As a former sex-health educator, I’m used to having frank discussions about sex. One of the things I most like to talk to people about is how they first developed their ideas about what sex entails. Over the years, one of the most consistently cited influences has been HBO’s Real Sex, the docuseries that scoured the country for interesting stories about sex and aired in the twilight hours of the morning from 1990 to 2009. Without intending to, the show informed the evolution of a generation’s id.
As a generation defined by growing up on the cusp of the digital era, the nonjudgmental, no-holds-barred TV show served as sex education by bridging the gap between Playboy and internet porn. Thinking back on my own screenings of Real Sex (I was a year old when it debuted, but I started watching when I was 11), the content and ethos of the show neatly encapsulates much of my own sexuality, as well as the sexual identity of millennials as a whole.
Real Sex is an ephemeral artifact, unavailable on DVD or less noble resources, but I remember it vividly. While the graphic sex scenes certainly made me aware that I was sneaking something forbidden, Real Sex still felt educational rather than seedy. It’s not surprising that it was made by a team of serious documentarians, including Sheila Nevins, who has won a staggering 32 Emmys, and Patti Kaplan, who had been working in HBO’s family programming department.
Kaplan described to me the strict guidelines HBO placed on them in making Real Sex. “We could show the whole woman, of course, but we could never show an erect penis, and we could show people having sex, but we couldn’t show the moment of penetration,” she said. “There was a team of lawyers who’d watch every episode frame by frame, and we’d get called in to have these arguments with them over certain shots, like, that’s not an erection, he just has a very large penis!”
However, Real Sex was never intended to be particularly consequential. “I was surprised, later on in the show’s run, when it started being treated so seriously,” said Kaplan. “We were referred to as ‘the 60 Minutes of Sex,’ but we never planned it that way. It was 1989 and, at the time, everyone was really uncomfortable talking about sex since there was a panic surrounding AIDS. Sheila wanted to show ways people were still having fun with sex, and doing it safely. We wanted character-driven stories and candid discussions about sex. But it was always meant to be entertainment. What could be more outrageous than sex?”
It was that indulgence in the outrageous that laid the foundation for a show that, almost by happenstance, became an educational force, opening audiences’ eyes to a wide variety of sex that happened outside the mainstream. “I think that informational element came mostly from the people we found,” said Kaplan. “I was most interested in the characters, but we still wanted to show people who were passionate about the educational aspect of their work.”
Carol Queen, a writer and educator who was featured in a peep show in the second episode and made an appearance in several others, felt that ideological distance. “Overall, there was more interest in sexual entertainment than sexual discourse and real knowledge,” she said. “But their search for content was such that they did find and work with some amazing people.”
Queen said she sees the show as more of a reflection of the times rather than a cultural arbiter. “From the ‘80s through the ‘90s, a lot of underground sexual culture emerged into the light,” she said. “Real Sex had its role to play in this process, but wasn’t central to it. It disseminated cultural imagery that was already leaving the underground. Small publishing and zine culture had at least as much to do with this change as cable TV did.”
“We could show the whole woman, of course, but we could never show an erect penis, and we could show people having sex, but we couldn’t show the moment of penetration.”
But for those without access to the underground, Real Sex could be the only outlet to educate oneself about different sexual cultures. By primarily looking for extreme sex stories, they ended up normalizing desires that ventured beyond vanilla.
Sophie St. Thomas, a freelance sex and relationships writer, said the show opened her up “to kinky sex and sexualities that weren’t your standard societal-approved bullshit.“
“I have a distinct memory of being a kid and thinking I understood sex, like, the penis goes in the vagina, duh,” she said. “Now, as a 30-year-old queer woman who doesn’t want to reproduce, I know that sex is so much more than cishet sex, and perhaps seeing some of the kinky sex on the show helped me understand that sex is more than just a penis in a vagina.”
For millennials, the concept of sexuality has also been defined by the open destruction of the binary, something that was frequently explored on Real Sex. If Gen X made bisexuality mainstream, millennials expanded its acceptance and its definition. Gender, in turn, became just as fluid as sexuality. “I think watching the show was the first time I realized that women could be queer, and that queer women could look like me,” Christina, a 29-year-old podcast host, told me. “It took a while for that message to really sink in, as I didn’t come out until later in my twenties, but Real Sex absolutely planted a kernel there.”
The other binary that many millennials have dropped: two-person partnerships. Real Sex showcased swingers parties, polyamory, and group sex, and now monogamy feels practically passé. “I spoke to a millennial man who was literally the only person in his circle who didn’t want to be polyamorous,” Queen said. Through fielding millennials’ questions about sex as an advice columnist for Bust Magazine, she has observed a generational leap in considering alt-sex lifestyles as the standard. “Assimilating kink and accepting polyamory aren’t treated like options, they’re treated like norms.”
While images of latex body bags and electroplay loom large in the cultural memory of the show, some of the most affecting vignettes were things like female masturbation workshops or married couples learning how to maintain a healthy sex life. Above all, Real Sex was remarkable for simply talking frankly about sex, whether it was extreme or mundane. That openness began to spread beyond the screen. “I think one of the show’s greatest legacies is the record of the interstitial man-on-the-street interviews,” said Kaplan. “You watch those over the course of the show and you see this transformation with how willing people were to talk about sex and their own experiences.”
This approach especially had an effect on millennial women. Typically, girls did not participate in the clandestine trading market of porn mags that served as sex education for boys in generations past, so millennials are the first generation of women to have this kind of introduction to sex at such a formative age. This introduction in particular happened to feature women taking full control of their sexuality, demanding orgasmic equality, proudly profiting off their sex appeal, and creating sexual entertainment centered on female pleasure. The foundation for female sex-positivity was built.
“We had about a 50/50 gender split for our audience,” Kaplan said, “but when I started doing talks and events I noticed that it was mostly young women who were coming up to me afterwards, excitedly telling me about watching the show when they were younger. There were a lot of sleepovers.”
The diversity of bodies being celebrated and desired particularly resonated with female viewers as it starkly contrasted the narrow confines of the very thin, very straight blonde haired, very white aesthetic of the turn of the millennium. “What I do remember, very clearly, was that Real Sex was the first place I saw a wide variety of bodies and different kinds of people having sex,” Christina said. “Black bodies, fat bodies, queer people, people you never saw on the late night Cinemax movies that also featured in my teenage-hood.” That sense of body-positivity grew with us as a generation, combatting the ideals put forward in fashion magazines and mainstream porn alike.
I was lucky to grow up in a public school system that valued sex education, and with a dad who quietly left a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves in my room when I hit puberty. But I’m still grateful to be part of a generation whose sexual coming-of-age aligned so well with a show like Real Sex. Values and ideals like sex-positivity, queerness, kinkiness, non-monogamy, and body-positivity were treated with respect and inquisitive earnestness rather than milestones in the race to push porn towards its logical hardcore conclusion. The internet would soon spread (and distort, and subvert, and attack) these concepts, but not before they were imprinted on the minds of a generation who watched the show in the dark, their fingers poised on the remote control, just in case their parents came home early.