Let’s talk virgins. Bachelor producers have the rare gift for persuading adults who have never had sex before to join a televised, competitive cattle-call in search of someone to have sex with for the rest of their lives. Four (known) virgins graced the show’s early and middle years, and while most went home relatively early, one did make it to the final two in competition for dubiously Italian, dubiously titled Prince Lorenzo Borghese on the flop of a season The Bachelor: Rome.
Though virgins have always dotted The Bachelor and Bachelorette landscape, the show has only relatively recently figured out how to maximize contestants’ sexual inexperience as a plot point. This began with the arrival of Sean Lowe, who came third in pursuit of Emily Maynard. That Emily took a pass on her overnights was just as well for Sean, who revealed himself as a “born-again virgin” when he ascended to Bachelor. Not in the urban dictionary, haven’t-been-laid-for-a-year way, but in an evangelical-frat-boy-come-to-Jesus way. Lowe says he hit the reset button on his sexual status after college, and at the time of filming the then-29-year-old had been saving (maybe more like remortgaging) himself for marriage for six years. Sean was engaged on the show to quirky designer Catherine Giudici, and the two were married on an ABC special a little over a year later. In a later interview with Chris Harrison, Lowe described their long-awaited wedding night as “fireworks,” which Giudici joking-not-jokingly amended to “Quick fireworks.” The couple is still married and has since welcomed their first child.
Two seasons later, Chris “Prince Farming” Soules was graced with not one but two virgins on his season of The Bachelor. As one shocked contestant puts it when news of the high maidenhood quotient is revealed: “We’ve got two virgins in the Bachelor mansion. Two virgins—one Chris. I can’t make this up. Stay tuned.”
On this season, Becca Tilley would become the second legit virgin (sorry Sean Lowe, do-overs don’t count) the show has led into a Fantasy Suite. (She and Soules apparently did not have sex.) Though her run for Soules’s affections did not last as long as Becca’s, Ashley Iaconetti (dubbed “Ashley I.” on the two-Ashley season) went home week six, but emerged from the season the reigning Virgin Queen of Bachelorland.
Ashley I. spends more energy than Becca sweating over when and how to let the untouched kitten out of the bag. She builds to it over several episodes, first revealing her predicament to Mackenzie, a 21-year-old single mom who named her toddler Kale (yes, after the vegetable) and has an anxious fascination with alien abduction. It’s worth noting that in this scene both women are displaying signs of the particular kind of enthusiasm for confessional bonding that comes from being about as deep into tipsy as you can get before you’re outright drunk:
Ashley: No, I’m a virgin. I’m like not even kidding. I am.
Mackenzie: That’s so cool.
Ashley: I don’t know if he’s going to like it or not.
Mackenzie: No, he will like it. Every guy likes it. Because guys like taking your virginity.
Ashley: No, I know most guys do, except for if they’re—
Mackenzie: And Chris is going to be the kind. No seriously. I’m jealous. I swear to god I’m jealous that you’re a virgin right now. It’s going to make you stay here so much longer…You’re super pretty, you have a good personality, and you’re a virgin. Oh my God. We have to tell him.
With her appraisal that Ashley will “stay here so much longer,” Mackenzie is correctly intuiting that sexual inexperience gives Ashley a story, and a story is what turns a Bachelor participant into a contender. This is a reminder to the virgin to make much of her (screen) time.
And so she does. Ashley’s attempt to confess her lack of sin to Chris is drawn out over several episodes. In her first attempt, she wakes him from a whiskey-soggy sleep and refers obliquely to being “frickin’ innocent,” and a “frickin’ nerd.” It’s several more days of agonizing over whether she’s made her meaning clear to the Bachelor (she hasn’t) before Ashley takes a blunter approach that does the trick (she then has a tearful meltdown over whether or not the admission went over well). In the meantime, it’s only Ashley’s addressing her virgin status with a larger group of women that provokes Becca Tilley to casually deadpan: “I’m a virgin too.” Ashley practically spits a puff pastry on her—whether because she’s thrilled to have a maiden compatriot or afraid to share her thunder is unclear—but Becca is totally unruffled: “I haven’t told him. It hasn’t come up.”
Ashley I. would go on to star in two seasons of Bachelor in Paradise, logging spates of tears that seem almost supernatural in volume, but (alas? happily?) no swipes on her V-card. In her most recent (though I doubt her last) franchise appearance on Paradise Season Three, Ashley’s portion of the show’s campy opening gambit features her dark hair draped in a holy Madonna veil as she raises her liquid-lined eyes to meet the camera. [Editor’s note: Ashley has since stared in Bachelor Winter Games, and briefly dated Bachelor Canada’s Kevin Wendt.] Ashley I. (who I feel the urge to note has a master’s degree in journalism from a really good school) may appear to have the emotional resilience of a second-grader, but she’s always game to make fun of herself, and really kind of a champ.
I bring up the virgins of The Bachelor not because I find the conjunction of their life choices fascinating (though I do), but because of what’s revealed by the show’s treatment of virginity over time. In Sean Lowe’s case, his relationship to sex is explicitly a religious thing, binding his “virginity” (really celibacy) up with something large swaths of Americans consider sacrosanct. The virgins offered to farmer Chris occupy a huge amount of the show’s attention, and much hay is made (har-har) over revelations of virgin status. But weirdly little screen time goes towards explaining why either of these women is a virgin in the first place, despite the fact that, as one contestant says to Ashley I. (who agrees), “in our generation it’s so not normal.”
We are left with hints. Becca, for example, makes it clear that not having sex is something she’s decided, not something that’s happened by accident. She refers to it as “just as a choice I made” and talks explicitly about waiting for marriage. When she does eventually go into the Fantasy Suite with Soules (telling him only at the 11th hour that she’s never had sex), she talks about “temptation.” There’s some implication here that this is a religious thing, but only by way of allusion. To never allow Becca to explain her choice denies her the basic, character-making function of motivation. She is flattened into a two-dimensional illustration of a cherry waiting to be popped.
Ashley I. seems to place her own virginity in the context of a broader maturity issue. “It’s not anything that I’m super serious about. I’m just waiting for the right guy,” she says. Every time she talks about it during this season, she mentions she’s never had a boyfriend, or she is, despite her Kardashian-modeled looks, a “nerd.” She is, we are left to surmise, a virgin because she is romantically inexperienced, not the other way around. Her virginity appears to be a circumstance rather than a dogmatic commitment.
The point here is that by keeping Becca’s and Ashley’s agency out of the frame, the show not only turns virginity into a quirky character trait, but keeps loss of virginity in the mix as a potential storyline. This is part of an overall move towards all-or-nothing narratives the show has made over time. Just as in the earliest seasons, a proposal was only a possible, producer-encouraged outcome, it has since become an expectation, and those who fail to deliver are punished by viewers. Serving up will-they-or-won’t-they virgins is just another way the show raises stakes wherever it can get them. After all, this is a show that challenges each new season to be “the most dramatic.” The Bachelor has not managed to “produce” anyone’s first time…yet. But I wouldn’t put it past them.
Excerpted from Most Dramatic Ever: The Bachelor © Suzannah Showler, 2018. Published by ECW Press, ecwpress.com.