HBO's 'Real Sex' Taught Us Everything We Needed to Know About, Well, Real Sex
"Did you know that there are people in the world who have outdoor sex parties in mud?" my best friend Fran randomly asked me one day over turkey chunks in the middle school cafeteria. She was referring to an episode of the HBO series Real Sex, in which a gaggle of adventurous adults had an onscreen orgy in the middle of the desert. It was 2001.
"Um, yeah!" I replied, both delighted and shocked. Until that point, I had assumed I was the only perv in our school who spent most nights staying up late watching TV, hoping to catch glimpses of dick on premium cable. "Real Sex 19!"
Since then, I've had plenty more bonding moments with friends and colleagues who have similar stories about the adult program's role in their pre-adult lives, and one thing has become clear:
Real Sex left a real impression on our adult sex lives.
An unexpected twist: Back in 1990, the year that Real Sex debuted, the cultural conversation about sex and sexuality was vastly different than it is now.
"[There was] no internet, and no one was really talking about sex, with so much fear around AIDS and safety. The show was originally to be an hour doc on safe sex going into the '90s," Patti Kaplan, producer and director of Real Sex from 1990-2009, told Mic. But then its debut saw such success that it "turned out to be well over 30 episodes and an unexpected career twist for me."
The show's on-the-street sex interviews, along with its many episodes in which IRL couples would attend various types of sex workshops (from tantric to polyamorous to good old-fashioned oral), helped fulfill its sex-positive mission. "We definitely had 'educational' value in mind, but in a lighthearted, sex positive way," Kaplan, who is currently on the faculty at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, explained. "Stories were key — individuals, your next door neighbor, etc., and what was going on behind closed doors."
To this day, those workshop-oriented Real Sex segments are some of the most enlightening pop cultural representations of non-porn-actor sex ever shown on-screen. The people featured on the show have body hair, fat rolls and blemishes, which they flaunt without apology.
But over the course of its run, Real Sex evolved into an exploration of the sexual fetish communities and subcultures that are rarely acknowledged in mainstream documentaries. Nothing was off-limits during its 19-year span, with ample attention given to everything from nudism to sex dolls to S&M to a wide array of kinks and fetishes. "Personally, I always felt for the humor and even absurdity of sex and the various stories," Kaplan said.
'90s masturbation fodder: Because these episodes aired late at night and often featured uncensored nudity, it goes without saying that the show was ostensibly targeted at adult audiences.
But as my adolescent experience watching Real Sex proves, it was likely the under-18 crowd that made up some of the show's most devoted audience. In an era before the Internet, when porn VHS tapes and dirty magazines were inaccessible or off-limits to most minors, Real Sex was the best porn most '90s kids had.
"The last time I watched HBO's Real Sex, it was the '90s and I was covertly masturbating late at night in my parents' living room," Tracy Clark-Flory wrote last year in Salon. "That documentary series was my pubescent sex education — at least until I discovered Internet porn a short while later."
My boyfriend, who is 10 years older than me, had a similar experience watching the show. "I was underage and lived in a tiny town," he recently told me. "If I wanted to look at something even vaguely pornographic, Real Sex was all I had. Internet porn didn't become a viable option until after I got to college."
By the time my friend Fran and I got to middle school, the Internet was just starting to become widely available. But it was slow as fuck, and opportunities to explore its X-rated offerings were limited to short sessions on shared family computers. Plus, there was always the risk of being exposed to viruses.
So watching Real Sex was a convenient and low-tech way to answer our most urgent sex questions, not to mention get the opportunity to see a little D along the way.
"I learned a lot from watching it. It definitely opened my eyes to the panoramic world of sex," Fran recently told me via text. "Even though I was 12 at the time and just looking to see a fully matured dick." A segment on an Australian performance group called Puppetry of the Penis, in which a bunch of dudes twisted their junk around into weird shapes meant to resemble pelicans or hamburgers or the Eiffel Tower, was perhaps the ultimate example of this phenomenon.
The diversity of sexual experience: But Real Sex wasn't just sex ed for '90s kids who had parents with HBO subscriptions, nor was it merely an opportunity for horny teens to jerk off to hamburger-shaped wangs. It also provided us with some valuable glimpses into everything from BDSM to feminist porn to the wet'n'wild joys of sploshing.
Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society and Adult Entertainment, believes that Real Sex played a major role in exposing young people to the diversity of sexual experience.
"By the time you're 18, you've learned and internalized so much based on what you have access to. This often tends to be pirated porn, which is not meant to be educational at all," she told Mic. "The purpose of Real Sex didn't seem to be about sexual titillation — really, it was almost like an anthropological piece, looking at human behavior... you could never have that content nowadays. It was perfectly [of] its era."
She's got a point. Today, the Internet gives us unprecedented access to virtually every sexual fetish imaginable, allowing people who share these fetishes to connect with each other and feel less alone. While that's a good thing for the most part, it means that shows like Real Sex, which previously served to highlight non-normative sexual fetishes and identities, are no longer quite as necessary. When the definition of "sploshing" is just a Google search away, you don't really need to see a 10-minute segment devoted to it on HBO.
But while the death of shows like Real Sex and the advent of websites like Pornhub and PornTube might make us sad, that doesn't mean that horny youngsters have stopped learning about sex from unlikely sources.
After all, several episodes of the show are still available to stream on HBO Go, so who knows? Right now, somewhere on the planet, maybe there are two preteens eating turkey chunks in a cafeteria, chatting excitedly about people having sex parties in the mud.