In 2021, the star of the US iteration of The Bachelorette, Katie Thurston, made international news off the back of one thirty second clip. In it, Thurston, all smiles and fey giggles, announced that she was forbidding the male contestants searching for her endless love from masturbating.

“I kind of had this idea I thought would be fun, where the guys in the house all have to agree to withhold their self-care as long as possible, if you know what I mean,” Thurston told the show’s two hosts, to a great deal of laughter and blushing. What was she was doing was what Bachelorette stars – and indeed many of those who feature in that brand of modern reality television focused on love and sex – have done for years.

Namely, she was upholding the show’s characteristic, and very strange, mix of euphemism and the explicit stating of norms that are so well-trodden in the culture that they’re not even acknowledged as norms at all.

Indeed, the most surprising thing about the clip was that it generated chatter, from both mainstream outlets and social media, in the first place. The Bachelorette’s habit of not so much ignoring the elephant in the corner, but ignoring the corner, and the walls connected to the corner, and perhaps even the entire room, has been part of its fabric from its very conception.

This is a show ostensibly about desire and love – which is a way of saying that it is about different states that circle around, and often lead to or follow from, sex – that shirks desperately away from most of the ways that we understand these things.

All we get on the desire front is a lot of people who pay a certain kind of attention to their bodies, occasionally – extremely occasionally – kissing one another. And all we get on the love front is a lot of talk about forever and eternity, along with roses, champagne flutes, and tears. Sex, meanwhile, lies far beyond the show’s window of acceptable or even conceivable behaviours. It’s there but it’s not there, a part of the very foundation of the show that’s still so taboo that if someone dares speak it aloud, as Thurston did, they’ll be the odd one. 

This backlash to a bizarre norm constructed and maintained by the cameras was taken to an extreme in the case of Abbie Chatfield, a contestant on the Australian version of the show. For daring to tell Bachelor Matt Agnew that she “really wanted” to have sex with him, and admitting that she was “really horny”, Chatfield drew ire from not only the usual anti-sex bores, but from the so-called “sensible mainstream centre.” She was called a slut; her behaviour designated outrageous.  

Such a backlash wasn’t just a policing of women’s bodies, though it was that. It was also a policing of the very standards of desire, part of a long attempt to prettify and clean up matters of sex and love, into “good” (read: socially acceptable) talk about these matters, and “bad” (read: unhinged, dangerous, impolite) talk about them.  

In a society with a healthier understanding of sexuality, Chatfield wouldn’t be the deviation. The whole strange apparatus around her would be. 

Whose Normal?

What makes The Bachelor and The Bachelorette such fascinating, internally frustrated objects is that their restating of the normal reaches such a volume, and resists so many specifics, that it reveals how utterly not-normal, arbitrary, and ill-defined most normal stuff is.

For instance, there is much talk in The Bachelor and The Bachelorette about romantic “compatibility”, a bizarre standard frequently talked about in the culture without ever being actually, you know, talked about. On this compatibility view of love, the pursuit of a significant other is a process of finding someone to fit into your life, as though you have one goal for how you want to be, and only one person who can help you achieve that. It’s that popular meme of the human being as an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, picking up pieces, one by one, and trying to slot them in. 

What The Bachelor and The Bachelorette usually reveal, however, is that actually working out who is “the one” for you is much more difficult than the show’s own repeated emphasis on compatibility implies.

The stars of these shows frequently love and desire multiple people at the same time – the entire dramatic tension of the show comes from their final selection of a partner being surprising and tense.

If this compatibility stuff was as simple as it often described –  or even clearly explicated – then we’d know after thirty seconds spent between potential two life partners that they’d end up together. There’d be no hook; no narrative arc. Eyes would lock, hearts would flutter, and the puzzle piece would just slot in.  

In actuality, on both of these shows, the decision to pick one person over another frequently feels deeply random, and the always vague star usually has to blur their explanations even further into the abstract to justify why they want to be with him, and not with him, or with him. 

The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are supposedly triumphant testaments to monogamy – almost all seasons of the show, except the one starring Nick Cummins, the Honey Badger, end with two and only two people walking off together.  

But actually, in their typically confused way, they also end up explicating the benefits of polyamory. Often, the stars of these shows have a lot of fun, and derive a lot of pleasure and purpose from being intimate and romantic with a number of people at the same time. When it comes time to choose their “one”, it is frequently with tears – on a number of occasions, the stars have said, in so many words, “why not both?” 

Get Those Freaks Away From Me

And why not both? Or more than both? The season of The Bachelor where no contestant is eliminated, everyone goes on dates together, and they all end up having sex and falling in love with one another, is no stranger than the season where only two walk into the sunset. 

Monogamy is a norm, which is to say that it is an utterly arbitrary thing spoken loudly enough to seem iron-wrought. Norms are forceful; they tell us that things are the way they are, and could be no other way. In fact, they are so forceful that they have to state not only their own definitional boundaries, but also the boundaries of the thing that they are not – not just pushing the alien away, but the very act of designating things alien in the first place.   

It was the philosopher Michel Foucault who noted this habit of branding certain objects, habits, or people as “other” in order to better understand and designate the normal. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette do this both frequently and implicitly, never drawing attention to the hand that is forever sketching abrupt and hurried lines in the sand.  

Just consider the things that would be astonishing in the shows’ worlds, without even having to be taboo. For instance, imagine a star being perfectly happy committing to none of the contestants, and merely having sex with a few of them, one after the other. Or a star choosing a contestant but, rather than speaking of their flawless connection together, emphasising “mere” fun, or “mere” pleasure. 

None of the preceding critique of these shows is a call to eradicate romantic and sexual norms altogether, if such an definitional cleansing were even possible. We have to make decisions about how we navigate the world together, and norms become a shorthand way of describing these decisions. What we should remember throughout, however, is that we are free to change this shorthand up whenever we like. And more than that, we should resist, wherever possible, the urge to create the other.

After all, if The Bachelor and The Bachelorette tell us anything, it’s that those regular folks are the real sickos.