If The Bachelor is turning over a new leaf, it’s to the credit of contestant Caelynn Miller-Keyes and this season’s star, Colton Underwood.
The show’s January 28 episode featured a solo date between the two in Singapore — standard fare for the show, which functions as high-stakes speed dating with a seemingly unlimited expense account. But following an afternoon of shopping and palling around, Miller-Keyes used her time with Underwood as an opportunity to open up to him about her sexual assault. For once the show did not fumble the moment.
As Miss North Carolina USA 2018, Miller-Keyes used her platform to advocate for better Title IX policies for sexual-assault survivors on college campuses. Her work was inspired by her own experience — she remembers being drugged at a fraternity party at Virginia Commonwealth University and waking up the next morning with little recollection of what happened. In a 2018 press conference, she explained how two other friends were also assaulted; when she went to the hospital for a rape kit, she was initially turned away. “I didn’t know what you should do when you report, I didn’t know what my rights were, I didn’t know what the process was,” she said at the time.
When she recounted the story to Underwood, she walked through the details of what she later learned happened to her that night: One man assaulted her unconscious body, while another lifted up her skirt and allowed other fraternity members to post photos to Snapchat. Ultimately, she explained, “The men got away with it, except for one. One did get expelled, and the rest got away with it.” She added, “It’s something that will always be a part of me. I struggled with the shame and guilt that I had felt. It’s the most difficult thing in the world. It’s so painful and it screws up every ounce of you.”
To his credit, Underwood responded by offering his solidarity. “I want you to know that with me, you’re safe. I can’t even imagine going through something like that. I know talking about it is not easy. The fact that that happened to you is devastating,” he said. He also alluded to “a situation in my past where I was in a relationship in which she was sexually abused.” (Underwood’s ex is Aly Raisman, who is a survivor of Larry Nassar’s abuse.)
“For me, that was the hardest thing I ever had to watch, going through something with someone. Looking into her eyes and just knowing the pain associated with it. Who am I to feel the pain when I wasn’t the victim?” Underwood said.
The Bachelor franchise is a rather surprising setting for such a conversation; the show isn’t really known for facilitating productive conversations about sex, and it has notoriously mishandled assault and harassment in the past: Two years ago, the producers of spinoff series Bachelor in Paradise framed an alleged on-set sexual assault as a dramatic plot point, one that played out over two episodes and featured a cliffhanger ending, and producers later cast a contestant who had been convicted of indecent assault and battery on a subsequent season of The Bachelorette.
The conversation resonated with viewers, who praised Miller-Keyes’s courage in speaking out, as well as the show for handling her account with sensitivity. “This is an honest conversation about sex and trauma and relationships and trust and vulnerability and I for one am thrilled to see it airing on national network television,” one fan tweeted.
“Thank you Caelynn, you’re so brave,” wrote former Bachelor contestant Jacqueline Trumbull.
For her part, Miller-Keyes seems okay with how the editing room handled her story. After the show aired, she posted a series of sexual-assault statistics to her Instagram, with the simple caption: “You are not alone.”