What does consent look like on a show like 'Bachelor in Paradise'?

What does consent look like on a show like 'Bachelor in Paradise'?
Corinne Olympios said that she was a "victim" in a public response to the news that production on Bachelor in Paradise had been halted. Jordan Strauss/AP
Corinne Olympios said that she was a "victim" in a public response to the news that production on Bachelor in Paradise had been halted. Jordan Strauss/AP

Before a contestant can set foot on the set of Bachelor in Paradise, they must first sign a waiver acknowledging that they might be sexually assaulted.

According to CNN, contestants' contracts include specific language about this possibility, reminding them they are subject to "unwelcome/unlawful contact or other interaction among participants." And, of course, should any of this unlawful contact happen on set, Bachelor in Paradise's producers aren't liable.

This clause of the show's contract became especially relevant recently, when the show's executives suspended production after a Bachelor in Paradise producer reported seeing footage capturing an apparent nonconsensual sexual encounter between contestants Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson. After investigating the alleged assault, Warner Bros. executives released a statement on Tuesday saying they found no evidence of sexual misconduct on set. The show, which has been a summer television staple since 2014, will resume filming and premiere in August as planned.

The entertainment company is certainly eager to move on from the allegations, which could have been (and could still prove to be) disastrous for not just Bachelor in Paradise but the entire Bachelor franchise, one of TV's most lucrative projects.

But even if viewers are willing to dismiss the allegations as nothing more than an unsavory blip in the franchise's success, it's hard to get away from the disturbing questions they raise about what consent could possibly look like on a show predicated on drunken hookups.

On the show, contestants, rarely seen without drinks in hand, must couple up to avoid elimination.

"As someone who's a big fan of The Bachelor, I'm personally pretty disgusted with the Bachelor in Paradise and I don't watch it," Anna Voremberg, a member of the nonprofit End Rape on Campus, told Mic in a phone interview. "Shows like that perpetuate a misunderstanding about what sex should be. It's an endorsement of a culture that's very dangerous."

Voremberg said the show is antithetical to consent culture, one that advocates for "voluntary, affirmative, conscious agreement to engage in sexual activity" free from coercion and free from the influence of drugs or alcohol.

In other words, Voremberg said, Bachelor in Paradise is an endorsement of rape culture.

The cast of 'Bachelor in Paradise' season two at a premiere party
The cast of 'Bachelor in Paradise' season two at a premiere party Jesse Grant/Getty Images

While The Bachelor and The Bachelorette typically try to sequester any sexual contact between contestants to the fantasy suite — where suitors get the chance to sleep with the person they allegedly hope to marry — Bachelor in Paradise ditches the illusions of romance and fairy tales and gets straight to the point: booze, beach and sex.

According to Jennifer Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, the very premise of the show is a recipe for disaster.

"Nobody should be surprised that a sexual assault allegedly happened on this show that is about getting people as drunk as possible and getting them to hook up," Pozner said in an interview with Mic.

"I'm not someone who wants to say nobody can consent to sex [in this context] … but you can certainly say it's coercive, though it's coercive to men and women alike."

However, there is a point, Pozner said, at which the franchise becomes more dangerous for women than it is for men. First off, humiliating, degrading and slut-shaming women is in the series' very "DNA," according to Pozner. She said women who appear on any of the Bachelor shows can expect to be portrayed as "desperate man-hungry losers" or sluts, while men are generally depicted as "naturally voracious sexual beings."

Bachelor in Paradise, though, boasts a drunken spring break environment, where attractive 20-somethings have nothing to do but sip cocktails, lay by the pool and make out. What's worse, contestants happen to be strategically deprived of sleep, food and access to the outside world, all while being provided with a steady flow of free alcohol.

In addition to the possibility of fellow contestants preying on these vulnerabilities, it's producers' job to encourage romantic encounters among contestants or, at least, keep the cameras rolling and step aside when drunken hookups unfold.

Under ordinary circumstances, consent is fraught with concerns over power dynamics and gender roles. On Bachelor in Paradise, these concerns are coupled with manipulative producers, unlimited alcohol and unspoken incentives. The more contestants hook up on camera, the longer they'll remain on the show. The longer they remain on the show, the more exposure they get. The more exposure they get, the more money they stand to earn.

If consent is supposed to be an enthusiastic and sober "yes," it seems nearly impossible to achieve on a show like Bachelor in Paradise.

"Nobody should be surprised that a sexual assault allegedly happened on this show that is about getting people as drunk as possible and getting them to hook up."

But Olivia Caridi, a contestant on season 20 of The Bachelor, argued the show is hardly as insidious as it sounds. In an interview facilitated by a publicist for Anchor, the podcast platform that hosts her show, Caridi told Mic that it's been difficult for her to wrap her head around the Bachelor in Paradise allegations precisely because they seem so at odds with the culture of the franchise as she knows it.

"I feel like people are trying to make this into a show that’s all about drunken hookups, and that’s simply not the case," Caridi said. "The Bachelor is about spending time with women who are your friends and drinking socially; it’s about spending time with a man we care about or a woman we care about on The Bachelorette and getting to know each other.

"This is not a dirty show — that’s why this entire situation seems so out of place," she added. "There has never been a moment, in my eyes, where it’s been an issue about consent and non-consent."

This is the precise narrative that Bachelor producers are hoping viewers can believe — that whatever they suspect might have happened between Olympios and Jackson is not only unusual, but completely at odds with the show's ethos — even though everything we know about Bachelor in Paradise, including the contract contestants sign, suggests otherwise.

Not everyone is convinced.

Given their concerns about consent on the show, Voremberg and Pozner both agreed the best thing would be for Bachelor executives to shut down this arm of the franchise.

"What I hope is that they cancel Bachelor in Paradise indefinitely — because really, what message does it send if they don’t?" Pozner wondered. "It sends the same message to the audience that that real world sends to women: We don’t give a shit about sexual assault, in fact we expect it to happen. Tune in anyway."