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How 'The Bachelor' Confronted The Issue Of Sexual Assault

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Reality TV rarely confronts the issue of sexual assault, which made last night's episode of "The Bachelor" all the more unusual.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BACHELOR")

CAELYNN MILLER-KEYES: This is a conversation that I have to have in relationships because it's a part of who I am. It's part of my story. It's, like, not an easy thing for me to talk about.

SHAPIRO: That's contestant Caelynn Miller-Keyes opening up to her bachelor about a sexual assault she experienced in college. She goes on to tell him how difficult it was to seek treatment and justice. Emma Gray has been following this. She's a senior women's reporter for Huffington Post. Welcome.

EMMA GRAY: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: For people who don't often watch "The Bachelor," how unusual is this?

GRAY: I believe this is the first time that we've seen a contestant tell her story or his story of sexual assault on the show. And the show has been on since 2002. So it's a pretty big deal.

SHAPIRO: And it was a long, detailed story that seems like it could easily have been abridged, and it wasn't.

GRAY: Yeah. It was presented in a way that really gave the audience a chance to sit and listen to Caelynn tell her story. And she went into deep and pretty eloquent detail about the assault and the aftermath of that assault.

SHAPIRO: What went through your head as a critic, as a woman who has written about women's issues as you were watching this on a show like "The Bachelor?"

GRAY: I wasn't completely surprised that this conversation was airing. Caelynn was a former Miss North Carolina. And this was actually a very large part of her platform. So this was not the first time that she spoke about this really harrowing story publicly. She has been an advocate for survivors. But my feelings on it were sort of a mixed bag. There is something about the structure of this show that sets up trauma to be used as currency, something that proves you have suffered enough to be worthy of finding love. And inevitably, even when conversations and topics are handled really well and really delicately, as I'd argue they were here, it still feels a little inherently exploitative.

At the same time, this is a show that has a massive audience of millions. It's frustrating to me as a viewer and as a critic to watch the show pretend to exist in a world where these kind of experiences don't occur even though statistically, you know, 1 in 6 American women will experience a rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. So in all likelihood, Caelynn is far from the only contestant on this show who has experienced sexual assault. And when you have so many people watching, especially women, especially young women, it can be really valuable to affirm them and show that these experiences are not only common but also not something to be ashamed of and not something that makes you less deserving of love.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this episode signals some kind of a larger change in the culture of reality television or the American culture generally? Or is this just a, quote-unquote, "very special episode" of "The Bachelor?"

GRAY: All reality television reflects the moment that it is produced in in some capacity. And in the last two years, the public conversation about sexual assault has become much more open and mainstream. So I'm not surprised that a show like "The Bachelor," which does respond to its time - albeit within the constraints of its primary structure - would be impacted by that.

I can also see them seeing this as a way to address an issue that they have shied away from in the past. There was an alleged sexual misconduct scandal that occurred on their summer show, "Bachelor In Paradise," a couple years ago that was not handled very well by the show. They received a lot of criticism. So I could see them thinking that this might be the best way for them to explore something as difficult to talk about as sexual assault.

SHAPIRO: Emma Gray, senior women's reporter for the Huffington Post, who hosts the podcast about "The Bachelor," "Here To Make Friends," thanks so much.

GRAY: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOWERCASE NOISES' "THE HUNGRY YEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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