What Does Sex Mean?

Bachelorette Viewers Got 4 Things Right About Sex

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The finale of the 11th season of The Bachelorette is near, following a whirlwind of angst, cringe-worthy make out sessions, and extravagant dates. This week, viewers clutched their popcorn and waited to see what would happen as Canadian Kaitlyn Bristowe narrowed her pool of suitors from three to two during the much-awaited “Fantasy Suite” episode. Historically, the Fantasy Suite episode was infamous as the moment when the couples are finally granted their “off-camera” time to do whatever it takes to seal the deal—which in most viewers minds means, have sex. Monday night’s episode was a little anticlimactic, however, because Kaitlin had already slept with one of the candidates, Nick Viall.

Instead of supporting Bristowe in her search for love, millions of viewers were up in arms for weeks after Kaitlyn got intimate with Nick prior to the Fantasy Suite episode. On a show where just about anything goes, including on-camera stripping, making out with dozens of suitors, and endless emotional drama, why was this such a big deal? Despite the desensitization to hypersexual behavior, millions of viewers evidently still believe a few things about the meaning of sex:

1.) Sex is a distinct type of behavior: Hooking up and promiscuity is commonly justifiable as long as it is mutually consensual. But if everyone believes this, why would millions of people get angry and call Kaitlyn a slut after she slept with Nick? None of the men or the viewers were offended when Kaitlyn made out with multiple men, or went on exotic getaways, or had deep heart-felt conversations with her suitors.

The body is not just a tool for use; it is our true self. When two people have sex, they are intimate in a way few other behaviors allow; they give their whole selves to someone else. When Kaitlin slept with Nick, she gave herself to him completely.

Bachelor Nation wasn’t upset because Kaitlyn eschewed the rules set in place by game show producers. Their reaction revealed that quite a few people still believe that sex is a distinct and presumably meaningful activity compared to other romantic interactions.

2.) Sex is more than a casual activity: The hookup culture is everywhere; 91% of college women say the hookup culture defines their campus experience. While not everyone participates, promiscuity barely raises an eyebrow amongst young adults.

Sex is often considered just another casual activity that two people can do together. Similar to playing tennis, two individuals use their bodies to interact and enjoy each other’s company, almost like a sport. Sexual behavior is commonly described in athletic terms; for example, men call sleeping with someone “scoring.”

But sex is not tennis. Following the hookup with Nick, Kaitlyn—while upfront that sexual intimacy was a “big part” of a relationship and deeply important to her—suddenly experienced regret, saying, “I felt guilt… What did I do? I didn’t mean to hurt anyone…. All of it was bad.” Bachelor Nation mirrored Kaitlyn’s reaction, affirming that millions still believe that sex is more than a casual activity.

3.) Sex has a deeper meaning: Sexual behavior is commonly trivialized. In the hookup rulebook, one should “expect nothing more.” It shouldn’t mean anything, but to the millions of viewers—including the men Kaitlyn is dating—it does.

Following Kaitlyn’s hook up with Nick, however, the other guys struggle to trust her. Shawn B feels betrayed and questions whether Kaitlyn is trustworthy; she tells him, “You have to trust me and I don’t think you do.” The men are accustomed to having her disappear on getaways with other guys. Why would Shawn, for example, or any of the Bachelorette viewers bat an eye if she sleeps with someone, too? Why would Kaitlyn tell Shawn B she “went too far” with Nick, unless sex meant something more? Shawn’s jealousy and the viewers concern was rooted in a belief that having sex with someone else takes the relationship to another, deeper level.

4.) Sex belongs within a certain context: Pop culture often promotes no-strings-attached sex. Conversely, major world religions—and even the rare modern celebrityoften argue that sex belongs within the context of marriage; such views are often dismissed as “old-fashioned” or “out of touch” or “too obsessed with rules.” So why did modern Bachelorette viewers pause when Kaitlyn had sex with whomever she wanted to?

Because Bachelor Nation viewers still intuitively believe that certain rules exist for sexual behavior, among those that there is a right time and place for sex (even if it is the producers of a reality TV show who are setting the rules).

Why did Bachelor Nation make such a big deal out of Kaitlyn and Nick’s having sex before they reached the Fantasy Suite? Because it was a big deal. And that shatters the fantasy that no-strings-attached sex is the only thing viewers of pop culture are looking for.

This article first appeared on Acculturated by yours truly.