The first time I saw HBO’s original Real Sex I was 11 years old. It was 1996, and although I was aware of something called “the Internet” and of what fellow sixth-graders described as its boundless pornographic potential, our family computer was connected through a spotty dial-up connection and sat in an unnervingly central location in our house’s second-floor study. I was intrigued, but too scared to bring up my roll of toilet paper and become an early adopter.
Real Sex, on the other hand, could be viewed late at night from the privacy of our basement TV room. Before that show, the only sex I had ever seen on television or anywhere else took the form of barely legible patterns of humanoid, greenish static you could analyze for sexual activity while flipping through unbought channels of pay-per-view. This was more of an interpretive experience than an erotic one. It also felt vaguely epileptic, like a moving, strobe-lit magic-eye puzzle. Real Sex, on the other hand, had real people and real nudity and occasionally some real humping. The people weren’t always attractive, and its focus on subculture made sex seem weird for someone still several years from even a vanilla encounter, but it was still the best thing on offer.
When I heard earlier this year that my friend and filmmaker Chris Moukarbel (Me at the Zoo) was filming a pilot for a Real Sex reboot called Sex // Now, I nearly creamed with nostalgic anticipation. After seeing the pilot last week, I was happy to note improvements. This was a lot like the original Real Sex, but with much hotter people, great music, and a focus on the utopian potential of erotic technologies rather than on cataloguing sexual sideshows.
I spoke with Chris recently to talk about the pilot, which airs on January 2.
VICE: How did you get the idea to make Sex // Now?
One night I was watching old episodes of
on HBO GO and I saw a beautiful segment about peep shows—I think it was from 1997. I remember thinking that peep shows, although a very classic form of sex entertainment, were unlikely to have survived into the internet era. What I discovered, though, is that they’ve just dematerialized and re-formed online as “camming.” So much has changed since that episode was made, it occurred to me that it would be great to make a new sex series that shows how internet technology is changing the way we have sex.
The first segment in the pilot is about a cam girl who studies microbiology at the University of Oklahoma. In order to help fund her studies, she performs shows online under the screenname SmartyPants88. How did you find her?
When I was first getting interested in making a segment on cam shows, I just went on cam sites and started reaching out to people. In the beginning it was a challenge to get anyone to believe that I was sending a legitimate inquiry from an HBO series. Cam models deal with a lot of annoying, harassing messages. They’re used to men getting fixated on them or propositioning them. One of the things that’s great about camming is that you can block anyone who’s inappropriate or in any way disrespectful, which is very different from more traditional types of sex work, like stripping, where you have to share actual physical space with the customer. Camming slants power towards the sex worker. I discovered a cam-girl forum where models were actually posting things about me like “have you ever gotten a message from this guy?” which kind of freaked me out. I was finally able to establish a relationship with the forum’s moderator. After she started verifying me, it became really easy to establish contact with the models. I was drawn to SmartyPants88 because she didn't look like a lot of peoples stereotypical ideas of a sex-worker. She was immediately interested in talking to me. She’s really smart, articulate, has a lot of ideas around what she does and why she’s doing it. Obviously she does it for money, but she also has really liberated perspectives on sex work. We hit it off.
How much money do cam girls make?
It can be really lucrative. Some of the girls literally make thousands of dollars an hour. One of the girls said on the show, “I only work two or three hours a day. If I worked eight hours a day, I’d be a millionaire.”
The second segment is about Emma and Eddie, a cam couple in Scottsdale, Arizona, who support themselves by videotaping their sex life. How are they different from SmartyPants88?
Cam couples are a different kind of entertainment. Regular cam models are basically masturbating, and you might be masturbating with them, so it’s kind of like mutual masturbation. The couples, though, are actually having sex with each other, so it’s more like porn, but it’s more appealing than porn for a lot of people because it’s happening live for the viewer. At one point Smartypants88 explained the difference between porn and camming. Camming is sex happening live—at that time. She's said that no one wants to Tivo the basketball game from the week before and watch it.
It’s also typically more produced than what the cam girls are doing. You show Emma and Eddie staging scenes, setting lighting, etc.
Emma and Eddie mostly film in their apartment, but you can also see them on a ski slope, at the beach, on a roof. They’ve really dialed up the level of production. Although they use the mainstream cam hub, they also use all these other platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and their own website. They’ve created a mini-empire. They’re in their early 20s, making tons of money, and they love what they do. The way they look at it is, “We would be fucking anyway, so why not do it in front of a camera, and with an audience, and also make an income.”
However, Eddie said he rarely has sex off-camera anymore…
Right. The reason why, he told me, is that he can only cum a couple of times a day. His cum is a valuable commodity for them—they need it for the show. If they use it off-camera, it’s a loss of revenue. They try to make sure they can do some kind of jizz shot a couple of times a day. When you pay to view one of their shows, they advertise a list of entertainment services they provide. They have to honor that list.
There are different tiers. You can pay for a one-on-one show, which is obviously more expensive. There’s even a type of show where you can turn your camera on and they can see you, too. But the big group shows, the gold shows, you don’t really know how many other people are watching it. There’s a streaming message feed on the side where people can write instructions or give compliments, but at any given time, it’s a small portion of viewers who are actually writing. Most people have their hand on their dicks. They can’t be bothered to type.
I know from the pilot that Emma and Eddie sometimes have other girls in their shows. What about other men?
There are never other men involved. They’re very specific about that. Emma doesn’t really do solo shows, either, because she doesn’t want to give the audience the impression that they’re having sex with her. Its an understanding within their relationship. They do have sex with other girls, though. Emma really likes girls—it’s not just something they do for the show. It’s something that’s natural to their sex lives.
One of the things that’s great about Sex // Now—and this reminds me of your earlier HBO documentary about Chris Crocker, Me @ The Zoo--is the way you make the internet sparkle on TV. In a way, you “sex it up.” You give us enhanced internet reality. It’s easy to forget that when you’re actually looking at a cam over the internet, it doesn’t quite look like that.
That’s something we try to achieve, that look of stylizing the internet. The internet is something that’s visually familiar. Most people look at it all day long. To take that visual landscape, set it to music, and create a narrative around it is my goal with the show. We have a different idea of high and low now because we’ll watch something like Game of Thrones or some really high-production film on the same screen that we’re checking email, or looking at porn, or looking at some crappy, fuzzy YouTube video. All those images are living in the same space. That’s what consuming media is like now—it’s this back-and-forth thing between high and low production.
I’ve heard people argue that porn consumers actually like shitty production values, that it somehow makes porn sexier.
I think that accounts for the popularity of amateur porn. As porn became more expensive and slick, I think people felt more disconnected from the actual sex. The fantasy of porn is that it’s real sex that has happened somewhere that you could potentially engage in.
In terms of explicitness, what are the restrictions on what you can show?
I’m always really surprised about how much we can actually show. HBO is very permissive and in the tradition of the old Real Sex, we really push the envelope. You can’t show a hard dick—that’s based on censorship laws—and you can’t show penetration. You can show people having intercourse, and we do a lot of that, but you can’t show the actual moment of contact.
What about semen?
I don’t know, to be honest. There’s an episode of Girls where one of the characters cums on his girlfriend’s chest, but it’s something you almost never see on TV. We haven’t had a cum shot yet, but I’m sure it will come up and at that point, I’ll have to figure out whether it’s OK.
The third segment is about a mechanical device called Real Touch that allows men to simulate sex with cam models. Real Touch has two parts. One goes around your dick, like a pseudo-orifice, and other is a “joystick” or simulated penis wielded by the cam model. The two devices are synced over the internet so that when the model touches the joystick, the viewer feels it on his dick. Did you try using it?
I actually didn’t try it myself because its not Mac compatible! We hired a porn star named Xander Corvus and he uses it for our cameras and has a great time. We film him using it to the point of orgasm.
You can come inside of it?
Yeah. It comes with all these cleaning instructions and tools, but after I saw what was done with it, I threw it away. I didn’t bother with the cleaning, though allegedly it can be cleaned easily. We'd already got the shot, so to speak.
The device is funny. It’s clumsy. It’s not made to look sexy. They didn’t try to create something that looks like a prosthetic vagina, because that would be more disturbing. The idea is that your focus is supposed to be on the cam model, and the device itself is just a piece of equipment.
It was developed by a NASA engineer who was given the challenge of creating the best sex toy ever by the company. The kind of technology they use is “haptic technology,” which just means tactile feedback. It’s already used in gaming to some extent, but it’s interesting that one of the most sophisticated uses of the technology is coming from the sex industry. Theres a long tradition of the sex industry making use of new technology.
Right, the sex industry and the military: these are the historical drivers of innovation.
It’s funny, one of the things they envision is that the Real Touch could be used by soldiers on deployment whose wives and girlfriends are back home.
What do you have planned for future episodes, assuming the show is picked up for a full season?
One thing I’m very interested in is Grindr and dating apps like Tinder, which are creating this unified language for hooking up. Apps are super-convenient, of course, and also give you an opportunity to be more discerning or more specific about what you’re looking for. They can be great for people in rural areas who have a harder time meeting people. At the same time, they’re arguably killing street cruising culture. Even attendance at gay bars is affected. Part of the second episode would focus on hook-up apps. Its seems like something that people are really curious to learn about.
I'm also starting a segment on Ceara Lynch. Shes a Humiliatrix. Basically she's an entrepreneur Cam model that provides online psychological humiliation. She doesn't even really get naked. One service she provides is called "ignore." For a couple dollars a minute, she'll ignore you. She might turn on the cam so you can watch her ignore you, or maybe she won't.
It would be fun to find some street-cruising traditionalists, some holdouts.
There are definitely some people who are doing it, but it’s not the kind of culture you can preserve if no one else is. You can go to the Ramble, but all you’ll find are squirrels. But you know, right now it’s the Wild West online when it comes to hooking up. We might become nostalgic some day for this era of internet hook-ups, looking back at early Grindr and Craigslist.
One thing the pilot doesn’t really touch on—and this is similar to the old Real Sex—is the dark side of the sex industry. Aren’t some models abused?
Every sex industry has people that do it because it’s liberating and it’s an opportunity to make an income and other people who are pressured into doing it through some kind of abusive situation. I don’t think that camming is more vulnerable to that kind of abuse. If anything it’s the opposite. Typically sex work has slanted power towards men—men who are paying for sex or running a sex entertainment business. The sex worker often hasn’t had a lot of power. Cam models, though, for the most part, don’t need a middleman. They have the means of production in their own home and can derive an income from the safety of their bedroom. That holds true whether they’re a college student or a mother of four. All they need is an internet connection.
Watch the trailer for Sex // Now here.