Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times reported that HBO has removed all “late night” programming from its channels and streaming services. That means no more softcore flicks with Strong Sexual Content ratings, no more nudity-filled reality shows like Cathouse, and, most crucially, no more archived episodes of the transformative documentary series Real Sex.
The first Real Sex special received critical acclaim and strong ratings after it aired on the pay-cable network in 1990. It then became a somewhat regular series, producing more than 30 episodes until the last new one arrived in 2009. Over the decades, the show created segments that examined a broadening global sexuality. Its subjects included everything from polyamory workshops, to sploshing, to strap-on performances, to African-American male exotic dancers in Philadelphia, to the sex toy industry based on porn star genitalia, to San Francisco’s long-running Exotic Erotic Ball. Some were more titillating than others.
The driving forces behind Real Sex were HBO Documentary Films executive Sheila Nevins (who announced in late 2017 that she was leaving the company after 38 years) and Patti Kaplan, its main producer and director. Kaplan was an unexpected pick for the position. She has a doctorate in art history, but after a few years of teaching, she became interested in television. She met Nevins through her work as a producer on an 1980s HBO show called Encyclopedia, made in collaboration with the Children’s Television Workshop. Along with Real Sex, Kaplan was also responsible for the shows G String Divas and Cathouse. “It’s been very entertaining cocktail conversation, as you might imagine,” she says. In 2012 she delivered her last series for the network, but retained an office there until 2014.
In this previously unpublished interview from 2012, Kaplan speaks in-depth about the initial creation of Real Sex, how the segments were created, why the show had a predominantly female crew, and the audience’s changing attitudes and interest towards sex on television. When asked this week about HBO’s decision to remove its late night programming, she declined to comment. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: How did Real Sex come about in the first place?
Patti Kaplan: I had been working on children’s programs, family shows. Sheila Nevins, who was executive producer and senior VP at the time, we were talking about this family show coming up. She said they just re-aired some show that wasn’t really very interesting about sex, and she said the ratings were very good. She said, “Maybe we should investigate.” Quite frankly, I kinda looked around to see if she was talking to someone who wasn’t me and I thought, “Excuse me?”
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But the thinking was that it was a moment when people were totally anxious and uncomfortable and fearful about the whole subject of sex. With the end of the ’80s, the beginning of the ’90s, there was a lot of AIDS fear, so people didn’t want to really touch it. But it was because of that we thought it would be interesting to do a bit of research and see what people are doing to have fun and be safe.
I think I’d always been more or less attracted to things that were surprising. That was the first feeling really, that you have no idea what’s going on in your neighbor’s house. A lot of [Real Sex] seems a little strange today because sex has so completely invaded the culture with the internet and all the access. But when you think back, really, it wasn’t like that at all.
The idea that a major network—albeit, a paid cable network, which is the only place this could have really happened—would air something on the subject, and be very frank about it, was surprising. It actually generated a lot of interest at the time, even critical interest for a couple of years when HBO was a little more willing to submit copies [to the media].
So it was almost like a one-shot, as most things tend to be. We’d make one show exploring safe sex, what’s fun, what are people thinking now given all the conditions, etc., etc. That was the real genesis, and I began to research. I found some outrageous characters. Some I knew personally, like Betty Dodson. Do you know who she is?
Yes, I do.
I knew she taught a masturbation workshop, so I thought I’d do an interview with Betty Dodson. I wasn’t even imaging that we would actually cover the workshop. So when I spoke with her, she said, “Oh, yes, of course we’ll do that.” It was certainly the most shocking thing in the first show. Actually, it was one of the more surprising stories that we put on in the first years.
Initially [Real Sex] was investigative, and I wanted it very much to be frank, humorous, have an attitude. Also, there were a lot women making the show, which I think lent it a particularly positive [feeling], not winking behind the backs of people. That wasn’t the feeling at all. It was real people, there were real stories. [It was] meant to be engaging, entertaining, and fun, but not meant to make fun of people, or to just be purely arousing people. I’d say the early shows were, when I look back, kind of on the tame side.
Do you mean in terms of what they showed?
Yes, what they showed. I mean, the masturbation workshop was very frank. In fact, when we edited it, we were just a little bit gasping. One of the executives who was [at HBO] at the time actually came into the edit room without me knowing it and was kind of green. He went pea green when he saw it, because it was just what it was. There were these women, they were in a circle, they were using vibrators, and they were examining their genitals. It was not like what anybody had seen on television. It wasn’t meant to be salacious, or whatever, it was just what happened. We kind of cut that one down a bit to sort of make it a little less shocking.
You mentioned earlier that you had a largely female staff, what was behind that choice?
It was Sheila and myself at the helm. Sheila is the executive at HBO, and I was the one in charge of producing and directing the pieces. Some other people did them, but they were mostly females, truthfully.
Camera people and such were not all females, but there was one principal cinematographer that I worked with a lot in the early pieces, Dyanna Taylor, who’s a brilliant cinematographer. I’d say they were all feminist, very non-judgmental about these people, and the spirit was to be candid and open and definitely humorous.
One other crucial thing is [that] we shot on film. We shot on film, except for the very last one [in 2009], which was called, Stocks Down, Sex Up. Prior, they were always shot on film. That decision was made to enhance the look of it, so it didn’t feel like porn. We were very much not wanting to be pornographic.
Was that for the sake of the viewers or the people you were filming?
I don’t think for either. I think it was just that we meant this to be really a documentary. Yes lighthearted and late night, but not to go into a category of just T&A. After a while, because it becomes a little repetitious, we did strip contests, mentioned Miss Nude World, then Miss Nude this and that. But there were some pretty eccentric and interesting stories going into the really later shows. When you just think there’s nothing more you can possibly find, you find something.
You said early you knew a lot of the people you featured.
I didn’t really know a lot of them. I just knew Betty. And then I encountered Annie Sprinkle. [She’s] such a fantastic character and a central core figure to this, to what I think interested me the most, which was this approach of being a feminist, or being very sex positive, positive about doing whatever you feel you want to do, but not feeling like you’re being exploited. That was actually a primary attitude. Annie Sprinkle was the launch pad, for me, for more characters. She was a great goldmine of wild and crazy characters.
The other place, of course, was San Francisco. Once I hit San Francisco, I could have done about five shows there. It was just an explosion of these types of people. Just out there, experimental, but consistently some extremely smart people, people with serious degrees who were extremely bright. They thought of themselves more like sex educators. That always fascinated me. Some of the people that I found there [was] a woman doing peep shows. Carol Queen was her name. She wanted to be in about a hundred stories.
After a while, did people start approaching you about being featured?
People approached me. Producers approached. A lot of people wrote in story ideas. Or somebody would contact me. Somebody glass-blowing dildos came in from some outside source, I recall.
The arena that I was very interested in that produced some of the most fun pieces—and interesting, informative—were these workshops. I don’t even know if they’re still so pervasive, but it seemed to be like an overwhelming number of these learn to do this and to do that [workshops]. The obvious and the sort of straight forward, [like] how to give a good blow job, women using dildos, but then it was groups and couples coming to enhance their sexual vibes, one way or another. Those were, I think, some of the best. Those people were just unbelievable. They were just there doing their thing and we would be setting up with our lights and our cameras. Granted, the people who take these workshops on camera are already, let’s say, out there and not so shy.
If the segment was more about actual people and how they incorporated sex into their lives, how open were they to being featured on camera?
For the participants in the workshop, it was a little tricky sometimes. Obviously everybody had to agree and be willing. We never ever blacked people out or covered faces or did that kind of nonsense. If somebody just didn’t want to be there, they wouldn’t be in it.
If you did something on a workshop, would you tell the people who are leading it, “Okay, we want to do something this particular weekend. Can you approach the people who are already signed up?”
It probably would be a little more worked out. Annie Sprinkle, for instance, put us on early to this woman, a complete wacky woman, who taught people to undulate like dolphins to enhance their sexual activities, or something. She was in Hawaii so, of course, this wasn’t, “We’ll be there tomorrow.” This would be, “We’re interested…” Then another one we did in Hawaii was with a wonderfully serious tantric teacher. We would get there in time to sort of supervise casting, let’s put it that way. There would be people available that they knew were interested, or they thought were interested. Then we would have the chance to talk to them, and also to answer their questions.
Everybody on Maui is a massage therapist or leads a workshop. They didn’t even understand how to fill out the basic forms. Some of them had no Social Security numbers. I mean, they were just like space cadets, some of them. So those are rather willing participants. Of course, for us, we wanted people that looked somewhat normal. We didn’t want people that were so out there that you couldn’t identify [with them].
And we did do workshops that had very real couples. This doctor Bob Schwartz was teaching about how to have the one-hour orgasm. In my opinion, it’s not exactly something that exists, but it was a concept of pleasure, and such. He gathered very real people, couples that were struggling, and they expressed this. That’s part of the game and the challenge, let’s say, to have people be comfortable and natural and forthcoming, particularly in interview circumstances.
When you’re figuring out who’s gonna be involved in these workshops, was there any—this is kind of a weird way of saying it—consideration of the aesthetics of it?
Yes, of course. In the Hawaiian circumstance, you don’t want everyone to be a babe, fake boobs and all. Then it looks really like they’re hired, which was really never the case. We never hired people. Maybe there was one exception to it. We did a piece on this male doll, which was a sex toy. We really wanted to see some women test it. I think at that point there was somebody that was more professional, because that was an impossible circumstance. But for the most part, all the workshop participants were real people. Sometimes it was in our interest to have them look normal, just like real people.
You’re saying, “Did we look for beauties?”
It was nice if one couple was. I think more important than their exact physical appearance was their charisma, their ability to communicate, so that somebody could be present for the camera and fun to watch.
You want someone who actually might have an opinion.
Have thoughts about it, right. Like this Dr. Bob Schwartz, who I thought was one of our better segments in terms of real information. It was a major wake-up call for me. Some of these workshops, like the tantric techniques, or there was one thing with this Cherokee man, the Cherokee sex workshop (which was one of my absolute, all time favorites), there were things that they offered and taught that were entirely fresh and interesting. I feel like the show had a very real educational impact in its early days. We think, you know, living on the coasts, that everybody knows everything, but people really don’t. Even about sex toys, which we did quite a variety of pieces on—how they make them, and all that kind of thing.
Did you go on location for the shoots?
I was always on location. Why wouldn’t I be? For personal reasons. No, I mean, it was totally engaging.
Now over the course of the life of the show, there were a number of outside producers, and then I wouldn’t go on location. Finished pieces would be submitted to me, edited, then we would have notes and work on those. Late in the run, I don’t know exactly what date, I started to work on another series that you may or may not know, G String Divas.
What couldn’t you show on the show and did that change over time?
HBO definitely has parameters, and they didn’t really change. It isn’t like they really opened up. I would say, in general, there was more nudity, and it became much more explicit over a 10-year period, just because people were more willing. But that was not prohibited from the beginning. It was about a question really of taste, and of what felt possible, in terms of the period. But there is never any overt, penetration-kind of contact. And you don’t see erect male genitals, which is a little absurd really, but you can’t.
One of my other favorites was this gay male workshop with a leader. This was very much oriented around safe sex. It was a wonderful group of men. It was in Northern California. We found this retreat site and they did all these different exercises that were basically different ways of masturbating, and so forth. It wasn’t interactive sex between two men.
They were talking about safety, and they were, you know, men, naked. And it’s a little difficult to avoid showing [erections], so we kind of got a little more leeway with that one because it was educational. But those are the parameters, really, and they exist right to the present.
Real Sex arrived before the internet was as prevalent as it is today. In the ’90s there seemed to be this growing attitude in certain parts of the country where people were realizing that we need to start being more open about sex and sexuality, but they didn’t have all the tools we have now to get the necessary information. Who did you find was watching the episodes?
It was a very mixed audience, interestingly. It wasn’t just a male audience, at all. I don’t know if it was 50/50, I don’t want to speak to that because I’m not certain, but I just think in some focus groups and research they did that it was a very hefty female audience. And I know it’s true because I’d go places and people would mention the show, and it was usually the women who were very aware of the different segments.
People might not have been as open about watching it during the ’90s, but I’ve seen lots of people reference it now, 15 or 20 years later.
Well, Sheila was always fond of saying that when she would have meetings in her office with all sorts of senior types, whether it’s Spike Lee or Bill Maher, or people on various projects. She always would offer different DVDs or VHS [tapes]. She would say, “Did you wanna see anything?” And they’d always play dumb and say [with Real Sex], “Oh, yeah, what is that show? I think I caught it once. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of those.”
Over the years, what do you think was the most popular segment that you did?
You know, I have actually no idea. I know there was one best of [show] called, The Orgasm Show. It was successful every time it ran. These shows did so well in reruns. And they still do. I mean, the ratings now are, of course, in the toilet across the board for everybody. The number of eyeballs on anything is ridiculous compared to what it was in the ’90s.
I guess back then you didn’t have Twitter or even a prevalent email for people to write in to tell you what they liked.
That’s exactly right. We had no real conversation about, “Wow, I love this piece” or “Not that piece.”
I think that the shows all rated very well, and it wasn’t like one show was a dud and the others were fabulous. They were all very comparable. Then it’s always a matter of what’s your competition that night. And it’s just another world now, as you certainly know. There’s no such thing as people watching things in their scheduled time.
What it was about the 1990s that enabled this show to exist and take off the way it did.
There was very little competition. I think it had a tremendous impact on the medium of television. In fact, somebody said it was like a 60 Minutes of sex. It was investigative, and it was pretty much acknowledged as not intending to be pornographic, but looking to be informative, humorous, lighthearted, and give out information. And all of that was wanted in the early ‘90s. You didn’t have so many other options available.
And it was surprising. Who had ever been able to see that kind of thing in a respectable way. In fact, there was no other way. I guess sex education tapes existed, because we did some stories on those. They’re usually pretty dreary. You know, how to do this with your partner. Things that are meant to educate, but they’re so stilted, stiff, and they’re not real people.
Do you have any other personal favorite segments?
Some of the travel ones were sensational, just for the sheer fun of that. We did one on this woman Cicciolina. She was an Italian politician, previously a porn star, who became the wife, for a brief while, of the artist Jeff Koons. She was just delightful, and we traveled about with her. So that was just kind of a lark and very fun.
Did you ever get an answer from Sheila about why she chose you to do this?
No. I just think she has a very good instinct. I think she just felt that I just had the spirit for it, and the humor, and the interest. She wouldn’t have gone for a guy. Most of the people that worked for her actually are women. But it was a leap, it’s true, from the family programming.
After I made the first [Real Sex] and it was really successful, there was another opportunity to do a second one of something I did called Buy Me That, which was about how the advertisers lure kids to these awful toys that fall apart, that they can’t make, and all that. There was gonna be a second one comparable to that one. Both options were offered to me, and I absolutely selected [Real Sex] for many reasons. It was, for me, much more creative. It was film, and that was more fun. The other was overseen by Consumer Reports, so it was a much more structured circumstance. And [Real Sex] was very free. It could be anything, all these crazy people doing outrageous things. And there were so many of them.
Eric Ducker is a freelance writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.