HBO Freshens Up Real Sex for Round 2 With Sex/Now

HBO HBO's Real Sex

Here is a triptych for you: HBO’s Real Sex and Cathouse flanking an image of Sue Johanson, Oxygen’s Talk Sex educator, adorned with a halo. These three shows are ostensibly about sex, but I’ve never found them sexy — which doesn’t mean I don’t love them, because I do. They celebrate the plain dealing of sex: This couple is hairy and lumpy, and they have found another lumpy, hairy person to join them in their lovemaking; this is Air Force Amy, a prostitute in Nevada who seems ambivalent about her profession; here is a woman in her 70s who is crazy — CRAZY! — about cock rings. You know how Black Panties made Wesley Morris feel? These shows don’t make you feel that way.

Unless you are Chris Moukarbel, the director behind Me @ the Zoo and a modernized version of Real Sex titled Sex/Now, debuting on HBO on January 2. Moukarbel told Vulture that besides being educational, Real Sex “was also my porn! It was hot for me as a kid, and the more I talked about it with people, the more I realized that this was a common experience that a lot of people had with the show.” Really? This? Real Sex began in the ’90s as essentially an effort (produced by a “mostly female team”) to destigmatize sex in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, making it goofy and accessible. Interviews with people on the street made it more effective at forcing you, the person embarrassed to be watching it at 11 p.m. at a low volume, to wonder why you were too ashamed to to admit to having sex in an Arby’s. On the one hand, the subjects of Real Sex seemed pretty out there — besides being sexually liberated enough to go to swingers camp and discuss their love for RealDolls with a documentary crew, they didn’t seem to mind changing underpants in public places without the curtains drawn (!). But they also looked like normal people, not XXX stars, and they all seemed to have good senses of humor.

Some of the people brave enough to allow themselves to be featured on Real Sex can’t bear to watch their episodes. Though the show aired through 2009, there was something ineffably ’90s about it. It’s vintage, pre-Wi-Fi, and whimsically dated. The ’90s, man! That decade now looks like a class project you dug up from your backyard, belonging to the olden times. If you were among Real Sex‘s live viewership, you may have once phoned a buddy on a landline to discuss the unGoogleable people bending silverware with their asses on your boxy, heavy television set. It was like watching funny porn performed by character actors: You weren’t sure exactly why you had it on, except that it kind of made you feel good, like sex health food.

But it was still food. You chewed it. It made you feel a certain way. Talk Sex with Sue was more of an erotic vitamin-mineral supplement: Just swallow the information, don’t go rolling it over your taste buds. It’s not that septuagenarians aren’t attractive or anything, but hearing Sue, a self-described “ham,” talk sexy to you was kind of like watching two lizards make out. (If anyone near you has ears, wait to check her out on the topic of “choda.”) You wondered what had brought you there (to Oxygen, at night) to hear disembodied voices ask this senior citizen for advice on their various bedroom issues, and then to wonder if Johanson enjoyed a cock-ring kickback. Could you learn a thing or two? Of course! Sue was graphic and practical, not to mention charming. It was adult sex ed as filtered through crackling personal anecdotes and plaid vests, though. A boner party it was not. But it was some kind of party.

You’d think Cathouse would have been the opposite. It wasn’t. Despite boasting musical and Best Of editions, Cathouse makes you feel like you’re covered in polyester lint. The upbeat soundtrack and sorority-like bonding never made brothel life at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch look appealing — despite their enthusiasm, I always had doubts about why each of the women was there in the first place, or why they stayed. Air Force Amy, the veteran, was the protagonist by default because she was the most compelling, and her face over the show’s run seemed to tell a kind of depressing tale. Who knows how much of it is projection — Amy had been in the game a long time, and there are both realistic and imaginative associations that go along with that. Prostitutes can’t be top earners forever, and maybe Amy was feeling competitive with the younger Moonlite Bunnies toward the end. It was still fascinating, but more as a drama than as sexy programming. If that’s why you happened by Cathouse, you zoned out during the lounge and escort selection scenes and just watched the money shots. Being a faithful viewer felt like being stuck on a very long, very sad Taxicab Confessions ride across the entire state of Nevada.

What Sex/Now might be — and what Real Sex was when we wore orthodontia — is a racier, niche version of MTV’s True Life. Casting shows for sex appeal is almost blasé at this point, and the more attractive the housemates of The Real World are, the more they seem pregroomed for reality fame (and thus boring). There’s TV sex — glossy, serious, a performance — and then there’s Real Sex, which offered a thrill that, even when it wasn’t titillating, was accessible and personal and permissive. It was celebratory in a way that made you feel like a prude, and 20 years later we still haven’t quite reconciled the sight of normal bodies — whether they look like our own or even slightly less toned and spray-tanned — with what we think of as sexually attractive. The shock at someone disrobing casually and then wielding a vibrator under unflattering lights was followed by a kind of envy: Oh, so they’re just cool with themselves in the extreme. Most of us are not.

Should we be? Maybe, although on camera, it might not be for everyone. (You know, if you have a sensitive employer or a grandmother who’s not out playing bingo with Sue Johanson on Friday nights.) But Real Sex has an enduring legacy for those of us who grew up in the shadow of AIDS, as well as those of us growing up with Grindr and Tinder, which may feature in the new show. Sex — the kind you have, not the kind you download — is still awkward, and funny, and awesome. It requires an eventual loosening of inhibitions despite the cautiousness with which we approach it. After all the precautions (the condoms, the emotional screening of partners, the waiting, the deliberating, the judiciously unsent sexts and selfies), sex exists in a primordial form. It is wearing glasses and a low ponytail, or it takes place in a clitoral exploration class, or it’s happening under melted chocolate fondue. Caught at the right time, Real Sex made you eye your neighbors suspiciously: So, everyone was secretly kinky, even the rumpled oldsters buying Funyuns ahead of you in line. It seems like such an obvious message (of course most people have sex!), but it was revelatory, and in many ways still is and probably always will be.

Filed Under: HBO