Sex Box: yes, it’s controversial; but it’s also inspirational, warm and honest

Phillip Hodson, a panellist on Channel 4’s new show, explains the aim of the series: not to titillate, but to tell the truth about our love lives.  Published by the Observer London, September 30th 2013.

Commentators have favoured two words to tell the world why Channel 4 commissioned the forthcoming programme Sex Box – the show where couples make love in a private space then talk through their feelings with a panel afterwards.  Those words are “titillation” and “ratings”.  As a psychotherapist and Sex Box panellist who’s supported the production from the outset, I’d like to explain why it was actually made.

There were three challenges – how to find and keep an audience for a serious discussion about British sex life; how to reclaim the sexual truth from the lies of pornography, and how to counter the cultural inhibitions that I know from my consulting room still cause much relationship misery.

Since there’s little point in broadcasting to empty sofas, Channel 4 rightly chose an innovative format to gain an audience.  But titillation is surely in the mind of the beholder?  The sex in the box is private and discreet to ensure that the subsequent discussion may be open and explicit.  In normal life, people make love all over the place (even in Green Rooms) and carry their own equipment around for the purpose.  Of course the studio context is not usual.  But just as pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson endlessly monitored people making love in the lab, so this programme aims to see whether couples in a post-coital glow are better able to recall, share and communicate their joy in sex than otherwise.  The box was created to enable fresh honesty – and if you watch the programme on October 7th I think you might agree that it succeeds.

But even if you don’t, the production creates the opposite of pornography because you truthfully get to see no action at all.  And while I’m very clear that most porn is a conspiracy of exaggeration and distortion for a quick buck, I do not believe we can get rid of it and there’s one plus.  You will never need to explain the physical mechanics of sex to anyone ever again.  The makers of IPorn and YouPorn have comprehensively funded this entire level of sex education for us by pure accident.

As for the rest of our sexual knowledge, I still worry for Britain. Yes, in my lifetime we’ve seen the rise of the first generation of free women on the planet who need no male permission to bed, wed, bank or wank.  But on the other hand, we remain the cultural victims of a legacy of imperial inhibition and sexism.  How else to explain the persistence of our Benny Hill style giggling at sex, or that ‘Carry On’ gasp at the glimpse of a nipple?  I refuse to believe that any other country in the world would find it even faintly amusing to call a sitcom “Bottom”. And that’s before we consider the corrupting impact of our disreputable love affair with Commander James Bond RN.

As a fictional construct, 007 naturally cannot speak for himself but the franchise is now so huge, even an established novelist like William Boyd has been persuaded to add his literary support to the genre.  But what wisdom about sex does Bond’s originator, Ian Fleming, put into the mouth of his senescent swordsman?

While re-reading the novels earlier this summer I found this tell-all quote opening a paragraph: “Most women enjoy semi-rape”.  For the rest, Fleming makes Bond sound like a founder member of UKIP cataloguing his male insecurities on a range of subjects from too many women in the workplace to too many women driving fast cars.  (What a shame Auric Goldfinger prematurely extinguished that laser beam!)

So I contend there are strains and stains in the mainstream media that we should be rather more embarrassed about sexually than whether Channel 4 has pushed the boundaries too far with SEX BOX.   I also suggest in their rise to snap judgement that some critics have forgotten how rarely television explores and examines sexual norms.  Extreme fetishes yes – vanilla bed-styles no. In fact there’s an entire missing conversation about what actually happens during the sex lives of the silent majority.  And I further suggest that some of this information is invaluable.

These are some of the facts I mean.  We all have a drive for sex that lasts most of a lifetime.  Sex is not the most important thing in the world except when it goes wrong.  None of us is born knowing how to make love, we must be taught.  Most of us eventually have sex within a formal relationship but there’s a conflict between intimacy and eroticism as well as a connection.  Frequency of sex with a regular partner inevitably declines UNLESS you do something about it.  Much of the sex you have in life will be with yourself.  Love is blind so you can fall for anyone of any sex at any time.  Desire for others is not extinguished by marriage or cohabitation.  Pre-marital sex is no longer a moral issue (everyone does it) but extra-marital sex remains an unresolved area of British hypocrisy.  (In surveys we condemn it; in practice we don’t).  Normal sexual identity covers a menu of lifestyle permutations.  According to Freud, when two people make love there are at least four people present, the two doing it and the two they are thinking about (ie, it’s normal to fantasise).  Great sex is rare – except in the movies.  Good sex starts in the brain and requires you to imagine what it must be like to be in bed with you – and then ensure both parties have the best of possible times.  When we feel empty inside what we often need is love and sex not burgers and chocolate.  There’s a direct link between eating too much and sexual frustration, as also between sexual frustration and ideological extremism.

And exactly how far did our programme cover this agenda?  I can’t reveal too much but have to say that for a sex show that’s meant to be chatty and friendly it more than managed.  The couples were motivated, indeed inspirational.  The panel (me, Tracey Cox, Dan Savage) moderated by the Observer’s very own whispering Dame Mariella all stopped “doing telly” and just enjoyed the talk. It occasionally felt like a revivalist camp and the audience were emotionally absorbed.  The gay couple had come to demonstrate that their love was just like yours and mine – but so had the straights.

As the panel’s resident old fart, what I found especially fascinating was the testimony from this younger generation of lovers that their routine exposure to pornography had not in fact destroyed their sense of loyalty and love.  Yes, they may have been slightly more blasé than my dear Mama would have wished when it came to saying things like “We’d try a threesome”.  They don’t do innocence.  But you know what, I heard the same stuff when I was rocketing around permissive London in the 70s.  And in the vast scheme of things the major issues confronting modern Britain do not include the prevalence of group sex among the under-30s.

Sex Box is not a visual agony column (despite the presence of columnists) or a therapy show for those suffering from dysfunctions.  It’s just a frank chat. If I had to sum it up I’d reach for words like “unexpected”, “slightly surreal”, “moving” and “sometimes edgy”.  The most interesting question to emerge was common to all the participants: “How do we keep the sexual spark going for a lifetime?”  Given last week’s news that Britain now has the highest rate of divorce in the EU, it’s not an unworthy enquiry.

You may worry about bats and badgers.  What we actually need in this country is a relationship conservation plan for the human animal.   Psychotherapist Phillip Hodson is the author of “How ‘Perfect’ Is Your Partner?” (Carroll and Brown)

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