The “sexual misconduct” incident that happened on the set of Bachelor in Paradise—and which remains under investigation—is likely to introduce a new set of issues around sexual consent on reality TV shoots.
Along with various unconfirmed reports, both cast members involved in the incident, Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson, have issued statements and hired legal counsel. Production on Bachelor in Paradise has also since halted. (Read all the BIP updates here.)
The imagery of sex is so prevalent on these shows that we barely think about the logistics, including how production supplies the liquor (and how much of it), and whether any rules against drinking are enforced. Think of Ruthie, for example, a cast member from MTV’s The Real World: Hawaii whose drinking during filming was so excessive that she ended up leaving the house to go to rehab.
It’s clearly even more complicated when sex is involved. Attorney Lisa Bloom—who represented several of Bill O’Reilly’s accusers and currently reps Kathy Griffin—tells Variety, “I think it would be very helpful on these shows to have a course of conduct like a lot of these colleges have, which is there has to be an explicit verbal ‘yes’ to each sexual act...I think that would be a good rule for reality shows to adopt—reality shows that profit mightily off of attractive young people getting drunk and hooking up on their shows.”
Before Bachelor in Paradise, there hadn’t been such a publicized incident related to sexual consent on set, though you might recall the sexual battery lawsuit against MTV involving a female cast member of The Challenge.
Bloom says, speaking on BIP:
“The second issue is if she’s sexually assaulted, that’s only the responsibility of the perpetrator. That is not her responsibility in any way, if she is the victim of sexual assault. Anybody who is aware of that happening has a moral responsibility to turn off the cameras and get her help. These cases are very difficult.”
A possible assumption is that anyone filming is responsible for their actions, so how much are the producers obligated to step in? What is legally in the cast members’ contracts?
“I’ve reviewed these reality show contracts and they are ridiculous — they are hundreds of hundreds of pages, and people sign away their right to claim, ‘I was drunk and I hooked up and now I’m embarrassed that’s on TV.’ They sign away their right to make that claim. [But] they don’t sign away their right to not be sexually assaulted. So that’s where I draw the line,” Bloom explains. “If they’re engaging in consensual behavior, the show gets to film that because that’s what they signed up for. But if they’re sexually assaulted, then they should come forward and they should come forward immediately because the time frames are short.”
In this Vulture essay titled “How Sex Is Orchestrated on Reality Shows Like Bachelor in Paradise,” a reality TV producer notes, “Television executives are overwhelmingly risk-averse, and the whiff of litigation can ruin a career, so we make sure that when we go into the field, we know the rules: no drunk driving, no drugs in front of kids, no nonconsensual sex. If we see that someone is moving toward nonconsensual sex, we step in, or better yet, encourage another cast member to step in, and capture the fallout on camera.” At the same time, he writes:
Reality producers very rarely interrupt good scenes. You’re much more likely to be dragged across the coals by an executive asking why you called cut than by one asking why you didn’t step in. Mistakes can be edited out, but drama can’t be recreated. That’s likely why, per reports, the producer who complained about Olympios and Jackson’s encounter didn’t step in and stop it while it was happening. During filming, producers are hyperfocused on two questions: Is this good TV, and how can I make it better? Only after the fact do they consider what happened from a moral and legal perspective.