Reality TV's Sexual Politics Are Somehow Getting Even More Toxic

Allegations against a contestant on 'The Proposal' are just the tip of the iceberg of ugliness.

by Nicole Clark
Jun 26 2018, 4:00am

A shot from 'The Proposal.' Photo by Byron Cohen via Getty

If you’ve been watching The Bachelorette this season, you may have noted the constant advertorials for ABC’s new show The Proposal, an hour-long program featuring ten contestants vying for the heart of a mystery suitor. Contestants are eliminated after pageant-style rounds of competition, including a meeting with the suitor’s closest “loved one.” The premise of The Proposal seems to be that The Bachelor’s eight weeks is dragging out what should be a one-day process of getting engaged to a stranger you meet on TV. The show also replaces Miss America as a source for telecasted swimsuit pageantry.

The show’s shitty sexual politics got even shittier over the weekend, when The Proposal contestant Michael J. Friday was accused of setting up a woman for date rape. In a June 20 Facebook post, a woman named Erica Meshke detailed meeting Friday through Tinder before he allegedly left her with two strange men at a bar who then drugged and sexually assaulted her. In response to these allegations, ABC and Warner Horizon Productions released a statement that said, “While the accusation was not related to the contestant’s appearance on the program, we take it very seriously.” They also pulled the episode featuring Friday.

This is on the tail of news regarding The Bachelorette’s Lincoln Adim, who pled guilty to indecent assault and battery last month in a case that had been ongoing during casting. There was also the fallout from a questionable sexual encounter between Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson on Bachelor in Paradise in 2017, a case largely responsible for the show’s new preventative measure where contestants reportedly have to tell producers before they have sex.

It’s beyond obvious that sexual misconduct and representations of sex are a problem facing reality TV writ large. The genre is fueled by drama in every sense of the word, much of it stemming from sexual tension and hookups between contestants. This is largely why people watch reality television: in order to watch pretty people make bad decisions. It’s no wonder the lines are so blurry, and the attitudes toward sex on these shows are so predatory.

But reality TV’s backward and sometimes disturbing attitude toward sex is especially out of step in a cultural climate that has finally empowered victims to name their assaulters. Just last year, Big Brother season 19 contestant Jason Dent made disgusting rape “jokes” about Kevin Schlehuber's wife and kids. In that same season, Megan Lowder left the competition abruptly, telling her local paper the Desert Sun that that living in the house caused her PTSD from sexual assault to flare up.

Shows like The Bachelor also demonstrate reality television’s problem with portraying consensual sex, and the way such portrayals contribute to the broader culture of misconduct. The Bachelor reinforces gender norms through gatekeeping and slut-shaming, creating memorable television moments by exploiting contestants and their physical intimacies. This is especially evident in the weird dynamic of disavowing sex before the “fantasy suite,” where contestants finally shack up with their potential fiancés. Women who choose to be physically intimate before the fantasy suite are slut-shamed. Juan Pablo of season 18 infamously had consensual sex with contestant Clare Crawley before telling her he regretted his decision, forcing her into an awkward and vulnerable situation. Later in a helicopter during their last one-on-one date, Pablo reportedly told Crawley, “I love fucking you but I don't know you.”

Whether contestants have sex in the fantasy suite is one of greatest fascinations of some fans of the series—for a long time, this was supposed to be a coy secret. Nick Viall became a franchise villain after revealing he and Andi Dorfman had sex in the fantasy suite, asking her, "If you weren't in love with me, I'm just not sure why you made love with me?" on After the Final Rose.

Since Dorfman’s season, female contestants have been empowered to be more transparent and sex-positive about what goes on behind closed doors. But the pressure to say yes to the fantasy suite date is still so strong that some contestants have expressed extreme stress, fearing they might be sent home if they abscond. Ashley Iaconetti—famously known as “the virgin”—worried about this is as recently as this year’s Bachelor Winter Games. The idea that sex is somehow required—the culture of being “owed” sex—is at the heart of so many cases of sexual misconduct and assault.

None of the scandals that have hit the Bachelor franchise have wrecked it, of course. The Proposal is in a different position—it may not have the fan base to survive the allegations floating around Friday. Or it may just get cancelled because it sucks and people hate it. But that's not going to solve reality TV's sex problem.

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