Bachelorella: The Bachelorette’s Nightmare Non-monogamy

I took a break from Bachelorella recaps because much of this season has been composed of cringe-inducing group dates and unnecessary confrontations. But I needed to come back this week because, in case you hadn’t heard, Kaitlyn got laid on national television. Reactions to Kaitlyn gettin’ some swung in two directions: the online media rolled its eyes and said WELL DUH, SHE IS THIRTY YEARS OLD, WHY IS THIS A SCANDAL, while viewers on Twitter called Kaitlyn a whorish, vapid tramp. And then the media machine embedded those tweets, and then more articles happened, and the producers were rewarded with the controversy they so perfectly manufactured. Keep it classy, America.

So. Why is it so scandalous for the Bachelorette to bone one of her dudes? After all, people have sex all the time; it’s a normal part of a relationship. If Kaitlyn is going to marry one of these men, she better give them a sexy test drive. She was going to sleep with at most three of them in a few weeks in the fantasy suite anyway. Why all the pearl clutching and Twitter freak-outs? What is the big deal?

The answer, my dear friends, is that The Bachelorette is a nightmare version of non-monogamy where everybody loses. The relationships fostered in this jet-setting disaster of a dating show are caught up in the story the producers want to tell, the values America wants it to uphold, and the audience’s hunger for blood. Emotional carnage, all for the purpose of great television. How far we as a society have come.

Let me rewind, because context is helpful for this slut-shaming shit-show to make sense. Longtime viewers of The Bachelorette will remember Nick Viall as the runner up on Andi’s season last summer. His grumpy, unapologetically confident attitude won him mixed reactions from viewers, and despite his “this show is nonsense” approach to The Bachelorette’s trappings, he was absolutely blindsided when Andi chose hunky Josh. Nick cemented his status as a divisive figure when he asked her during the After the Final Rose finale episode, “If you weren’t in love with me, I’m just not sure why you made love with me?” Ouch.

The audience, and the Internet, decried him as a slut-shaming, bitter piece of shit. But his awkward confrontation with his ex-girlfriend on live television was about more than slut-shaming, which I don’t think Nick intended to do. His pained remarks highlighted the unsettling, complex dynamic of non-monogamy the franchise depends on. In the world of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, the many relationships at play always end in pain. Nick hit below the belt, but he was asking a question that comes up multiple times a season: if you weren’t going to pick me, why did you let things go so far?

So perhaps it’s only fitting that Nick would return to fuck shit up on his own terms, like a charismatic former flame popping up on Tinder just when things were finally starting to settle down. Kaitlyn took some of her many men on a group date to a rap battle (because that’s what you do on an average night in New York City?), and Nick gatecrashed. They had been texting before she was dubbed The Bachelorette, and he was there to fight for her. Several weeks in. Because why not? Kaitlyn swooned. The sexual attraction between them crackled. The other men were moody and livid, having already invested several weeks (if not months, considering the casting process) in wooing their ladylove. Nick kept his cool and explained that if Kaitlyn was there to pick a husband, shouldn’t she have no lingering what-ifs left when it came time to give out the final rose? And the producers, oh the producers… I can only imagine how gleeful they were to watch the ratings soar as viewers tuned in to watch Nick piss off America once again.

Some of the men took Nick’s arrival harder than others, though no one welcomed his presence. Dim-witted Joshua self-destructed in a tangle of his own well-intended lies. Frontrunner Shawn seems to be struggling with some serious doubt and trust issues. Princeton and Deerfield-bred Ian verbally assaulted Kaitlyn for being a surface-level, fame-hungry moron who just wanted to make out with a bunch of dudes (he stormed off the program shortly after, ranting hilariously about how he would make a great Bachelor). Ian’s behavior was inexcusable, but Nick waltzing onto the program had to hurt like hell.

This week Kaitlyn and all her boyfriends were off to Dublin, and Nick received the first one-on-one date. The men left behind in the hotel were resentful; several of them have not had one-on-ones despite being on the show for weeks already. This frustration is understandable—it doesn’t feel great to try week after week to get alone time with the woman you want to marry and then watch as she leaves with the new guy with a bad reputation. In the real world, no one owes everyone equal time and attention. If you really want to spend time with someone, you’re allowed to prioritize his or her company. But when you’ve given up your life to be on a reality TV show, getting left behind at the hotel yet again can feel neglectful, embarrassing and disrespectful.

Kaitlyn and Nick proceeded to mash their faces together in a church (because the producers have a wicked sense of humor and knew this would heap even more controversy on the episode), and then she invited him up to her hotel room. These two have wanted to bone since day one and I can’t blame them for actually getting a room. If anything, I admire it. The door closed behind them, but the editing left no mystery—the viewers at home were treated to a lot of gasping and Nick saying, “I want to know every part of you.”

Well. At least the boy knows how to talk.

This might be a good time to remind everyone that these editing choices are made deliberately by the producers to boost ratings, craft a narrative and provoke controversy. It’s unlikely Kaitlyn and Nick just decided to bounce back to her hotel room without a battalion of producers facilitating it. The next morning, as Kaitlyn stood on a balcony freaking out about what she had done, there was clearly a staffer off camera suggesting that Nick might tell the rest of the guys what happened. The Bachelorette is a highly orchestrated media masterpiece, and these characters—Kaitlyn, Nick, and later, the heartbroken Shawn—are all pawns in a larger story. Kaitlyn is attempting to do a deeply human, messy thing, find her soulmate, within the confines of a constructed, manipulated and scrutinized system.

Twitter was quick to spew the judgmental profanities. It wasn’t just that Kaitlyn was sleeping with someone weeks before the fantasy suite episodes, where sex is wrapped up in romance and talked about in circles (the fantasy suite isn’t about sex, it’s about rare private time “away from the cameras,” didn’t yah know). The fact that she slept with Nick added fuel to the fire. Not only is Nick reviled—he has only been on the show a week.

I don’t care about any of those things. If you haven’t already noticed by now, I’m a sexually permissive person. Kaitlyn could have sex with all ten dudes and I wouldn’t judge her one iota. I’d bake her a “Congratulations on the sex” cake right now if I were her friend. But it was hard to watch this episode—yes, even for me—because Kaitlyn is still dating those ten other men. She had to get up in the morning and go on a date with six of those men, two of whom recently told her they loved her. It was hard to watch this episode not because I think Kaitlyn was being unfair to those men. What they know won’t hurt them, at least until the season airs. But if the producers manipulate either Kaitlyn or Nick into telling the other men what happened, it’ll be a domino effect of unnecessary hurt feelings and ruined relationships. And when have the producers ever resisted the opportunity to stir up shit?

Because look, I have no problem with atypical relationship configurations. My own experiments in non-monogamy have been notable disasters, but if partners are respectful of each other’s needs and desires, they can find whatever form of relationship works for them. That being said, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are examples of irresponsible, unsustainable non-monogamy. No one here is looking for an actual open relationship; they all want to get married. When you go on The Bachelorette, you are making a deal with the devil: suffer through watching the woman you are falling in love with date many, many other people, in the hope that she will choose you. You endure feeling like shit in the hopes that it’ll all work out in the end and you’ll wind up in the monogamous relationship you would have preferred all along.

Side note: this is not the same thing as casually seeing multiple people at the same time, which is how many eventually monogamous relationships start. Kaitlyn is the only person seeing multiple people, and all those multiple people live in the same mansion and get to sit awkwardly on couches as they watch her canoodle with their roommates.

These are also not people well equipped to deal with natural feelings of jealousy. Jealousy is even encouraged by producers, because confrontations and competition are the lifeblood of great television. Factor in the sleep deprivation, jet lag, alcohol and isolation and you have a pressure cooker of emotionally compromised people on a conveyer belt to get their hearts broken.

So this is not healthy non-monogamy. This is a feelings bloodbath, and we’re fascinated by it. Nick and Kaitlyn sleeping together is a perfect example of our own compulsion to watch and comment as twenty-six strangers hurt each other while trying to find their life partner. Our culture is not one that is accepting and understanding of non-monogamous relationships, which is why The Bachelor franchise is so successful. It is a fantasy—imagine if I could have twenty-five men fight over me!—as much as it is an exercise in absurdism. We don’t think of it as real, even as we recognize those moments of real pain and heartbreak.

Nick and Kaitlyn are very, very real. Their every interaction is charged with sexual attraction and genuine respect, even if they don’t know each other very well. And the affection Shawn has for Kaitlyn is real, as that relationship has progressed the fastest as far as what the audience has seen. Shawn’s pain if he learns Kaitlyn and Nick had sex (which the teasers for next week’s episode suggest he will) will be excruciating. Just like Kaitlyn’s guilt will be when she sees what pain she caused a man whose esteem she seems to value the most. His negative reaction to Nick’s arrival was the only one she seemed stricken by, after all.

Tellingly, Kaitlyn reflected that a part of her wondered, “Did I just cheat on somebody?” after sleeping with Nick. Yeah, if you’re having that feeling, you’re probably not in a healthy open relationship.

Kaitlyn and six of her boyfriends have drinks together!
Kaitlyn and six of her boyfriends have drinks together!

It’s also worth pointing out that the Bachelor tradition of not telling any contestants that you love them has been increasingly ignored in recent seasons. The last Bachelor, Farmer Chris, told two (or was it three?) of the women he was falling in love with them, which is generally something the Bachelor or Bachelorette is not allowed to say until after a proposal has been made. I’m not sure if this rule has ever been clearly stated, since I’ve only been watching the series for a few years, but I understood it as a way to minimize the pain of the contestants not chosen… and to maintain some element of surprise (and FEELINGS) when the man or woman of the hour finally gets to express their love. It means a lot more when we haven’t watched them say it to multiple other people. I cried like a bitch when Sean told Catherine he loved her on his season of The Bachelor… and notably they’re still happily married, while Chris and Whitney have already broken up.

When Shawn told Kaitlyn that he was falling in love with her, she adorably reciprocated (“I feel the same way,” followed by a fireworks display). To make matters worse, Jared received the rose on the group date when Shawn was desperately in need of some validation. He let it slip that Kaitlyn came to his hotel room and they stayed up all night talking—she even called him “The One.” If that’s to be believed, Kaitlyn isn’t so great at understanding the long-term consequences of her actions. I don’t judge her for exploring all of her relationships to their fullest potential. But it’s not kind to get caught up in the moment and offer someone reassurances and promises that you can’t deliver. It makes sense, too much sense, that Shawn has the hardest time watching Kaitlyn with Nick. He really thinks he’s met his wife, and far too early in the season. It’s confusing and unsettling for the audience, myself included, to watch varying levels of investment from so many people at once.

If you weren’t going to pick me, why did you let things go so far?

I don’t blame Kaitlyn—she’s a human being caught in a fucked up system. I don’t think any Bachelor or Bachelorette fully understands what they are getting themselves into when they sign up to be on the show. The emotional responsibility of dating twenty-five people at once is not something to be trifled with, and it is impossible to get through the series without leaving some broken hearts behind… that’s the entire point. Mistakes will be made, and re-edited, and spliced together in horrifying clip reels. Sleeping with Nick wasn’t a mistake, and Kaitlyn thankfully refuses to call it one, but I don’t trust the producers not to make it an issue.

The people to blame for the nauseating dynamics of the program are the producers, for provoking it, and us, for tuning in each week to watch.

On that cheerful note, join me on Twitter each week as I live-tweet The Bachelorette! I produce such witty nuggets as:

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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