Many people currently in their twenties are united in an important pre-adolescent experience. There was one show we all watched aged 13, volume turned down low, after our parents had gone to bed: Sexcetera, a kind of soft porn take on Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends. Each episode, the presenters would investigate carnal goings-on as broad as polyamorous gang-bangs, tantric sex workshops and webcam porn-stars in the name of "sex journalism". It was post-watershed viewing at its finest.
Looking back on it through the eyes of the mature adult I now am, it's clear that Sexcetera wasn't just a gratuitous excuse to get bouncing boobs and nipple clamps on TV. It was the 60 Minutes of sex, with ten-minute segments each taking a look through the window of one of the world's bedrooms. Mediated through any one of the preppy Californian presenters, it was – on the whole – one of the more inclusive and objective projects to be commissioned by Playboy TV at the time.
When I talk to Ross Dale and Kira Reed Lorsch – two former presenters and producers of Sexcetera – about what it was like to work on the show, none of it sounded gross, corporate or seedy. Using a reference that no English person will ever understand, Kira describes filming as "just like heading off to summer camp with your best friends". Coming from a soft porn background, Kira remains firm in her opinion that, while working on Sexcetera, she was in control of the presentation of her own identity and helped other women to take similar control.
"Being a woman – and coming from being somebody who was naked in Playboy magazine – I was very sensitive to how to do sex stories well," she tells me. "Particularly women's stories. You just have to be that much more sensitive to the subject. I felt like I wasn't the pawn; I was the queen. I was bringing real people together with people who might otherwise objectify them, and it felt like I was beautiful and sexual and fabulous, and I loved every minute of it."
Ross and Kira make the Sexcetera shoots sound like a very accepting workplace, with the show's presenters and subjects appreciating each other for who they were, and the presenters remaining respectful no matter what situation they found themselves in. This sex-positivism was apparently a deliberate moral perspective, rather than just the outcome of a brand (commissioning channel Playboy TV) benefitting financially or otherwise from the acceptance of a bit of cheerful kink. Ross tells me that "even though it was playful and fun, it was never at anyone's expense. It was never like, 'Hey, come check out these wackos.'"
Telling me that because the team was small (just a presenter, a producer and a cameraman), they were always flies on the wall, purely observing, rather than distorting the story with their presence. I ask him if any of the shoots are particularly prominent in his memory, and he immediately recalls one based around an adult baby.
"I went through all these chat rooms to find someone willing to talk, and had been in contact with someone in Texas doing her PhD on adult infantilism," he says. "It was interesting to me that 90 percent of people who have this fetish are adopted. So I found this guy in Albuquerque who was, in fact, adopted. We picked him because he had a full-sized playpen in his house: monogrammed diapers, a crib. His marriage had broken up over it; it started with him just asking his wife if he could bring diapers to bed, and ended with her divorcing him."
What really stands out to Ross, however, is that it turned out the guy was someone who went to a high school across the street from his. "I played hockey there sometimes," he tells me. "That was the first time for me that I realised that these people aren't that different from me."
Not all former Sexcetera employees remember their experience on the show as fondly as Ross. Susannah Breslin presented Sexcetera for five years, travelling from Mexican porn star vacation spots to Dutch fetish clubs. In an interview with The Telegraph in 2012, Breslin spoke of how her experience presenting the show was "partly responsible" for a breakdown she suffered around that period. Describing her work as "initially fascinating", she said that, over time, "You would notice that the girl had been crying. Or you would see somebody be rough with somebody."
Charges of the glorification of "extreme" sex acts, such as water torture (the content of one of the episodes banned from UK mainstream TV by Ofcom), were countered by Playboy with the reasoning that the show was objective editorial content; an opinion Kira still shares. "As soon as you restrict freedom of expression, the line is going to keep moving," she says. "That is one thing that Sexcetera and Playboy and America stands for: freedom of expression. I think that you can't regulate a news story; if it exists in the world, then you have to say that."
So where was the line between journalism and porn? Apparently it's pretty simple: you just can't show the actual in-out penetration bit. Ross tells me: "We could cut around it, throw some Austin Powers cuts in there, or an oddly placed light-stand obscuring stuff." That said, the defining moment of his journalistic career skirted around these rules, with the televised unveiling of an erect 11-inch penis, the problem being that you weren't really supposed to show boners on TV.
"We had to show it," he says. "It's like the shark in Jaws – you've got to show it some time. They allowed me to do it for the first time on Playboy. It was the first erection ever on the channel. A big moment for me."
Eleven-inch dicks aside, Sexcetera was more about human relationships than gratuitous genital scenes. Kira gets straight to it when she asks me: "Isn't it great that people connect, in however way they get there? All of this crazy stuff that we explored was just about people connecting; and how great it is for people to find a way of connecting that works for them."
Ross' favourite stories are also those about people bonding. He talks about the amazing human power of the internet in bringing together individuals who thought they were all alone in their fetishes – like folk who like a bit of horse role-play. Apparently, once two "horsies" get in the same room, there's no end to the equine fun. "People get so into the details," Ross says, telling me about the time when, after shooting with a horse fetishist group, they all posed for a photograph. A guy whose horse name was Trigger just stood there, stoically staring off to the side. "In the end, we were like 'Hey Trigger, what's up?'" says Ross. "And he was like, 'A horse would never look directly at the camera.'"
Both Kira and Ross agree that shooting the show made them more open as people, both sexually and spiritually. Kira calls the show her "sexual Nirvana", and Ross tells me his only regret is not joining in on an orgy in an English countryside commune filled with women who kept poems in their vaginas. I tell him that he should give them a call and see what's up in 2015.
Kira reveals that she actually came from quite a conservative, religious background; apparently her parents didn't even want her to go to health class. Having an insight into how repression and censorship can affect young people, she says: "I would rather have information available. I think we can use shows like Sexcetera for good, just by having the information out there in the universe. Instead of being scared of sex, we broke it down into the pieces of why people are into it. That is positive: that shows it can be used as an educational tool."
This perspective on the show as a kind of objective biology class shows up again later when Kira tells me "the idea that the largest sex organ that we have is the brain; that was always in my head when we were doing Sexcetera. All these interesting niches and fetishes, they come from somewhere in the mind. It's like anything else – it is looking at the psychology of people."
However, even with the positive "educational" benefits that come from learning about sex from a nice TV show rather than the depths of the internet, would it be ethical to make a Sexcetera nowadays? It now seems a bit detrimental to present the sex industry through rose-tinted glasses and wilfully ignore all of the gut-wrenchingly horrible stuff that happens on its darker fringes. Yet, there is still something quite nice in the show's idea that sex doesn't have to be politically charged all of the time.
Ross says of the people profiled by Sexcetera that "they weren't doing it for the money, it was just making them happy". That sex makes people happy – that the people having sex, filming sex, watching sex are having a great time doing it (and even falling in love doing it) – shouldn't have changed since the 1990s. And when we talked about a rebooted Sexcetera, Kira agrees with me about the invariable relevance of sex journalism in its exploration of humanity: "It is still pertinent. That story of connectivity is always the same."
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