Teenagers today are navigating their sexual awakening in a whole new way. Many of them will have seen adults in online porn films do some pretty nasty things to each other before they’ve even had their first kiss. If we were ever in need of a widespread discussion about healthy sexuality it’s now.
And then, in the midst of our sexual crisis, Channel 4’s Sex Box pops us. In case you’ve not seen this ‘unique TV experience’ let me fill you in. Real couples have sex in a box (we don’t see the sex, just the box) to help them open up about life in the bedroom. We meet couples wanting their first gay sexual encounter, their first attempt to touch each other without penetration or their desire to add sexual benefits to an 11-year friendship.
While the couples ‘do the deed’ in the box provided, we’re exposed to talking heads who use winning phrases such as, ‘Watching dogs gave me a boner’ and ‘Two years ago I set myself the challenge to sleep with 200 men’. Meanwhile presenter Steve (whose credentials to present the show, alongside expert sexologist Goedele Liekens, is that he’s watched lots of porn) shows us the latest sex-toys (a sawn-off foot / vagina) and flirting emojis (complete with erect penis in tracksuit).
I’m not offended by Sex Box, I’m bored
If Sex Box has anything to tell us, it’s that we’ve got a problem with sex.
Of course, none of us would actually say this. But look at how we laugh at it. Pick at it. Dismiss it. Struggle to talk about it. Look how silent the studio falls when Goedele explains that sex doesn’t have to end in penetration because lovingly touching each other’s bodies can be more intimate.
And maybe that’s where this show has the power to ‘work’ – as a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks that the whole world needs a blow-by-blow account of their sex life.
When one participant was asked what it was like to be in the box having sex, she retorted: ‘I thought: “There are people out there. That’s great!”’ Really? The faces of the ‘people out there’ sat around the box didn’t seem to think so.
That’s the thing with Sex Box: I’m not offended, I’m bored. It’s sterile, predictable and profoundly un-sexy. Britain needs a meaningful conversation about sex, but this isn’t it. I’m a huge fan of frank-talking Goedele, I really admired how she educated and empowered British teenagers in Sex in Class, but this falls far short, resulting in great fridge magnets (‘30 minutes enjoying each other’s bodies, that’s sex, no?’) but rubbish real life advice.
And real life needs some straight talking. There are too many teenagers sharing sexy pics with strangers online, simply because they ask for them. In the world they’re growing up in, sex is just about body parts, body parts which (in their minds) should be exposed, seen and used, even if it’s ‘just’ online. But there’s nothing ‘just online’ about coerced online behaviours that are misinforming and misshaping young people’s offline reality.
It’s worth getting concerned about programmes like Sex Box, mainly because it’s another example of pandering to the pornification of culture. It’s the view that as people are all watching porn anyway we might as well accept that men can’t look at women without wanting to penetrate them.
Honestly, I wish it was more scandalous. I wish it had dared to ask whether our societal saturation in porn is giving ourselves the best chance to have healthy and satisfying sex lives, or destroying it. And what we could do if we decided to live and love more authentically, without the pornographers or chat show producers telling us how it and we should be.
One thing Sex Box did do was show that the really intimate stuff isn’t what happens in the box. It was the conversation the couple had beforehand about how they truly felt and what they longed for. This was the real exposure. That was true laying bare of lives.
So maybe the true Sex Box is the one with a sofa and no gadgets. Where people lay down their weapons of attack and defense, and just be: together, real, intimate. It might make for tedious TV, but a great sex life!
Rachel Gardner is president of the Girls Brigade and on the senior leadership team at Youthscape.