When I think back on my most formative moments there is the shower threesome on The Real World: Miami; the wet t-shirt contests of MTV spring break programming; and there’s typing “a/s/l” into mid- to late-’90s AOL chatrooms and making bumbling attempts at cybersex. But none of these moments even begin to approach the mouth-dropping impression made by late-night HBO.
After my parents were in bed, I would creep into the living room, mute the television, and channel-surf over to HBO—often enough with my hand down my pants. If I was lucky, Taxicab Confessions or Real Sex—both products of the reality-TV boom of the ’90s—would be on. The former showed taxi passengers candidly talking about—and, on a good night, having—sex in the back seat. Real Sex was a newsmagazine-style look at sexual subcultures. There were swingers and nude body painting, stripping, sex dolls, BDSM, and drag queens.
For better or worse, these shows were my sex education. With the news that HBO has nixed its late-night adult entertainment, I am filled with wistful reminiscence, even though my pubescent era of programming is already long gone. Now it’s really gone, removed from HBO’s TV channels and subscription streaming services.
As a kid, late-night HBO was like the cool older sister that I didn’t have. At school, I had learned through a series of dashed-together classes that sex was about pubic hair and sperm and genital warts. At home, raised by a couple of sex-positive hippies, I was told that sex was a magical, transcendent spiritual experience of love and connection. But at night, watching HBO, I learned that sex was wild and weird. It wasn’t always about love or spirituality on the level of, as my dad put it, “two star systems colliding in outer space.”
There was a whole other world of games, aesthetics, and, as I would have put it then, freaky shit. People got tied up and spanked. They took group masturbation classes. What a riot. What a world of possibility.
It was a parallel world of possibility, only accessible after a certain hour and on a certain channel. Things are different now, it goes without saying. Porn is, of course, more widely accessible than ever before. As the Los Angeles Times put it in its reporting on HBO’s move, “Viewers who want sexually explicit video content no longer have to subscribe to a premium cable TV service as previous generations did. The internet has made adult content widely available to anyone with a broadband connection.”
It’s also the case that sex has migrated away from late-night-only to be more fully incorporated into HBO’s prestige shows, like The Deuce and Game of Thrones. There are valid critiques of the nature of that sex, and the gender dynamics at play, but it seems to me a directionally good thing to have sex woven into the stories that we tell and watch. Sex is part of life—why cordon it off from the rest of human experience, right?
But, sometimes, cordoning something off is actually more like giving it its own due space. It can have the ultimate effect of saying: this thing is important on its own, it’s a worthy area of inquiry.
In an interview with the Times, Jeffrey Jones, author of The Essential HBO Reader, suggested that HBO’s adult content was doomed after the recent departure of Sheila Nevins, who developed Real Sex and Taxicab Confessions. “She very much saw sex as a central part of human beings and therefore documentaries should treat it with respect,” he said. “She carved out a space for this type of programming.”
Now, that programming was hardly perfect. It often focused on a raunchy, performative side of sex—especially in the era of G-String Divas and Cathouse. (Although, you know, Real Sex also featured earthy sex things, like a workshop on tantra that was inspired by the rhythms of the ocean—or something. I’m still a bit confused by that one.) It wasn’t truly a documentary of sex as a whole—it was a documentary of the more titillating and sensational aspects of it. Which is to say: it wasn’t trying to be sex education. It was trying to be entertainment.
As a teenager, I nonetheless took that entertainment as education, because it seemed to be more honest than the black-and-white diagrams of reproductive organs at school and the colliding-star-systems talks at home. It seemed to better acknowledge the truths that adults wanted to hide. And when you know that adults are fudging the truth, contradictory messages start to take on that much more meaning. They start to seem like a truer truth.
Did all that late-night HBO, imbued with undue influence and authority, mess me up a little bit? Probably. Recently, I found a clip from Real Sex on YouTube and showed it to my husband. He watched a very-dated segment on nude body painting and said: “Oh babe, this explains so much.” It’s true that I have recently, and only somewhat ironically, proclaimed my love for Skin Wars, a dumb reality-TV competition in which airbrush-wielding competitors execute the high art of painting clothes on naked bodies.
I am, like we all are, just a product of totally unqualified cultural influences. And, when it comes to sex, those influences are magnified thanks to in no small part to the way that mainstream culture and woefully lacking sex education deny the full, complex reality of it.
Now, there is good reason to be wary of back-in-my-day nostalgia, especially when it comes to sex, because it tends to romanticize the “less” of a bygone era—you know, when things were less raunchy, less accessible. But the nature of my late-night HBO nostalgia—especially when it come to Real Sex—is actually about a certain kind of more. It’s the fact that, despite the imperfections and limitations, those programs showed me that there was an inexhaustibly interesting world of sex beyond what I had been told.