Why Did ‘The Bachelor’ Hide Sean Lowe’s Born-Again Virginity?

A show about sex featured a contestant who doesn’t have sex. Ramin Setoodeh investigates why ABC hid it.

The Bachelor doesn’t have the best track record for helping its stars get hitched—not a single winning couple in 17 seasons has ever walked down the aisle—but it usually leads to something else. Even if the guy is on the fence about a girl, he’ll still go to second base with her, or further. And the producers linger on every passionate kiss. This eventually escalates into the fantasy suite date, which involves activities that can’t be televised on ABC. Mike Fleiss, the series creator, has said the average Bachelor sleeps with three women each season.

But Sean Lowe, the current Bachelor, had a different approach to reality-TV dating. He reportedly stayed celibate during his time on the show, which ended on Monday night with a teary wedding proposal to Catherine Giudici followed by a ride through Thailand on an elephant. (The runner-up, Lindsay Yenter, went home sobbing.) Lowe is a born-again virgin, a development the Bachelor cameras mostly ignored. It’s a mystery why a series built on sex wouldn’t explore its central character’s not having sex. When reached on Monday, a publicist for The Bachelor said producers weren’t available for comment.

We first met Sean last summer as a contestant on The Bachelorette with Emily Maynard. A 29-year-old former fitness model, he had viewers swooning with his sculpted biceps and abs. Although we learned (vaguely) that religion was an important part of Sean’s life, there was no tipoff that he was abstaining from sex. At the end of The Bachelorette, when Lowe and Maynard started making out, the camera cut to a testimonial from her, saying she wanted him to spend the night, but she couldn’t do that to her daughter. He was eliminated later in that episode. “I think she had a pretty good idea of what my values were,” Lowe told me in an interview last week. “I would definitely say we weren’t in the dark.”

As he began his reign on The Bachelor, Lowe followed the series script closely: each date ended with heavy kissing. He never brought up sex; it was the tabloids that broke the story. Us Weekly dubbed him “the Virgin Bachelor,” reporting that Lowe swore off sex after college. Even though the finale was filmed in November, the magazine said Lowe still hadn’t slept with his fiancée.

Instead of telling us what made him different than all the previous bachelors, the show edited Lowe to look like every other guy. But when he was finally allowed to speak freely on Monday’s live “After the Rose” interview, Lowe came across as more religious. He said that during his final deliberations, “I stayed in prayer constantly.” On why he finally picked Catherine, he told Lindsay: “God reveals things on His own time.” Host Chris Harrison asked simple questions—about an overhyped letter Catherine wrote to Sean. The couple announced they will get married on live TV at a later date.

Lowe told me he didn’t understand why the virginity story had gotten so much attention. “I’m shocked,” he said. “I don’t know why every tabloid feels the need to talk about it.” Of the born-again virgin label, he said, “I’ve never described myself that way,” though he later clarified, “it’s true.”

“It’s a decision that I’ve made,” he added. “But I don’t think it needs to be discussed on the show. That’s my personal opinion … for me, it’s a non-story.”

But it is an important part of the story. When Lowe approached the last three women during the fantasy-suite episode, they seemed as perplexed as the viewers at home. He told them on camera that he didn’t want to have sex; he just wanted to talk. “Those three women knew what was going on,” Lowe said. “All three of them have the same values I have.” Did the producers know that he was born-again virgin? “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a big deal.”

According to a former contestant, producers screen contestants about their dating habits, with questions like, “When was the last time you had sex?”

“They skirted around it by saying he was a man of faith,” said “Reality Steve” Carbone, who writes about The Bachelor on his blog. “They don’t like to delve into deep issues on the show. It’s very superficial. It’s much more about the drama than about ‘Are these people spiritually connected and will they be married for the next 50 years?’ It’s very flimsy. Does it surprise me? No.”

There were other notable omissions from the season. The women on The Bachelor were more conservative than the usual single ladies who party at the house. Many of them arrived with their Bibles in hand. (They were allowed to keep the Bibles, unlike their cellphones, which they had to forfeit.) A lot of their talk about Christianity didn’t make the broadcast.

“Every morning, there were six or seven of us that had Bible study and did our daily devotion,” said Leslie Hughes, who was eliminated after her Pretty Woman date. “That was recorded and we were really excited. It was different than previous seasons. Being a Christian too and being in the industry, I was kind of hoping they would [show it].”

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“I don’t know if ABC is hiding it,” said Eric Andersson, a senior writer at Us Weekly who covers The Bachelor. “I don’t think they are playing it up as much as they could.”

The franchise has been squeamish about religion in the past. Last season’s Bachelorette winner, Jef Holm, never talked about being Mormon on the show. Even though Mitt Romney was campaigning to become the first Mormon president, ABC still chose to keep these discussions off camera.

There has always been an unspoken rule in TV to avoid religion, but that may no longer apply. The contestants that do best on American Idol always talk about their faith. The hottest property on primetime right now is Mark Burnett’s The Bible miniseries. Even with all the virgin talk on the blogosphere, The Bachelor’s ratings are up this season.

Hughes says the women, like the viewers, were initially kept in the dark about Sean’s abstinence. “It wasn’t anything we were told,” she said. “I feel like he’s very strong in his values and qualities and what he wants. I feel like he’s a good role model. I think that’s something America needs to see, especially for young people. You don’t have to sleep with everyone. You can wait. I think that makes him even sexier.” For the first time, that could have been the message of The Bachelor—if anybody had talked about it.