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Terence Blacker: Sex Box is titillation that masquerades as serious television

We are being invited to take Channel 4's new idea far too seriously
  • @TerenceBlacker

Every generation likes to think that it has a more sophisticated attitude to sexual behaviour than those of the past. We look back with equal disapproval on the horny 1970s and the repressive 1950s, while the ignorance and hypocrisy of the Victorians continue to fascinate and amuse us. Behind it all, there is an assumption that we are relatively evolved in the area of sex. We have never had it so good.

Thanks to Channel 4’s “Campaign for Real Sex” season, we shall, this week , have the sharp pleasure of comparing the benighted attitudes of 60 years ago to our own more open approach. An American drama, Masters of Sex, will tonight tell the story of Dr William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who boldly pioneered research into sex during the 1950s. The same theme will be addressed in a more modern way in Sex Box, a show presented by Mariella Frostrup in which a couple will have sex on TV and in a studio, but out of sight and in a box.

We are being invited to take the sex-in-a-box idea very seriously.

According to Frostrup, the British have giggled about sex like public schoolboys behind a bike shed for too long – it is time for “a grown-up conversation”.

By contrast, Masters and Johnson will be served with an element of humour. Not only do they sound like a comic duo, but the period through which they lived is routinely associated with frustration and ignorance about sex. The idea of a male and female scientists solemnly studying people as they have it off, measuring and analysing their every twitch and groan, adds to the amusement. The best joke, though, lies in the couple’s delusion: they thought they were doing cool scientific work when in fact they were driven by their own prurient curiosity.

The pay-off line is that the fruits of their research, particularly into female sexuality, led to the unbridled erotomania of the late 1960s and 1970s, which may have caused as much private unhappiness as the frustrated 1950s. As Malcolm Muggeridge said at the time: “The orgasm has replaced the Cross as the focus of longing and the image of fulfilment.”

The obsession lives on today. On Channel 4, couples will still be having sex in the name of research but, rather than a couple of eager sexologists noting down the results, a “grown-up conversation” will then take place in front of a TV audience, in which the things they did and how they felt will be earnestly discussed.

People may know about more about what happens to the male and female body during coition but their confusion about the subject is as great as ever, and the double standards that they apply every bit as hypocritical.

In fact, the Masters and Johnson position  – arousal disguised as dispassionate curiosity  –   is now pretty much universal. Mariella Frostrup has accused critics of Sex Box of being prurient, but of course the whole programme is about prurience. Viewers are being invited to imagine the lubricious things happening on their screens yet tantalisingly out of sight.

There cannot have been an age quite as contradictory about sex as we are. Teenage girl singers are praised for expressing their individuality in pornified videos which are all about marketing. TV dramas dwell lovingly on stories of stalking and sexual violence while those who write and direct them claim – and might even believe – that they are not titillating at all but are addressing social issues.

There is an obsession with sex in the media, but stories, documentaries and reality shows are invariably presented with, and excused by, an utterly bogus tone of disapproval and moral virtue.

The culture may be more sexually active than it was in the days of Masters and Johnson, but it is also more hypocritical. When, in 50 years’ time, the Channel 4 of the day has a Campaign for Real Sex season, our age of twerking and inappropriate touching, of Mariella and her Sex Box, will deserve a comic drama of its own.

Could Pippa Middleton be – the new Fergie?

Now and then the luckless cohort of journalists whose job it is to report on the royal family likes to pick on a court villain, preferably a woman and not too close to the Queen. Her behaviour will be said to be causing concern among Palace insiders.

For years, the Duchess of York played the part, but she has recently stepped out of role. She is rather a  jolly individual, court correspondents have discovered. Besides, she may possibly re-marry Prince Andrew.

Then there was Princess Michael of Kent, who seemed perfect, being both foreign and independent-minded. Unfortunately, the princess is writing a series of historical novels and is less obviously a source of gossip.

The vacancy for a royal villain is, I suspect, about to be filled.

Prince William’s sister-in-law, Philippa Middleton, has been a favourite of the press in the past, but the mood towards her has been changing of late. This week’s photograph of her on a pheasant shoot, a row of dead birds at her feet, may just be the start.