British broadcaster Channel 4, in the seeming death throes of its ‘edgy’ relevancy, has taken to resurrecting taboos just so it can break them. Its recently launched ‘Campaign for Real Sex’ aims to get us all to open up about our sex lives, but as much as the channel’s producers - whom one assumes operate from a sealed bunker somewhere in the 1940s - try to convince us there’s an elephant in the bedroom, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that nowadays sex is everywhere, and we talk about it non-stop.
The programme that has been getting the most attention in C4’s season is Sex Box, a surreal, rather hellish chat show aired in a series of episodes last week. The show was founded on the bizarre idea that, while we all enjoy a bit of the nasty, as a society we’re just too prudish, too embarrassed - too British, perhaps - to discuss it. In the name of encouraging healthier, more fulfilling sex, agony aunt Mariella Frostrup invites couples to have sex in a giant grey shed, before stumbling out, all tousled and smiley, to talk about it with three eminent sexperts in front of a live studio audience.
At first, its strikes you as a noxiously smug affair in which a string of couples get a chance to brag about their wonderfully fulfilling sex lives. Meanwhile, the panel ask a few probing questions about who put what where, before they settle into congratulating the couple on being so well-adjusted and loved up.
Nevertheless, Sex Box still maintains it has more to add to the nation’s stunted conversation about sexuality. Not only does it fearlessly smash yet more deep-seated taboos by inviting a gay couple on - shock horror! – but it also attempts to tease out the wider issues affecting our sex lives today. Apparently, the explosion of online pornography, hook-up websites and the rampant levels of smut in music videos, TV shows and films have warped ideas about sex, especially for the generation raised in this newly ‘pornified’ world.
The great irony is that, in truth, it is this compulsion to ‘open up’, to air all of our questionably stained laundry and offer our experiences up for public discussion, that has fostered today’s crisis of intimacy. Indeed, the very concept of a sex box quite literally turns sex into an object, stripping it of anything other than its immediate, physical component. While the box may be, in Frostrup’s words, a ‘private, clean and sound-insulated space’, the lack of graphic action on display missed the point. As the sexperts harped on about sex as a ‘stress reliever’ or a ‘conduit to intimacy’, Sex Box painted sexuality as something cold and mechanical. The rise of this new effusive culture has turned sex into something purely instrumental, a tool for maintaining our relationships, feeling good about ourselves, or just getting our jollies. This not only devalues its more traditional, monogamous associations; it also undermines it even for those who choose to transgress. Experimentation from this perspective becomes just meaningless, another expression of our need for merely physical satisfaction.