Like 20 to 30 percent of genital warts, Sex Box has recurred. Once again, couples are getting into a big soundproof box in front of a live studio audience, having sex, then coming out of the box and talking about the sex they just had.
Part voyeuristic giggle-fest, part sex education seminar from the cool teacher who says the F-word sometimes to let you know they're still With It, the Channel 4 show is based on the premise that couples are more open and communicative immediately after sex. Its goals are noble: to encourage honest communication about sex and sexuality, and to share information about under-discussed issues like STI prevention and where to buy a foot you can also have sex with.
Although Sex Box US was cancelled after only five episodes, Channel 4 has brought the UK three more hour-long episodes, the most recent of which aired last night and focused on casual encounters, expensive sex furniture and my old pal Angel, inventor of the grapefruit blowjob technique.
While the question, "How do you give a blowjob with a large citrus fruit?" was answered thoroughly, I have a few more queries about this season.
Where are the sexperts?
A one-off episode that aired in 2013 featured multiple qualified sexperts commenting on the action and offering tips and personal anecdotes to participants. It wasn't perfect, but it was conversational and light-hearted and fine. Plus, it really drove home the specificity of sexual experience: it's different for everyone, every time, and there's no "right" way to do it, regardless of one expert's opinion.
This season, the couples are alone with Dr Goedele Liekens, a Flemish sexologist formerly of Channel 4's Sex in Class, and Steve Jones, of Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose. Goedele is charming and frank, and says things like "date a man who falls asleep with his hand on your vagina because he loves it so much", and, "I'm not the penetration police." Steve mostly sits off to the side, chiming in every few minutes like that one student at the back of class who sniggers every time the teacher says "orgasm". Which brings me to my next question:
How am I supposed to feel about Steve Jones?
If the show is meant, as its various promotional materials claim, to promote open and non-judgemental dialogue about British sex, how does Steve Jones get away with chastising a woman for suggesting a pinky in the bum might add an extra dimension to a bit of light fingering? While the audience member herself seemed totally unashamed, Jones shut the idea down immediately, comparing schoolyard classic and completely reasonable sex move The Shocker to "insane mode on Call of Duty". After forcing an audience volunteer to practice oral sex on an iPad located near his genitals, Steve jokes that he's going to throw the device away now that it's been soiled. Rather than providing a comic foil to Goedele's more grounded, practical advice, Steve's puerile jokes and pubescent discomfort with particular topics means the show often ends up mocking the very kind of sexual expression it's trying to encourage.
Where are they finding participants, and how?
With a few exceptions, almost everyone who appears on Sex Box seems like they didn't totally realise what they agreed to when they signed up. Take Courtney and Julian: a penetration-focused couple to whom Goedele suggests a bit of erotic massage and – in a rare misstep for the UN Ambassador of reproductive health – some straight scissoring. Post-box, with flushed cheeks and messy hair, the couple reported back this sensual experience:
Goedele: And what happened when you scissored?
Julian: It made me horny.
Courtney: Yeah, me as well.
When Goedele asks Faye, a potential bisexual looking to have her first girl-on-girl experience, what she's hoping for in the way of oral, Faye replies, "I guess I'd like to try, you know, to give some, and to get some as well." Given that the premise of this series is all about couples fulfilling each other's sexual fantasies, you'd think the producers could have found one or two whose dream was, you know, to fuck in a box on TV.
Kailey, Faye's partner in "losing her lesbian virginity", did say it made her excited to think about the audience outside, but for the most part, Goedele's repeated check-ins about whether or not guests were happy to have participated in the show were met with deferrals and awkward stammering about generally being a bit horny, now, I guess. Even the audience looked like they regretted the decision to come. The vibe in the room could be described throughout as "teens enduring a long, suggestive lecture from their drunk aunt".
Who... asked for this?
The show appears overwhelmingly geared towards young people – the audience, participants and interview subjects during pre-taped segments seem to be exclusively between their late teens and early thirties. Steve jokes about emojis and sexy apps in a way that screams "we did a focus group and we want you to #hear #us!" This makes sense in theory: sex education in Britain is not what it should be. But is this programme really filling in the gaps, given the whole vast, free, easily accessible sexy information superhighway thing? Surely the people with the most to gain from a show discussing real-life sexual encounters are not the ones who have been running their own personal sex Tumblrs since they were 15. The internet aside, the show isn't even doing something unique to television. If I was looking for cringe-based lessons about how uncomfortable sex can be, I could watch Embarrassing Bodies – where guests are, paradoxically, much more extroverted, discussing their pustules and poo problems with a candour that would make Goedele blush. If I wanted manufactured, oversize-box-based suspense, I could watch The Cube. If I wanted to be confused about what British people think constitutes a good and normal joke, I could watch Come Dine with Me. I feel like I learned more about the UK's sex habits by watching The Valleys, where at least no one was embarrassed about the kind of sex they were having (constant) and with whom (everyone).
Can I please have the phone number of Rosemary and Luke's friends from episode one? I have a lot of questions I need answers to right away.
Rosemary and Luke are best friends who've known each other since school and recently decided it might be a laugh to have sex with each other on television. As they're having sex, Steve Jones speaks to a few of their friends, who had no idea Rosemary and Luke were planning to come on television to have sex with each other.
Friends of Rosemary and Luke, some questions: are they really like "brother and sister", or are they more like weird cousins? Can you BELIEVE they went on a TV SHOW to have FULL SEX after YEARS of friendship "JUST TO SEE IF IT WOULD BE WEIRD AFTER"?? Do they maybe just both need hugs from you guys more often? Will you ever trust again??
Can the guy who got a boner while watching two dogs fuck each other please get in touch, I have further questions for him as well?
What kind of dogs were they?
Will Britain finally accept spanking as its actual national sport?
Sorry cricket, but let's be real. If the Sex Box experiment has taught us anything, it is that the information Brits want most is: "How can I hit bums better and more often?"
Spanking jokes aside, my most pressing question is: must we?
I'd rather drink six glasses of wine with Goedele than watch her try to wrench some interesting answers from unwilling-ish British couples while Steve "LOL, Penis" Jones chimes in from the side. There's a lot of pun-free, non-shaming sexual health info to be found on the NHS' website, and when it comes down to it, I really prefer my British TV to be of the "low stakes baking competition" variety. Not to be the penetration police, but Sex Box just seems a bit limp.
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