Sex Box: Can TV ever take sex seriously and without titillation?

There is something inescapably voyeuristic about this piece of reality TV

We know what you’re doing. At least we think we do. Part of the trouble with Channel 4’s planned Sex Box programme is that it wants – if you’ll pardon the expression – to have it both ways. It aims to titillate viewers with the idea that couples will be having live sex during the show. But it also wants the couples to do it privately, in what it describes as “an opaque box”, from which they will emerge to discuss the finer points of their congress with four sexperts.

The programme-makers have talked a good apologia. The hour-long programme, to be screened next month, is part of a Campaign For Real Sex season, which aims to scrutinise the way pornography is changing contemporary attitudes to sexuality. The intention is to “reclaim sex” from the porn-merchants.

There’s a lot to be said for that. There is growing evidence that teenage boys, and girls, are inheriting a biologically-perverse sexual narrative from online porn. Sex on the web invariably ends with the man ejaculating on the woman’s face in what the industry calls “the money shot” – presumably because the filmmakers have decided that such a graphically vivid climax is more likely to induce pay-per-screw viewers to enter their credit card details. There is something unsatisfactory, the money men have decreed, about an out-of-sight penetrative conclusion. Surveys have shown that some teenagers now think this is normal.

Mariella Frostrup, who will present the programme, is right when she says: “The sex we increasingly see online bears little relation to the real experiences of real people”. So offering a “real sex” corrective to all this is laudable. But this does not answer the question of what is added by the opaque soundproofed sex box. It brings an immediacy to the discussion, say the producers. But they could achieve that by interviewing the couples in their own homes.

There is something inescapably voyeuristic about the box in the studio. The live studio audience will bring an additional dimension to the titillation as Peeping Toms who can’t quite see what is going on. Their implied speculation will add an additional frisson to the proceedings, just in case what is really happening in the box is that the couple are bickering about whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher.

In the end whether or not the programme succeeds will have nothing to do with the stimulation simulation of the sex box. It will turn entirely on the quality of the discussion which Ms Frostrup, a  skilled and intelligent journalist, teases from the participants. Of course without the “live sex in the studio” the programme would provoke no outraged letters from Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells about this being a new low for British broadcasting. And nor would I be giving it publicity here.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor in Public Ethics & Media at the University of Chester