Casting a sceptical eye on sex, media and politics

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The strange prudishness of Channel 4's Sex Box

“Couples speak openly and honestly about sex within a loving relationship,” Mariella Frostrup tells us as she opens the show, and suddenly we’re stuck in a curtain-twitching socially-conservative moral rut.

Sex Box with Mariella Frostrup.
Sex Box with Mariella Frostrup.

Sometimes the most memorable elements of a TV show are the things that aren’t there, like Captain Mainwaring’s wife in Dad’s Army, or the eponymous Charlie in Charlie’s Angels. This was presumably the logic behind the production of Sex Box, a television show about people having sex on TV, in which people emphatically do not have sex on TV. 

The premise is simple. Mariella Frostrup leads a loved-up couple to a giant box on the studio stage. The couple have sex in it, while Mariella goes to have a bit of a chat with her friends, who happen to be ‘experts’ – for a rather broad definition of the word – in the field of sex. After a while the couple finish having sex, leave the box, and stand awkwardly holding hands while Mariella asks them how it went.  Then they all head back to the sofas for another natter.

Let’s get the box out of the way first. Because the box is opaque, all the cameras show is a large box sitting on stage. Perhaps two people are having sex inside. Perhaps they’re not. Perhaps, like Schrödinger’s Cat, they exist in an uncertain quantum state of both having sex and not having sex, only collapsing into one or the other when observed by a Mariella Frostrup. We don’t know, because it’s just – literally - a big fucking box.

The participants could just as easily have had sex in the dressing room. Or a nearby hotel. Or at home, before leaving for the studio. Why do they need to be interviewed immediately after the act? It bring to mind sports presenters shoving microphones in the faces of hot, sweaty, exhausted athletes after a race, demanding coherent answers from some poor oxygen-deprived sod who blatantly just wants a shower and a cup of tea and a bit of a sit down. The last thing I want to do after sex is talk to Mariella Frostrup. I don’t even want to talk to whoever I just had sex with.

It’s not like Channel 4 normally shies away from explicit content. This is the channel that broadcast Eurotrash and Big Brother - the latter basically is Sex Box, just in a bigger box with cameras in it. I’m not saying that they should have filmed the sex – I can watch porn for that - but without it the box is obviously contrived; an anti-theatrical device that exists only to justify the title and the nudge-nudge PR. It may as well have been called ‘sex chat’, except then they’d probably get sued by a disgruntled 0909 number.

So on the one hand, the central premise of the show is bollocks…or the absence of them at least. On the other hand, it provides a much needed opportunity to talk about sex on television. This is vital, because of the great sex paradox that exists in Britain: that even as we’re becoming an increasingly sexualized society, the parameters of ‘acceptable’ sexuality are growing narrower, with people under increasing pressure to conform to specific ideals of body image and ‘good’ sex.

Unfortunately, the same paradox cripples Sex Box. “Couples speak openly and honestly about sex within a loving relationship,” Mariella tells us as she opens the show, and suddenly we’re stuck in a curtain-twitching socially-conservative moral rut. For all the sex talk and heavy-handed nods to diversity – an old couple, a black couple, a gay couple, a disabled couple - this is a show about two people who look the same and love each other having sex behind firmly closed doors. 

That raises some interesting questions about what really is and isn’t taboo on television. Mariella's narration asserted that what happens during gay sex is taboo, but the panel were still willing and able to discuss it openly on television with a gay couple who had just had sex. In contrast, there was no room here for fuck buddies, or for any discussion of sex outside the context of a loving two-person relationship – polyamory for example. Can you imagine a similar show based around a ‘wank box’- or ‘masturbatorium’ if you prefer - ever being commissioned?  No, thought not.

Weirder still, given the obvious focus on diversity, was that it seemed each mate had to be paired with someone who looked the same - black with black, white with white, disabled with disabled, gay with gay, old with old - as if God had told Noah to run a sex cruise. It's hard to understand the logic behind this, and by the end of the show it felt more than a little forced and discomfiting. 

This wasn’t as bad a show as the last seven hundred words suggest. In fact, it stands out as one of the better shows about sex to be broadcast in recent years, which perhaps says more about the paucity of sensible, grown up discussion of sex in the media. Yes, at times it felt like the televisual equivalent of Heat in a fancy-dress lab coat, and it’s easy to sneer at the gimmick because, well, it’s a gimmick; but it’s good to see Channel 4 broadcast a show in which people can talk openly with a reasonably expert panel about sex. Dan Savage was particularly impressive, and it was good to see the panelists tackling the various potential definitions of ‘sex’, a word that can rightly mean very different things to different people.

The great misfortune of Sex Box is that in testing the limits of television’s prudishness, it brings that barrier into stark relief. We can have sex on TV, but only if it’s hidden in a box. We can talk openly about sex, but it has to be in the context of a loving relationship. We can explore the sexual relationship between two people, but not three or four. We can discuss gay sex, but we still can’t quite cope with bisexuals.  For all its talk of challenging taboos, Channel 4 is as obedient to them as ever.