From the moment The Bachelorette began airing Katie Thurston’s group date with guest star Nick Viall, you could tell something was going to be different. The candles, rose petals, and jewel tones disappeared in favor of a stark circle of chairs inside what looked like a darkened studio space. But if the setup felt awkward or self-consciously serious at first, it soon became clear why.
The Bachelorette began to lead a conversation about vulnerability, in which (most of) her suitors disclosed the darkest moments from which they’d grown. The men spoke about the divorces, betrayals of trust, and drunken outbursts of which they were ostensibly most ashamed. Then Thurston opened up about her own past, and shared that she was sexually assaulted while she was drunk one year during New Year’s Eve.
“I know you see me today as this very sex-positive woman who’s very confident,” Thurston said. “She hasn’t always been here.”
Thurston said that she had been “involved in a situation where there wasn’t consent,” and that afterward she tried to form a relationship with her assaulter out of denial about what happened. “When that didn’t work out, for years I had a very unhealthy relationship with sex,” she said. “…And it’s taken me a very long time to get to where I am now in being open and comfortable talking about it, in loving myself and accepting things that I can no longer control.”
“I’ve come a long way in who I was 10 years ago,” Thurston said, adding that she has come to prize consent and communication. She also emphasized “how important it is to not guilt trip somebody for not having enough sex with them. Guilt trip them for not having sex with them in general.”
The conversation was not unprecedented for The Bachelor, but it was the most substantial the franchise has ever had.
The Bachelor’s most prominent discussion about consent came during unfortunate circumstances. In 2017, Bachelor in Paradise briefly shut down production after a producer reportedly indicated that Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson had engaged in sex acts while highly intoxicated. After two weeks, Warner Bros. said that an investigation had concluded found “no evidence of misconduct by cast on the set.”
Filming resumed in Puerto Vallarta without Olympios and Jackson, and the premiere found now-former Bachelor host Chris Harrison leading a troubling discussion of consent that essentially boiled down to Bachelor in Paradise: We Are Not Liable.
What transpired that year on Bachelor in Paradise is also worth considering alongside Matt James’ recently botched season. As disparate as the two scandals might seem on the surface, they both speak to the franchise’s failures in the past to protect its participants. Contestants of color in the Bachelor-verse have consistently dealt with producer ignorance and outright racism, female contestants have endured misogyny, and as Rachel Lindsay and several of James’s contestants can attest, Black women typically wind up faring worst of all. Within that context, Thurston’s discussion Monday night feels like a step forward for a dating franchise that, ironically, needs to demonstrate its emotional intelligence and empathy.
While both Olympios and Jackson were both allegedly too intoxicated to provide consent during their drunken encounter back in 2017, some reporting adopted a narrative that emphasized Olympios’ vulnerability, framing Jackson implicitly as the aggressor. Rachel Lindsay’s Bachelorette season, which included Jackson among its cast, had already exposed the franchise’s struggles with race. Perhaps because of this, the cast’s discussion during the Paradise premiere swung in the other direction from the press. While some reporters had been too eager to blame Jackson, an error Olympios’ castmates addressed during their own discussion when asked whether they believed race factored into the way the encounter was covered, they seemed reluctant to empathize with Olympios’ claim that she felt like “a victim.”
A couple of cast members made sure to emphasize that they didn’t blame Olympios for what had transpired. But then came remarks like “Maybe she… wanted to try and save face.” Raven Gates shared that she had once been assaulted, and said she hoped the BiP ordeal wouldn’t discourage “actual” victims.
From what is publicly known about the incident, at least, it doesn’t seem that empathy for Jackson and Olympios should have been mutually exclusive. Much of the discussion at the time focused on the degree to which producers can influence the casts in these manipulative environments, and their responsibilities when alcohol is involved. Olympios herself never said she felt Jackson had victimized her and affirmatively stated in a People interview that she did not feel he had done so. Jackson acknowledged that as well, in his own interview with The Hollywood Reporter when asked why he didn’t “need” anything from Olympios to move on. As the scandal wore on, Olympios and Jackson endured relentless racist and sexist bullying online. (Harassment is another issue the franchise has been struggling to address within its fandom.)
At the time, the Bachelor in Paradise ordeal felt like a potential turning point for the show—and its impact has remained in subtle ways. As BiP made sure to point out upon its return, a drink limit is now in place. The franchise’s issues with race have obviously become a recurring topic of discussion. And when Colton Underwood’s season of The Bachelor debuted in 2018, it featured a prominent discussion of sexual assault that provided a template for Thurston’s sit-down Monday night.
Caelynn Miller-Keyes, a frontrunner from the season who also speaks about sexual assault at high schools and universities, told Underwood that she had been raped in college four years earlier. “It’s not an easy thing for me to talk about,” she said, “but it’s something that’s really important, especially in relationships, because it’s something that has come in between intimacy and just a lot of different things in my life.” She talked about reporting the incident to the police, and being illegally turned away from a hospital when she tried to get a rape kit done. She discussed the guilt and shame she carried for years afterward, and how she dealt with triggers for months.
Thurston’s conversation felt like the next step of the talk Miller-Keyes began. While no account is braver to share than any other, it’s worth noting the distinction between the two. Victim-blaming is deeply embedded in too many conversations about assault, which can render some listeners more sympathetic to an experience like Miller-Keyes—being unwittingly drugged—than those who, like Thurston, were simply inebriated.
After sharing her story with her contestants, Thurston added a final point to her narrative in an in-the-moment interview with producers. “What I shared with the group today is something I never really talked about,” she said. “For a long time I felt responsible for being too drunk, too irresponsible, too stupid. But it’s not my fault, because consent is important and I did not give it that night.”
Soon after the moment finished airing, RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, released a statement on Twitter thanking her for sharing her story. “It doesn’t matter if you were drinking or what you were wearing, sexual violence is never the survivor’s fault—only the perpetrator is responsible,” the statement reads. “Consent is important and ALWAYS necessary.” The post also includes an image that states, “Consent is enthusiastic and freely given. You can change your mind at any time if you feel uncomfortable.”
The conversation Thurston and her contestants shared Monday night embodies the potential of The Bachelorette and series like it when they embrace empathy and authentic storytelling. But this episode, however groundbreaking, comes at a troubled time. Rachel Lindsay just released a stunning account of her experience as the first Black Bachelorette after Matt James’s season as the franchise’s first Black male lead exposed its perpetual shortcomings on race. (Again). Chris Harrison just exited the show after almost two decades as host after defending Rachael Kirkconnell—the eventual winner of James’s season—for attending an antebellum South-themed party in 2018. (James and Kirkconnell separated after the incident exploded publicly, but have since reconciled.)
A lot is riding on Katie Thurston’s season, and it’s hard not to imagine that producers viewed this story as a chance to earn back some goodwill from fans and critics. Had the execution felt cynical, the episode wouldn’t have worked. Thurston has said that before she agreed to become the next Bachelorette, “I expressed what I wanted with my journey, and I think I was listened to.” The way this conversation unfolded, and especially the degree of preparation and safety Thurston clearly felt throughout, is an encouraging sign that Thurston’s hints about her season were more than empty platitudes.
To give credit where it’s due, Thurston does have an uncharacteristically good bunch of men to choose from. And while some of the franchise’s more obnoxious tricks remain in the mix, her journey has felt less heavily produced than other recent cycles. While James’s season ignored the love stories unfolding between the first Black Bachelor and his contestants of color in favor of petty drama between white women, Thurston’s has seen a return to the story-driven approach that fans actually crave.
Still, it would be misguided to assume that producers’ lighter touch in Thurston’s season proves the franchise has absorbed the most salient lessons of James’s season. Ham-fisted production has plagued Bachelor leads both Black and white, but the fundamental mishandling of James’s season—the production choices that made it so unwatchable—came from a place of racial ignorance and prejudice. Thurston’s season is a refreshing and encouraging improvement so far, but it’s not enough on its own. Michelle Young’s Bachelorette season, which airs this September, will be a far more telling test of where this franchise is headed—and even then, the work will have only begun.