"I have had sex and Jesus still loves me": navigating sex and morality on The Bachelorette

The latest seasons of The Bachelorette and The Bachelor sparked vigorous discussions about sex, “purity culture”, and the double standards for men and women. Political journalist Li Zhou weighs in.
A proud member of bachelor nation, Li Zhou often gets together with friends to watch the show. (Li Zhou (submitted))

"I have had sex, and Jesus still loves me."

As theological statements go, this was certainly one for the ages. Hannah Brown, 2019's Bachelorette on ABC, conveyed her thoughts on the place of sex and religion in her life, in just nine words.

For a show known for its portrayal of fantasy dating and romance, the 2019 seasons of The Bachelorette and The Bachelor sparked very direct conversations about sex and religion, particularly about the very different expectations for men and for women.

Li Zhou, a political journalist at Vox.com and a proud member of Bachelor Nation, spoke to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about how sex and purity culture took a new turn in the long-running reality TV franchise. 

Zhou said the conversation about sex on this season is the most progressive it's ever been on the Bachelorette.

"The way that Hannah describes her own relationship with religion indicates just how much more fluid being religious can be, and also how much more fluid relationships are," she said.

Writer Li Zhou says the conversations about sex and morality on this season of the Bachelorette is the most progressive the show has had so far.

I think when women have decided they either want to sleep with multiple men or they want to not operate within the confines of these kind of fake rules that the show has made up, they get a ton of pushback and they get shamed for their decisions."

Brown uttered the now famous line - "I have had sex, and Jesus still loves me" - as her relationship with her once-favourite contestant Luke Parker was deteriorating. 

Both Brown and Parker identified as religious; that was part of their attraction to each other. 

Brown, the Bachelorette, was ostensibly choosing her future husband throughout the season. But Parker had very specific expectations of Brown: namely, she wasn't to have sex with any other contestants on the show.

"As they're talking about sex he at one point characterizes it as a 'slip-up' if she's decided to have sex with someone. Which is both, I think, a dated way to view decision-making and a way to deprive women of the agency they have in their decisions," Zhou said.

"It really feels like he's using faith as a way to control her and the way that she wants to engage with her own body and her own sexuality. And you see her pushing back on how you can interpret faith in many different ways."

Here is Parker explaining his beliefs and expectations around sex to Brown:

Li Zhou and Tapestry's Mary Hynes on how The Bachelorette has progressed over the years 1:42

The Bachelor broke new ground in the 2019 season by choosing, for the first time, a 27-year-old bachelor who was a virgin.

"It's definitely something they exploited as much as they could. People have done counts of how many times in commercials it was mentioned that he was a virgin, and it's an insane amount. Partly because I think this is something that maybe is less traditional now for somebody in his position. And so they wanted to emphasize that as much as they could."

At one point in the show, Bachelor Colton Underwood climbs over a fence and leaves the set in distress because the woman he most prefers, Cassie Randolph, decides to take herself out of the running and leave the show. 

Underwood tracks her down and convinces her to give him another chance.  

Zhou has mixed feelings about the way their love story played out.

"I want him to find love! He's the protagonist. I would be supportive of that. But also when you take a step back, you're like, why am I rooting for him to go after somebody who has already explicitly told him she is not interested? She has a mind of her own. And she has her own agency and we are completely ignoring that in favour of an exciting story line."