Plenty of television viewers got their first exposure to many sexual practices and communities on HBO. From 1990 all the way up to 2009, “Real Sex” brought feminist porn, sploshing (AKA wet and messy fetishism), and the love of latex into living rooms. On January 2, 2014, HBO is ringing in the new year with a new series, “SEX // NOW,,” a “Real Sex” for the Tumblr generation.
Indiewire sat down with “SEX // NOW,” director Chris Moukarbel, whose “Me @ the Zoo” was acquired by HBO several years ago, to talk about the new series, which is just as simultaneously titillating and serious as you’d want it to be.
So what made you decide to bring sex docs back to HBO?
I had this longstanding love of “Real Sex” in terms of what it represented to me as a kid. I think a lot of people had that experience with the show, with what Patti Kaplan [who made “Real Sex”] was doing — articulating what was happening with sex culture in America. At the time she started that show, it was the height of AIDS. People were looking for a way to talk about sex that wasn’t full of fear and stigma. What we’re experiencing now is a similar moment, where sex is an important subject and something people want to discuss.
I think the way that internet technology mediates our lives and our relationships is changing the way we talk about sex. HBO is obviously a great place to bring a program like that. Sheila Nevins did a great thing right off the bat with “Real Sex,” she realized that people would be drawn to the racy content, but also, the format was new. This was proto-reality tv. People were responding to real content, but also responding to the form of the content. In a lot of ways, people turn to the internet for what feel like real stories. When we make a show called “Sex Now” today, it’s already about the internet.
So “Real Sex” wasn’t made in a historical vacuum, but what is the context that “Sex Now” is coming out of? What’s your read on how the mainstream media talks about sex?
I think various sexual practices are far more widely acknowledged than they once were. We’ve come really far, in terms of being open to sexual variety. On one hand, it’s an indication that our culture is more open. But also, I think sex is equally exploited in other ways. I don’t know if it’s the mainstream media or if it’s because humans are susceptible to images of sex. It’s often low-hanging fruit.
Because of the Internet, people have access to imagery and alternative perspectives to sex culture that they would never have before. Especially young people are open to having conversations about different perspectives on sex. I think sex is a conversation — a nonverbal conversation — and it’s shaped by the Internet as all parts of culture are.
At the moment, the show is on a single episode order. What made you decide to start the series with web cam shows?
One episode I always loved from “Real Sex” was about peep shows. The peep show is really traditional sexual entertainment/sex work. The model is behind the glass wall and the curtain is up or down, based on whether or not you’re paying. Of all types of sex work, I think it would have been least likely to survive after the rise of the internet. But the closest thing we have is the cam model. It shifts the power from the client to the sex worker. It’s something that’s happening that’s inspiring in a certain way.
You have people that might have done sex work that’s more risky doing this. You’re essentially crowdsourcing sex work — getting individual dollars from a lot of people. It was a nice example of technology being used for good, changing the playing field. In an industry that has slanted power towards men, or the people who are paying for the services, this gave power to the sex worker. If someone’s being rude, they can be blocked.
One of the more popular arguments about the internet and our social lives is that the internet is making us more distant, more distracted, less social. How do you feel about that?
I think culture happens everywhere. The internet won’t stop it. What we’re seeing with the internet and apps, we see alternative forms of culture. On the one hand, Grindr has killed street cruising and it has affected people’s need to go to bars — and I think that’s a loss. On the other hand, people who live in a very remote area, it’s giving them an opportunity to meet other people — they’re finding ways to communicate with people that are similar to them that they might not have known about that have access to the internet and these apps.
We also need to remember that we’re in the middle of all of this. This might be the first step in a long series of developments. We might look back at this period as The Ramble in Central Park — this might be seen as everything being up for grabs. It can be really liberating for some people. Sure, there are addictions, and there are people who abuse situations. But there are opportunities for healthy relationships, in some cases, that haven’t been there before.
There are also people who think that the pornification of our culture that the internet has brought us is making us obsessed with sex and, again, making us worse lovers. Is that also something you’re contending with?
I don’t think there’s such a thing as talking about sex too much. I
think that exposure to sexual images can. I think what used to be
stimulating in terms of sexual imagery in a lot of ways now becomes
commonplace, and not so much titillating. We’re more about celebrating alternative sexual cultures and
experiences and allowing them to have voice and opportunity to tell
their stories. The questions around sex addiction and sex
pathology have always existed. They’ll change and they’ll adapt with
time. There are dangers with people not being able to find sexual
fulfillment in real life. We’re not addressing it on the show, but I
think about it a lot. I want people to have these questions. Porn is
the most obvious culture of sex on the intenret, and it expresses itself
in the most explicit way. There are ways that people find sexual
fulfillment on the internet that are not pornographic.
How do you think people feel about the idea of bringing back sex on HBO?
People are nostalgic. They loved “Real Sex.” No one’s really tackled this subject in a series since then. And I think everybody’s ready for it. I’ve had overwhelming support about the idea of bringing a sex show back to HBO. Things have changed a lot. A lot of people want to engage in this conversation. They think a show like this gives the opportunity to show something that we’re all experiencing.
Did Kaplan cover the internet on “Real Sex”?
It wasn’t around as much. It would be more niche. I remember one where a girl was an exhibitionist — she was rollerblading on Venice Beach and her friend set her up with a website. She was talking about how she would get email. It was novel at that time — isn’t it exciting, there can be a way to experience sex in the internet. There’s an old saying that porn built the internet. I think that human desire really does drive internet technology. There are a lot of ways that basic human needs find themselves expressed in technology.
What are you most excited about, bringing this series to an audience?
Any conversation about sex is also a conversation about technology. I’m eager to see how the public feels about these things that they’re dealing with every day anyway.