Box Seat

Sex miseducation: The messy history of TV’s most disappointing format

From shows like ‘Sex Box’ to Netflix’s latest ‘Sex: Unzipped’, there’s a fantasy about occupying the middle ground between public service broadcasting and pornography, writes Ed Cumming. But TV almost never nails it (as it were)

Monday 25 October 2021 13:04
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<p>How was it for you?: (clockwise, from top left) ‘Sex Pod’, ‘Sex Box’, ‘Sex Tape’, and  ‘The Sex Education Show’ </p>

How was it for you?: (clockwise, from top left) ‘Sex Pod’, ‘Sex Box’, ‘Sex Tape’, and ‘The Sex Education Show’

The topic of sex ed is a kind of cursed mountain looming over television. Every producer looks up at it and thinks, “I’ll have a crack at that”. There’s a fantasy about occupying the middle ground between public service broadcasting and pornography. The dream is enormous, the prize tremendous. Maybe there’s a way, they think, in their meetings, of having the sex cake without also having to eat the smutty cream. If they just get the mix right, adults will discuss adult matters in an adult manner, with just the right blend of humour and information.

It never works. It’s a mirage. The slopes of sex mountain are studded with the corpses of the programmes that have tried and failed. The watershed makes things difficult, but not as much as the sex does. Remember The Sex Education Show with Anna Richardson? Or Sex Tape, where couples filmed themselves doing it and discussed what they could improve on, like a tennis player watching videos of their ball toss? Or Sex Pod, where brave young people were sent into a portacabin to describe their intimate hopes and fears? If there is anything scarier than discussing your sex life in a portacabin, it’s describing your sex life in a portacabin on Channel 5.

Most egregious of all, nearly so bad it was good again, although sadly not quite, was Channel 4’s cringeathon Sex Box, in which Mariella Frostrup and a group of “sexperts” – what’s the collective noun, a giggle? – invited brave real-life couples to come on stage, so to speak, and shag in a box. Afterwards they would emerge a little flushed, if they were lucky, or calm and collected, if they weren’t, as though a fire alarm had gone off in the hotel, and submit to interview questions. If it sounds awkward written down, it’s nothing compared to the hide-under-the-sofa of watching it. A decade later, my toes are still curled, like a T rex.

The latest addition to this dubious canon is Sex: Unzipped, on Netflix. In theory it gives the format a 2021 do-over, embracing the full contemporary panoply of sex and gender and tastes and kinks. But it basically admits defeat on arrival by delegating all the difficult material to sex positive puppets, like horny muppets, who interact with the host, the rapper Saweetie, and act out the required acts. Speaking of horny muppets, there are also a giggle of sexperts and a number of stand-up comedians, hired for their experience in awkwardness. There’s Mae Martin, London Hughes and Romesh Ranganathan, perhaps behind on his mandated 10,000 hours of programming per year. They rattle through grooming and permission and virginity and kinks.

The programme grudgingly nods to traditional hetero norms, but you sense they’d really rather not: it’s boring, isn’t it? A man and a woman, lights off, face to face. But that’s the thing: it’s all boring. Sex chat is a cousin of medical chat, better conducted in private with someone who knows what they are doing rather than aired over dinner. There’s still a silent titter behind it all, a “look at us talking about this stuff”. Who is it for? Is it you? Do you want a talking head telling you to w***? Are there nervous young people waiting for the permission that will be granted to them by watching Romesh Ranganathan talk about delaying his climax? Do viewers crave a puppet caricature of a middle-aged Jewish New Yorker doctor urging you to pay sex workers double? I’ve never longed more ardently for a zip.

Sex: Unzipped makes the same mistake as the other programmes and conflates privacy with taboo. Katherine Ryan is a fine comic. I didn’t need to know that she is hairless, from the eyebrows down, like an egg. Still, it’s reassuring that the Americans are just as bad as the Brits. Our aversion to this material is not some buttoned-up, English, Carry On up the telly peccadillo. At the least, it’s a buttoned-up transatlantic problem.

Rapper Saweetie discusses sex with a set of puppets in ‘Sex: Unzipped’

Successful factual sex programmes are the ones that work like any other documentary, by finding extraordinary cases and treating them respectfully. It’s often still prurient, but there’s at least a veneer of respectability. Dogging Tales, or Me and My Sex Doll, make universal points by concentrating on specific examples. Extreme behaviours are interesting. The sex lives of most people, unlike the sex lives of Normal People, mostly aren’t, whatever their preferences.

The irony in all this, of course, is that Netflix already has a perfectly good sex education programme around: Sex Education. It doesn’t ram the info down your throat. It doesn’t need to tell you that it’s fine to cover yourself in Marmite and get on the bouncy castle, if that’s your thing. It just shows people trying to find a way to be in the world, in all the messy ways that happens. It’s more instructive than a puppet telling you it’s fine to put things up your bum. (They would say that, wouldn’t they?)

In Britain, the third series was as popular as Squid Game, although it received about 0.1 per cent of the attention. We are as obsessed with sex as ever, but some things are best left to fiction.

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