Sometimes, you have to wonder what goes through the thick skulls of commissioning editors and TV executives. Times like when Alcatraz was cancelled but Once Upon A Time mangled itself into a second season (although I’m assured by those in the know that the latter improves significantly). Or when The History Channel decided that Giorgio Tsoukalos was a credible expert and when Horizon decided to ask some very interesting questions about science, and then answer them by asking the very same question again but just slightly re-worded. The back-room machinations of television frequently addle me with frustration. And so it occurred once again when I accidentally caught some of Channel 4’s Sex Box while waiting impatiently one day for some porn to download.*
What is wrong with the show? Besides everything, of course. Well, it’s taken me a while to get to it (yeah, I’m a couple of weeks late from Channel 4’s “Real Sex” season, but I’d rather be right than timely), but I think I’ve figured out why it’s so objectionable and quite literally the worst thing ever (okay, not literally). Not because I think frank and open discussions of sex on television is a bad thing, leave that to the Daily Mail comments board, but just because I don’t particularly think this constitutes frank and open discussion of sex on television.
Let’s start with the format. The idea is that a couple will have sex in the studio, albeit not televised and completely locked away in a soundproof room, and then talk about it afterwards (although, let’s be honest here, if you can talk afterwards, you’re blatantly doing it wrong). Studio-based shows are infamously cheap filler. The presenters may change their shirt every episode, but that doesn’t mean the episodes weren’t pumped (do feel free to drink for every vaguely dirty word) out in quick succession in a day. This nice, controlled, contrived and predictable environment is just one of the reasons that so many TV shows are studio-based. In minimises all the fuss and uncertainty. But you can’t imagine for a moment that the Sex Box concept wouldn’t be significantly improved if instead of being in a clean, sterile, windowless room that might only be of interest to medical fetishists, the participating couples did the old in-out-in-out in the comfort of their own home, with their own toys, in their own bedsheets (or sofas, or kitchens, or their flatmate’s bed, you know…) and then discussed it over a coffee in their own living room. But no, that would be expensive. Location teams, relighting indoor scenes, and pouring over the documentary footage is a pain in the ass, and that costs more money than even a fairly nifty set and a week of studio rental time. And of course, “Couples Have Sex In Their Own Home” doesn’t make for as catching a headline as “Couples Have Sex Live In The Studio”. Even if that headline is mostly lies as it’s pre-recorded and the sex isn’t televised at all. Which leads to the immediate conclusion that this was never about discussing sexual attitudes openly, and everything about grabbing a headline or courting controversy in advance.
But that’s a relatively minor gripe, really. I could apply that to half of television. What about the concept itself?
The idea that couples are more open to talking about sex after having it seems to be plausible theory. But like all good theories, it needs to stand up to observation, and it’s clear that it doesn’t after all of about, I dunno, about 18 seconds of watching an interview. The post-coital chats are about as awkward as any pre-coital chats, or any chats so far removed from coitus that giving the chat a temporal location based around coitus seems somewhat inanely redundant. The responses to questions like “what did you do?” seem to largely revolve around “well, we, erm… err… we did some foreplay… then, erm, kinda did it…” But, you know, that’s vanilla sex for you. It’s about as eventful and enlightening as teaching atheism on the National Curriculum. The retarded questions are delivered by stealth, such as asking a lesbian couple “what are the most irritating/clichéd questions you’re asked?” as a way to get around asking those irritating, clichéd questions in the first place. And far from being frank and open the discussion is so general that, really, once the time is up you realise what you’ve really done is spent 10% of the time listening to a couple “um” and “ah” and 90% of the time listening to Dan Savage** being so bloody post-modern that he may as well classify “blinking at someone in a funny way” as full-on sex.
Clearly, that particular theory doesn’t hold out – although the theory that the format was devised purely for the headlines it would create seems increasingly plausible. You see, the way to get a frank and open discussion about sex is just to talk to people who are comfortable having those discussions. There’s no trick to make “real” people want this, you just have to find the “real” people who do in the first place. You can find them, and clearly a few
contestants (no, wait, that’s for the next section) participants are like that. But certainly one of the most reliable methods for generating frank and open discussions about sex is to find some sex-positive feminists and feed them white wine (not red, and not after midnight***).
Then there’s the “expert” angle. Sex experts, or “sexperts” in the trendy lingo, confuse me massively. I fail to see how someone becomes an expert in the topic, particularly when few are ever worth their salt. Take Cosmopolitan’s One True Way of having sex that they promote while pushing their 50 Moderately Warm Tips For Medicore Sex That Will Utterly Fail To Blow Your Mind – it doesn’t matter how much these “experts” claim that Position X “gives the woman control over the depth of penetration” when it’s blatantly obvious from the pastel coloured silhouette demonstrating it that she’ll be more “sweet Jesus my calf muscles are about to go…”
But more specifically, the presence of “experts” raises sex up on a pedestal and turns it into a competition that you must be good at – and more specifically, you must be good at in the way we tell you. Experts are like priestly gatekeepers to knowledge, and in an almost priestly way they guard that knowledge and release it in return for you prostrating yourself to them. It turns sex almost into a religion in some respects. And so,
participants contestants (yep, this is the right section) emerge from the Dreaded Sex Box to lay down in Judgement from The Panel. Separated by a sharp division, the Experts, the Judges sit there like rejects from Dragons Den while the contestants submit to Judgement. Okay, so that makes it sound overly dramatic and ever so slightly kinky, but purely from the point of view of the visual cues, this gulf of separation between Interviewer and Interviewee makes the relationship immediately more like Judges and the Judged. Surely, this poor setup intimidates people away from frank discussions, undoing any effect having the chat post-sex could have, and surely the overarching concept would instead be better served by a round-table discussion over a cup of tea. Or coffee. Or wine. Or a burger. Or whatever takes your fancy, really. Just not this forced and artificial crap.
*Of course this isn’t true. It’s a facetious lie used for comic effect. I actually stream my pornography.
**In fairness, Savage’s tip that straight couples could learn from gay couples by asking “what are you into?” is reasonable advice. Although one person’s profound wisdom is another’s blatantly obvious.
***They form slimy cocoons and emerge a day later as second-wavers.