Faster, Harder, Stupider

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The titlers of TV shows adore the word “real.” Maybe they believe it distracts from the illusion of the medium. There’s The Real World, Real Romance, Real TV, and, of course, nonstop televised reality. But what exactly is HBO implying when it calls its recurring triple-X documentary show Real Sex?

In 30 sporadic installments and counting—as well as plenty best-of specials—the adventurers at Real Sex have visited a range of ribald scenes, including a nude beauty contest, several orgasm workshops, and the road show of men who manipulate their penises for comic effects. Real sex, it appears, is orgiastic, and it demands stagecraft. By implication, the show consigns intercourse in private bedrooms to the status of false sex. In fact, the show is so mum on the subject of the intimate act that many know as “sex” that HBO’s producers seem to have repressed it.

But everyone has something they’re uptight about.“Real Sex 30: Down and Dirty,” which premiered last Friday, does not stray from the formula of the series. It offers strong sexual content, nudity, and adult content. And it sidelines quiet, monogamous people in favor of garrulous exhibitionists, most of whom have something to sell. The show features actual sex machines, a rentable studio for do-it-yourself porn movies, a boring awards show, and a traveling burlesque circus from New York.

First up are the machines, designed for the penetration and internal stimulation of women. Heavy on piston technology, a few of the Detroit-esque contraptions look like they ought to make machine parts—but they’re made of classily brushed aluminum, and they’re immaculate. Also available is a modified goat-milker (the farmer who shipped it was perplexed to hear that goats were being raised in San Francisco) and a whirling vibrator derived from a simple kitchen blender. HBO doesn’t shy from showing women using the machinery, most of which works on them as they recline in bed. The women seem pleased, though the proof of their pleasure comes largely in stock cutaways of palm-up hands twisting to clutch leopard-print bedspreads—and not from the women’s faces, which mostly convey surprise.

For context, HBO gives clips from vintage machine-themed pornography, including Flesh Gordon (1972) and an undated thriller called The Sex Life of Robots. In man-on-the-street interviews, women on the street are very in favor of the machines. Their escorts voice objections or avert their eyes.

Next is a stupefying, depressingly shot segment on London’s Erotic Oscars, an awards show at which cellulite-y strippers and weaselly whip-wielders cavort inconsequentially. Real Sex doesn’t start until 11, and it premiered on a work day, so I think there’s a good chance a lot of viewers fell asleep during Segment  No. 2. I did—and I had to watch it again on tape at 8 in the morning.

Real Sex then stops by a multiplex movie studio, at which amateurs pay to live out their fantasies before their own camera, hidden cameras, or a live cameraman. The tapes are theirs to keep for all time. As settings for goofball depravity, clients can choose among a Victorian room, a dungeon, a hospital, or a hay-happy barn. (“The dungeon always wins,” says the owner.)

On its last stop,“Real Sex 30” visits the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus—a neo-burlesque troupe that is a favorite of scholarly, free-spirited New Yorkers who are nostalgic for the freak-show heyday of Barnum and Coney Island. Unlike the usual overheated suburbanites who appear on Real Sex, the Cirkus members are self-conscious and worldly. The naked tightrope walker is also beautifully built. Ring mistress Philomena Bindlestiff does a shoulder stand, splits her legs, and manages to spin plates using her “vaginal muscles.” The others flounce around in a choreographed and cerebral way that involves off-white dildos, grease paint, gender-bending, a consciousness of the limitations of social roles, etc.

Does soft sociology provide an excuse to look at soft pornography? No doubt. In fiction and nonfiction, HBO has officially cornered the market on “gripping, revealing, and controversial,” as the HBO slogan goes. Under these three house pretexts, it is not only entertaining but also implicitly salutary to face the hard truth of stylized, pedantic violence or porn. And to really show your commitment to the facts of life, you can also go to the Web sites advertised on Real Sex to order your very own gripping sex machine or controversial Cirkus ticket.

Like many treatments of sex, Real Sex puts the viewer in a bind: To say it’s disgusting sounds like prudishness, but to claim it’s tedious is foolish bravado. (Vaginal tricks are old hat! I’ve seen faster sex pistons in my grandma’s old dungeon!) Still, both are true: The show is disgusting and tedious. Also, “Real Sex 30” made me mad. I kept thinking: This isn’t real! This isn’t sex! Sex is in beds with doors closed … sex is between tender and loving people … sex is not on HBO … sex is … somewhere else. I hope.