The new ‘Bachelor in Paradise’ consent rules aren’t about preventing sexual assault

The new ‘Bachelor in Paradise’ consent rules aren’t about preventing sexual assault
The fourth season of the ABC reality show is expected to premiere later this summer, featuring new rules regarding sexual consent.
Source: ABC
The fourth season of the ABC reality show is expected to premiere later this summer, featuring new rules regarding sexual consent.
Source: ABC
opinion
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The reality TV show Bachelor in Paradise, a spinoff of the popular dating elimination show The Bachelor, explicitly encourages its contestants to abandon their boundaries by bringing past Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants together on a tropical island and offering them another shot at love (or at least the reality show facsimile of it) in the midst of wild partying, producer-escalated drama, free-flowing alcohol and a sexually permissive atmosphere.

Given the environment in which Bachelor in Paradise is filmed, it’s not particularly surprising to learn that something may have gone awry on set. On June 4, according to allegations, contestant Corinne Olympios was sexually assaulted by fellow contestant DeMario Jackson while blackout drunk — an incident not unlike two other reported sexual assaults that allegedly took place on the sets of other reality TV shows and garnered media attention several years ago.

In response to the allegations and following a brief shutdown of production, Warner Bros. has unveiled a fresh set of regulations intended to keep non-consensual acts from occurring on set. (Warner Bros. also conducted an investigation of the incident with the help of an outside law firm, and said in a statement that footage did not “support any charge of misconduct by a cast member.” Olympios’ lawyer responded, saying his team will continue its own investigation.) Under the new rules, drinking and drugs are to be more strictly regulated — contestants will be limited to just two drinks per hour, and any illegal drugs found in their luggage will be immediately confiscated — and producer approval is required before any contestants enter the show’s classily-named “Boom Boom Room” (in other words, before they have sex).

The i’s are dotted, the t’s are crossed and Warner Bros. has sufficient proof that no rape or wrongdoing occurred — at least so far as its legal team is concerned.

If a producer decides that one or both contestants are incapable of properly consenting to sex, approval will be denied; if contestants start getting it on without the OK, producer are authorized to stop them (although what that effort would actually look like is anyone’s guess).

As a direct response to recent events, these regulations make a certain amount of sense, if only from the perspective of the production company’s in-house legal team. Olympios was allegedly assaulted while both she and Jackson were under the influence of alcohol; if impaired consent is the primary concern here, then limiting access to drugs and alcohol and requiring producers to intervene if anyone gets too drunk to consent could be deemed a reasonable legal remedy for those in charge of the production.

But if consensual sex is the main concern, intoxication, be it from drinking or drugs, is just one aspect that needs addressing. To make the assumption that a sober — or, at least, a tipsy or somewhat-drunk — person who expresses interest in sex at some point during the evening is guaranteed to end up engaging in 100% consensual sex is to fundamentally misunderstand and misrepresent what consensual sex is about.

What happens if, for instance, two contestants verbally consent to a sexual encounter, but with very different ideas of how that encounter is going to unfold?

Consent is often presented in black-and-white terms: It’s there or it’s not, and once it’s given, it persists throughout the encounter. It’s this framing of consent on which Warner Bros. seems to be relying: So long as any contestant involved in a sexual encounter explicitly tells a producer that it’s consensual prior to anything happening, then everything is presumed copacetic. The i’s are dotted, the t’s are crossed and Warner Bros. has sufficient proof that no rape or wrongdoing occurred — at least so far as its legal team is concerned.

But what happens if, for instance, two contestants verbally consent to a sexual encounter, but with very different ideas of how that encounter is going to unfold? What happens if, after sex begins, one person decides they’re no longer into it, but their partner insists that consent cannot be revoked? What if the sex changes from vaginal to anal, or from vanilla to kinky, and one person doesn’t want to continue and ultimately feels assaulted? Does that initial statement of consent still rule the day — and if so, are contestants who have their bodily autonomy violated after they’ve agreed to one aspect of a sexual encounter completely out of luck?

It’s also worth considering that, on the set of a show like Bachelor in Paradise — which is expected to address the incident involving Olympios and Jackson when the fourth season airs, presumably later this summer — the very nature of consent itself can get pretty murky. Most of us would agree that power imbalances between two individuals can impact our ability to freely, enthusiastically consent to a sexual encounter; that rationale is why teacher/student, therapist/patient and boss/subordinate relationships are frowned upon and, in some cases, forbidden.

If a producer subtly hints that a couple might want to take their relationship to the next level, how does that producer’s power and influence impact someone’s ability to fully consent?

In a professional environment where sex is encouraged — though, of course, not required — a whole other power imbalance comes into play. The contestants themselves may be on equal footing with one another. But if a producer subtly hints that a couple might want to take their relationship to the next level, how does that producer’s power and influence impact someone’s ability to fully consent?

What does it mean to consent to sex on a show where you’re explicitly encouraged to pair off with other contestants, or where attention is the primary currency, and being willing to do whatever will almost definitely earn you more of it? What does it mean to consent to sex in a genre of television where producers have an incentive to encourage you to unleash your least inhibited and most salacious behavior? It’s hard to deny that there’s a perceived professional benefit to being willing to go all the way on a show like Bachelor in Paradise — and it’s hard to say what “consent” means in that context.

This isn’t to say that Bachelor in Paradise contestants have to be well behaved, or that consensual sex can never take place on the set of a reality show. A production company having a vested, professional interest in its talent’s sex lives doesn’t negate consent, but it does complicate it. If reality shows truly want to protect the well-being and health of their participants, however, they may need to dramatically reconsider their understanding of what consensual sex looks like — and what an appropriate, proper response to someone’s on-set violation actually means.

Genuine, ongoing sexual consent isn’t something you can ensure with a check mark on a legal form — unless, of course, you’re a production company that’s just trying to cover your own ass.

Ensuring that sexual encounters that take place on set are positive for everyone involved means encouraging an environment in which contestants have the space and freedom to really think about their actions, rather than getting swept away in the pressure of doing something wild and crazy that will make for good TV. It means recognizing that sex requires ongoing consent and conversation, and that a person’s one-time interest in a sexual encounter isn’t hard-and-fast proof that they couldn’t have been assaulted. And it means giving contestants access to a support system that will provide them with the counseling, consideration and care they need to recover from any experience that may have ultimately turned ugly.

Genuine, ongoing sexual consent isn’t something you can ensure with a check mark on a legal form — unless, of course, you’re a production company that’s just trying to cover your own ass and avoid having unfortunate encounters escalate into lawsuits. If that’s the case, then Bachelor in Paradise is 100% on the right track.

Mic has ongoing Bachelor in Paradise coverage. Please follow our Bachelor in Paradise hub here.