aired through the end of Bachelor in Paradise, and appeared devastated when Underwood broke up with her to go on The Bachelorette; then got together with her again on Bachelor in Paradise; then broke it off with her again; got back together with her (“for real,” this time); and then broke up with her for good and left the show.
Underwood’s choice to remain a virgin, and his treatment of Tia Booth, are both part of a larger and much-needed conversation about hookup culture, its portrayal on reality TV, and the changing dynamics of male and female virginity.
Navigating 21st century hookup culture can be a complicated task for anyone–and there’s certainly nothing unusual about Underwood’s decision to wait for “the right person” to have sex for the first time.
In fact, researchers with the Next Steps project, set up by the UK government’s education department, and managed by University College London, showed that millennials remain virgins for longer than previous generations, with 12.5% of them not having sex until the age of 26. And Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, wrote in her book, Generation Me, that “in recent years, about 6% fewer high school students were having sex by the spring of their senior year than in the early 1990s.”
As for young adults, a 2016 study published in the academic journal Archives of Sexual Behavior found that US millennials born in the 1990s are twice as likely as the previous generation to have had zero sexual partners since turning 18. This drop in sexual activity among young adults is particularly pronounced among women.
Psychologists have different explanations for why that is. Some think it’s because young people spend more time behind screens and less time investing in human relationships. Others say that, for many young people, the risks associated with having sex, like an unintended pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease, have begun to outweigh the benefits. Susanna Abse, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist at the Balint Consultancy, told The Sunday Times that “Millennials have been brought up in a culture of hyper-sexuality, which has bred a fear of intimacy.” That fear might look different in young men than it does in young women: “The fear for young men is of being humiliated, plus the fear of exposure in your Facebook group,” Abse says.
Underwood is spot on in saying that nobody should feel pressured to have sex if they’re not ready–especially because how you lose your virginity seems to really matter down the line. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy showed that participants who had more positive first-time sexual experiences reported greater feelings of sexual satisfaction and esteem and less sexual depression. The authors conclude that someone’s first-time sexual experience “is more than just a milestone in development. Rather, it appears to have implications for their sexual well-being years later.”
For women, navigating sexually-charged “hookup” relationships (whether or not they involve penetrative sex) can be fraught with unhealthy power dynamics and the very real threat of sexual abuse and emotional violence. As my colleague Leah Fessler has written for Quartz, “The idea that sexual liberation is fundamental to female agency dominates progressive media.” This has led to a situation where women who wait to have sex are considered prudes; but men like Colton Underwood are hailed as sensitive and in touch with their emotions.
Women are, on average, more likely to derive satisfaction from sex in committed relationships, compared with casual ones. That is not the case for men. According to a 2006 study, undergraduate women who had casual sex reported more depressive symptoms than those who didn’t; on the other hand, men who had casual sex reported fewer depressive symptoms than those who didn’t.
When women do choose to engage with hookup culture, they can often find the experience disheartening. As Fessler found out when she interviewed 75 heterosexual male and female students and analyzed over 300 online surveys for her senior thesis at Middlebury, “100% of female interviewees and three-quarters of female survey respondents stated a clear preference for committed relationships.” And “Only 8% of about 25 female respondents who said they were presently in pseudo-relationships reported being ‘happy’ with their situation.”
Fessler writes that engaging in sexually intimate relationships they didn’t want or feel ready for made a lot of young women around her unhappy: “The women I interviewed were eager to build connections, intimacy and trust with their sexual partners. Instead, almost all of them found themselves going along with hookups that induced overwhelming self-doubt, emotional instability and loneliness.”
Underwood’s decision to wait for “the right heart” to lose his virginity to is certainly understandable, but he loses his credibility as an advocate for sexual freedom and respect when he engages in the exact kind of behavior that makes so many young women doubt themselves–with or without actual sex.
In the age of #MeToo, there are signs that the culture surrounding sex and human relationships is changing. Even the existence of the term “fuckboy”–which criticizes a complex set of male behaviors, some of which used to win men praise for being a “player” or “stud”–is proof of that. So is the robust national debate surrounding sexual consent.
But it’s worth pointing out, in the case of Underwood, that being a virgin and treating women badly aren’t mutually exclusive, as much as ABC would like you to believe it is.
There are very good reasons to have real conversations about who benefits from hookup culture, why young people feel pressured to have sex, or why being a 26-year-old male virgin is considered unusual enough to warrant an entire storyline on reality TV. But it’s fundamentally unsatisfying to see that the person meant to lead this conversation is someone who, in his actions if not his words, has made a woman on the show feel self-doubt, emotional instability, and loneliness.
Underwood’s virginity may have been his ticket to one of the most highly coveted positions on reality television; but it certainly doesn’t mean he’s changing how poorly women are treated in that arena.