Listen to this article
Avert your eyes now. Or rather, don’t bother. True to its original reputation for spicing up Britain’s airwaves, Channel 4 is about to embark on a new series that tackles that most nettlesome of subjects: sex. Couples will be enjoying carnal relations on television, and will then talk about the experience. While the discussion promises to be revealing, it is about the only thing that is. The actual sex will take place inside a box.
Unlike television’s coverage of squash, which has taken transparent wall technology to new limits, Sex Box’s approach is more discreet. “No nudity or sex will be seen by the studio audience or by any of the production team or by television viewers,” the programme makers say. “The area used by contributors is entirely private. It is soundproofed and the walls are opaque.”
A team of experts will quiz the participating couples about what went on in the box. One of them, psychotherapist Phillip Hodson, is optimistic that the interviews will be illuminating. “People who have just had sex tend to be less inhibited and are more likely to talk openly and honestly,” he says. “This is a great opportunity to show that sex is normal and not as worrying, or complicated or frightening or significant as people often think it is.”
I may find it worrying, complicated and frighteningly significant that anyone would want to have sex on television at all, but the Sex Box team, led by Mariella Frostrup, remains hopeful. “Sex is a normal part of all our lives and something we need to be talking about openly and honestly,” they say.
There go those words again – “normal”, “open”, “honest”. I thought about them when I listened to the final minutes of last week’s Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4, which featured novelist Zadie Smith. She spoke cleverly and sympathetically about her life. She said that as a student at Cambridge, she was known to have had “the worst taste in college” – not least for her obsessive interest in the minor works of Prince.
But pressed to choose the one piece of music that would alleviate her days of isolation on the desert island, she headed sharply towards the high culture end of the musical spectrum, and landed on Wagner. The prelude to Tristan und Isolde, she said, was a “perfect” piece of art. And there came those shimmering strings, the gorgeous and eloquent phrases that are among the most beautiful moments in western musical history.
And it struck me that this too was a work about sex, or mutual erotic obsession, as it is known in refined circles. But Tristan addresses a sexual attraction that is more worrying, complicated, frightening and significant than the feelings invoked by any other human activity. So troubled is Wagner by its ferocity that he allows his music to float unresolved into the realm of the what-might-have-been. It reaches its true climax only when one of his lovers dies.
It’s a long way from Wagner’s sublimation of the erotic impulse to the banal platitudes of Sex Box. Lovers of 19th-century romanticism are unlikely to find much to enjoy in Channel 4’s cheerful demystification of our sexual behaviour, and vice versa. These are polarised views, one a sumptuous celebration of a love that cannot be fulfilled, the other arguing that the physical fulfilment of that love is actually no big deal.
We muddle along, most of us, somewhere in between those views. And art often struggles to find the right tone to satisfy us. Wagnerian yearning feels a little too ingenuous for our modern world, while the pop anthropology that scrutinises our lives inside the box also seems a little naive in its quest for candour. We may be embarrassed to glorify excessively what we know to be a basic, animalistic pastime; but we are not yet ready to be filmed by David Attenborough in its pursuit.
Into the vacuum, of course, has advanced pornography, and its numerous is-it-or-isn’t-it offshoots. Channel 4 takes an unashamedly moralistic tone in its “Campaign for Real Sex” season, aiming to “reclaim sex from porn” by showing the pernicious effects of the most common tropes of pornography. Good luck with that one: I’m not sure the world is ready to move on to such enlightened plains just yet. What happens inside the box remains the world’s most lucrative spectator sport.
To treat sex like local government reform – just make it more transparent and all will be fine and dandy – misses the point that the subject will forever be mired in moral complication and existential bewilderment. That may just be part of its appeal.
Music is not a bad way to describe our predicament. We are stuck between belief in Wagner’s hopeful yet ultimately frustrated crescendos, and the no-fuss demagoguery of a Miley Cyrus video. Sex comes in all shapes and forms, but rarely in anything so neat as a box.
Channel 4’s ‘Campaign for Real Sex’ season starts on September 30 with ‘Porn on the Brain’
To hear a podcast of this column, go to www.ft.com/culturecast
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden