It was spectacular, the unraveling of Tom Sandoval’s career, like watching fireworks fall into each other and explode all at once. There he was, a seminal protagonist of “Vanderpump Rules,” shining brighter than any star in the sky. Then, darkness.
I refer, of course, to “Scandoval,” Bravo fans’ label for the revelation that cast members Sandoval and Raquel Leviss were carrying out an affair for months while Sandoval lived with his longtime girlfriend Ariana Madix. Madix also happens to be a close friend of Leviss.
The news came out of nowhere on a quiet Friday in early March: TMZ reported Madix had broken up with Sandoval over cheating allegations, then other reports snowballed quickly, each more ridiculous than the next, confirming the story and filling in the blanks with obscene details.
By the end of the weekend, it seemed clear that Sandoval and Leviss had managed to cover up an intimate and serious relationship for months, despite living separate lives in front of reality television cameras, paparazzi lenses, and hundreds of thousands of social media followers. Raquel’s real name turned out to be Rachel. Scheana might have punched her. Jax reclaimed his spot as the number one guy in the group.
For context: “Vanderpump Rules” hit Bravo’s airwaves back in 2013, chronicling the lives of the staff at Sur, a West Hollywood restaurant owned by Lisa Vanderpump from the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” It was a simpler time, when Four Loko still had caffeine and college students like me had to book classes around the show’s schedule. With a decade in the rearview mirror, it’s not much of a stretch to say “Vanderpump Rules” is one of the most successful reality series of all time.
The cast’s web of sexual dalliances is vast and inscrutable. Most of them have cheated on at least one other cast member and just about all of them have been cheated on by another cast member. Sandoval and Madix came together after cheating revelations took down his longtime relationship with Kristin Doute, although this may have happened when Doute and Sandoval were still together (only the erstwhile night staff at the Golden Nugget knows for sure).
Sandoval and his business partner Tom Schwartz, currently entangled in a truly brutal divorce with Katie Maloney, have long benefitted from their friendship with Jax Taylor, whose moral bankruptcy made both Toms seem downright heroic by comparison. Without Taylor on the show, their reputations are suffering—and possibly their businesses.
“Vanderpump Rules” is the sexual revolution’s dark side, exaggerated for cable television but familiar to millennials hovering from 30,000 feet. Without marriage, children, homeownership, and other responsibilities, the cast wandered through their thirties drinking and cheating and influencing and regretting.
Katie desperately wanted to marry Tom Schwartz, despite the tumult in their relationship. He wanted to keep on keeping on. She drank too much, he cheated on her. Their marriage didn’t last. They sold their house and split custody of their dogs.
Ariana, on the other hand, never wanted to marry Sandoval. She wanted to be with him forever, but without the formality of marriage or ever having kids. He wanted marriage and children. They stayed together anyway, bought a house, got pets, and seemed content to go on like that. Obviously, he was not.
Madix and Sandoval have long touted their leftist values on the show. In some sense, it’s now clear Sandoval perfectly fits the stereotype of creepy male ally, suspiciously eager to prove his feminist bona fides as cover for bad behavior.
But in recent years, even self-styled progressives are slowly beginning to question “sex positivity.” Not two years ago, BuzzFeed News did a deep dive into whether the “sex positivity movement peaked,” reporting that “uneasiness with sex positivity is bubbling to the surface, especially in some Gen Z quarters.”
This isn’t to attribute all of the “Scandoval” drama to sexual struggles rather than reality television cameras. (It’s worth adding that two couples forced to leave the show, Stassi Schroeder and Beau Clark, and Brittany Cartwright and Jax Taylor, are now happily married with children.) But it’s fair to look at the raw emotional wreckage of Scandoval and point out that prioritizing sex and booze and work in your twenties and thirties is not a healthy cultural norm for America’s young professionals. It’s not a path to happiness.
The distinction between “merger marriages” and “start-up marriages” is an important one. I happen to think the orthodox Christian approach to life and marriage is the best path to fulfillment, but you needn’t share my faith to recognize the protection of monogamy and lifetime commitment is far superior to the anti-women norms of relationship-free sex, pre-marital cohabitation, and prolonged independence. That’s especially true in our difficult early years of adulthood, when the future is so dramatically uncertain.
Putting your whole heart (and your bank account) into a relationship that is not destined for marriage—despite one partner’s deep wish for it to go there—is a recipe for needless suffering. Putting off the legal and spiritual commitment of marriage until some distant point in the future is how people end up with the scars of casual sex, addiction, and awful breakups.
It’s really not all our fault, the millennial generation. It’s the norms set by Boomers, it’s deindustrialization, it’s student loan debt, it’s pornography, it’s tech, it’s everything. But we do have agency, and we can watch “Scandoval” play out with a fresh lens—one that sees some of our own mistakes in theirs, and one free of the smudging from decades of failed sexual conditioning.
This isn’t wild speculation, either. It’s backed up by centuries of human experience and decades of accumulating research. I’ll finish with a summary from Lyman Stone, who wrote about these very topics at the Institute for Family Studies just last week.
“It’s clear that American women are not getting what they want from their relationships. Many women are being nudged (whether by partners or society on the whole is unclear) into sexual unions and cohabitations they don’t see as ideal, “ he wrote. “Overwhelming majorities of women desire marriage, yet for many it never comes, or comes too late to have a child.”
“The dominant normative vision for relationship patterns erects high material burdens before childbearing, with the result that women feel that the costs of childbearing are insurmountable. And across several birth cohorts, American women don’t show much difference in their desired relationship sequences,” added Stone. “Premarital sex is not getting more popular over time, for example, and the average ideal relationship sequence is identical for every age group.”
There’s a better way.