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HBO’s ’90s Docuseries ‘Real Sex’ Was Ahead of Its Time

Hot and uncensored, undeniably eccentric, with a surprising left hook of genuinely empathetic sex scholarship. How did HBO get it so… right?

The sex researcher Dr. Frank Sommers made an appearance on HBO’s steamy, documentary series Real Sex in 1992 to make a stirring case: If the world could re-orient around love, eroticism and sensuality, then we as a society would avoid mutual nuclear destruction. To get that message across, he published a series of educational films that demonstrated how virtuous a healthy sex life can be. In the Real Sex segment, we watch one of his clips: a blond woman, in full makeup, masturbating in a bubble bath, while Sommers’ mesmeric voice echoes above the footage. “Water, how refreshing. Vibrant, all over.”

In his Real Sex episode, Sommers is projecting that footage to a small clinician’s office full of women. The goal, he says, is to help educate them on the subtle arts and sciences of self-pleasure, by prescribing smut that’s tuned to a feminine perspective. In that sense, Sommers’ work was perfect for the Real Sex mold: hot and uncensored, undeniably eccentric, with a surprising left hook of genuinely empathetic sex scholarship. Masturbation to prevent armageddon? What a beautiful dream to dream.

“It gave me an idea that I hadn’t thought of,” chimes one subject, who appears to be in her early 30s, during the segment. “The bathtub, and the force of the water she’s using.”

“I would like to do what this lady in the film can do,” says another, who appears to be a decade or so older. “To really learn how to please myself. I feel if one can do that, one can really be alive.”

Real Sex was around for 33 episodes, and was most often found deep into the steamy late-night block of HBO’s Clinton-era heyday. Each hour of the show was composed like a 60 Minutes broadcast, with four or five short vignettes highlighting a particular subculture, kink or advancement in the sex industry, filmed through an openly lascivious lens. It’s genuinely remarkable to consider the ground that Real Sex covered during its time on the air. The directors documented polyamory workshops, drag shows and DOS-era porn video games, like a bacchanal for all the different things sex could be, and all the different people who do it.

As a millennial, I remember Real Sex in the same way people recall watching scrambled softcore on cable, or discovering a stash of nudie mags under the mattress. It was a rumor passed around between friends; there did exist content that far eclipsed the TV-MA ceiling if you stayed up late enough and found the right channel. But as the years have gone by, and sexuality in America becomes progressively less prudish and more inclusive, I’ve started to consider the less tawdry elements of the show’s legacy.

Yes, at its core, we’re talking about a smutty documentary; Real Sex drubbed the 11 p.m. audience with skin to keep them from getting bored. But it’s still interesting that it allowed a man like Sommers — with his exceptionally earnest intentions about closing the pleasure gap for the good of humanity — to spread his message in good faith. The 1990s were a misanthropic era for adult entertainment, but HBO took an intersecting lane, convincing the world that these sex eccentrics might have a few interesting things to say.

“I was impressed with how they were approaching things, and the production itself was good. A large crew appeared at my office, and they turned it into a studio,” remembers Sommers today, who still works as a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. “I interviewed the producers when they approached me, and that was reassuring. There’s always a risk, but the reason I do the work that I do is that one of my agendas is public education.”

That was the magic of Real Sex; the show was able to feature people like Sommers due to a real, full-throated commitment to sincerity. The program would’ve fallen apart in more cynical hands, which is especially miraculous, given how irony-soaked the rest of its era was. (I mean, compare Real Sex’s relationship to its subject matter with contemporaries like Jerry Springer.) Perhaps that’s because the staff in charge of the show were mostly women — producers Patti Kaplan and Sheila Nevins — and therefore, a lack of boorishness manifested in every episode. Real Sex was never afraid to detail some of the absurdity we imbue into lovemaking, but it also never had a predatory spirit.

“There was a conversation about sex on the show that was very candid and frank. And there were no experts, no narrator. We were just letting these characters speak for themselves,” said Kaplan in an oral history about Real Sex in Vulture from 2013, later adding, “we were very proud of the show. And while we weren’t all women, I think it’s good that many of us were, because we didn’t want it to be a T&A show. There is some of that, of course, but it’s not the thrust.”

That was one of the guarantees that won over Lisa Palac, who first made her name as the “Queen of Cyberporn” during the Bay Area tech boom. Palac has a quintessential Gen X sexual kindling; she grew up in Catholic school, believing that porn was hateful and anti-women, until she started watching dirty movies with a boyfriend, which motivated her to remake the industry in her image. After emigrating to the coast in the early 1990s, Palac got her feet wet in feminist pornography, progressive erotica, and eventually, she landed an editor role at a magazine called Future Sex, which was positioned on the forefront of lust, and the very early incarnations of the internet.

Palac remembers that time in her life fondly; her and a bunch of other techno-bohemians, all enjoying a young, horny life in San Francisco when it was still affordable. Looking back on her work, it’s almost shocking how Palac was ruminating on the many realities that we take for granted in 21st century single living, long before they were permanently enshrined by Bumble and Grindr. For instance: In 1998, she published a book called The Edge of the Bed: How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life. “I got very interested how all of this information about sex and sexuality can be communicated in a global way. That you didn’t have to go to an adult bookstore or secretly find out about that information,” says Palac. “The internet threw open the doors on being able to have really public conversations about sex.”

Real Sex got in contact with Palac in 1993, because they wanted to cover a three-dimensional erotic CD called CYBORGASM that she was producing with her then-partner Ron Gompertz. (Inexplicably, copies are available on Amazon.) Tracks include “Absolute Sadist” and “1-900-BLOW”; Palac recorded people having sex, or telling erotic stories, conceived to be a carnal interpretation of immersive mood music — like bird calls for boning. To this day, says Palac, that Real Sex segment is the single pop-culture artifact that people connect her with the most. HBO kept those reruns in constant rotation; as such, friends, family and associates will never forget that time Palac was on cable, talking about her salacious CD.

Like Sommers, Palac doesn’t have any negative memories about her time in the HBO estate. They came to her from “a good place.” There was one scene, she remembers, where her and Gompetz were in a hot tub together, which filled Real Sex’s T&A mandate. But it also served the utopian storyline that the program wanted to tell; these two California weirdos were making audio porn together, and they were also deeply in love. Palac never had an issue with that. She is a realist about television’s priorities. She knew that HBO was going to sexualize her, but she also remains sympathetic to Real Sex’s mission. Titillation and education don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“They came to people who were really expanding the boundaries of what it meant to be a sexual person. It wasn’t just about Playboy magazine and Larry Flynt. There were only a handful of women who were public and speaking about sex without using pseudonyms,” she says. “I think exposing people to those radical ideas and different lifestyle ideas was a positive thing. Where else could you see that?”

Tristan Taormino, a feminist author and sex educator, saw both sides of that dynamic. She appeared on two episodes of Real Sex. The first one, she remembers, was outstandingly bawdy. HBO wanted to produce a segment about strap-on sex between women, so they solicited Taormino to throw a silicone phallus-centric party with her friends in a New York bar. “I remember that I had a big strap-on on, and I came up on stage, and my friend lit the dick on fire and swallowed it,” she laughs. “My initial reaction was, ‘This is just really fun.’ I was in my late-20s, it was a good time. My second experience was much different.”

Taormino tells me that she didn’t get paid for her strap-on party, and when HBO called her for a follow-up feature, she took far more creative control and ensured that the production house was going to cut her a check. This time around, Real Sex featured one of Taormino’s anal sex workshops, where she teaches customers how to enjoy butt play in a genial, mutually gratifying way. Taormino tells me she loves both of her Real Sex episodes, but the second one removed any made-for-TV artifice, and therefore, was a far more useful archive of what she wants to accomplish in her advocacy.

“I don’t think my first episode is not sex positive, there were just some TV priorities that got injected into it. The second time, although there was going to be hot anal sex, it was going to be a lot more educational,” she explains. “The trust was, ‘You are going to do your thing, and we’re going to film it,’ rather than, ‘We have an image of what you do, and you’re going to act it out.’ It was rebalanced the second time around.”

Taormino has been on Howard Stern and she wrote a column in the Village Voice, but to this day, she says, nothing in her career has ever eclipsed the influence of her Real Sex stints. People still bring it up to her, decades after the show permanently left the airwaves. Taormino continues to put in the work that got her on HBO — the woman remains relentlessly dedicated to equitable sex education — but she also believes that Real Sex did a surprisingly good job of provoking the American mind. After all, she says, it’s not like Taormino’s anal sex tips were being parroted by Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health in the mid-1990s.

“I’m for anyone who watches porn, or Real Sex, to just get off and fantasize, and if they learn something in the process, great,” she says. “You can have multiple purposes going on at once, and the viewer can have multiple reactions to what sinks in. You cannot deny the success of the show. When it was still on, it would run nonstop. I would get letters every rerun. Nobody was in that lane. They were there way before anyone else. That was an introduction to different kinds of sex, desires and kinks. It was their first look. They had to be doing something right. The combo was working, because so many people were watching.”

That same thought is echoed by Debra Lamb, who is an actress now, but appeared in a 1993 episode of Real Sex when she was a stripper in L.A. The segment was focused on Peanuts, a West Hollywood nightclub that rebranded itself as “equal opportunity,” dedicating different nights to LGBTQ audiences. As such, Lamb became well accustomed to the spiritual perks of performing for lesbians. “They were extremely enthusiastic, I loved dancing for them,” she remembers now. “It was like a celebration as a collective. They’d scream and hoot and holler. The vibe was definitely different from dancing for a group of men.”

Decades after leaving her stripping career behind, Lamb is still appreciative that HBO captured what she loved about that time in her life. Real Sex encouraged Americans to not be fearful of one another. That has to be a force for good. “The show was about what’s really going on in America’s bedroom. It’s not just heterosexual marriage. The average person was completely unaware of some of those lifestyles, so just getting a sneak peek into their sexualities was titillating. It attracted people who wouldn’t normally be interested,” she continues. “It was educational, sexy and erotic. All of those things were combined. It attracted people to watch it for all sorts of different reasons.”

In 2018, HBO quietly terminated its remaining adult-oriented archives from its various streaming services. Real Sex, along with the brothel serial Cathouse and immortally voyeuristic Taxicab Confessions, are now lost to time. And given that Real Sex was never printed on home media, it seems unlikely that many of those episodes will resurface in the near future.

An HBO spokesperson says that the executives reached the decision due to a lack of interest in the content; the internet, and its many filthy tendrils, siphoned off the desperation necessary to jerk off to early-morning HBO programming. It’s nice to imagine that we live in a country that has superseded the need for racy sex education — and honestly, a queer-oriented strip club is a lot less exotic in 2020 than it was in 1993 — but the newfound absence of Real Sex shouldn’t erase its founding message. When a programming titan lets the full span of America talk about their sex lives, we each might learn something about ourselves.