How reality TV ruined porn

I was weaned on hardcore images, but "Gigolos" managed to gross me out. What happened to good old-fashioned smut?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published April 10, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Nick and Steven from "Gigolos"
Nick and Steven from "Gigolos"

It's a classic scenario for a dating show -- the nervous shifting, the gulping of champagne -- except that when they take their drinks back to the swanky hotel room, the camera crew follows them inside. Within seconds, they are naked and the platinum blonde with a collagen pout whimpers, "Put it inside me" -- and the tanned, tattooed beefcake does, in full view of the camera. There are no close-ups of penetration, but what follows is impressively pornographic for a reality TV show.

This is the first sex scene in "Gigolos" -- which premiered Thursday night on Showtime and follows five male escorts who service women in Las Vegas -- and it's a graphic sign of our times. These explicit scenes are inserted between reality TV staples like confessional-style interviews and background piano riffs that play up character flaws for laughs. Here we see explicit sex rising to the level of frivolous TV entertainment, and the exhibitionism of reality TV reaching smutty heights. The two genres are increasingly merging, and "Gigolos" is an extreme example of that. As I reported earlier in the week, some of the female clients were allegedly recruited, paid to appear on the show and partook in the men's services for free. I called it a reminder that "the line between fiction and reality is a very blurry one" -- but the same can be said about reality TV and porn.

"It's the perfect marriage," Susannah Breslin, a journalist who has covered the porn industry for several years, tells me. "I've always seen reality TV as being a lot like porn -- it's emotional porn." She says both can provide a way "of getting off on other people's desires or failings" -- not to mention their desperation and humiliation. Both thrive on its stars' self-exposure, which is driven by audiences' insatiable voyeurism. "The only thing that surprises me is that it took so long," she says. "This is the beginning of something that I think will be common in just five years. Eventually, the idea of a reality TV show that doesn't have graphic sex in it will seem antiquated and prudish."

The overlap itself has been around for a long while -- it's only the near total eclipse found in "Gigolos" that is new. Porn stars like Mary Carey have entered the mainstream by going on reality TV and there are countless contestants on "Flavor of Love" and "Rock of Love" with X-rated pasts. Then there are reality stars that turned to porn when their 15 minutes were up, and those whose private sex tapes were made public only after their turn on, say, "Good Housewives." And for some celebrities, like Paris Hilton, she of "One Night in Paris" and "The Simple Life" fame, both of which premiered around the same time, the question of which came first, the porn star or the reality star, is a real head-scratcher. Until now, "Cathouse," HBO's series about a Vegas brothel, was the most extreme partnering of the two genres.

Mark Kernes of Adult Video News told me in an email that the industry has long flirted with the reality TV concept. The series "Shane's World" has been a "porn staple" for 15 years and features "recognized porn stars going on a 'road trip' to the beach or a ski resort, and while there, having sex with each other," he says. A more recent series, "College Invasion," sent porn stars to college campuses to "have sex with each other and (usually) some fraternity boys." He points out, though, that "pretty much all porn" that isn't driven by a storyline or plot "is essentially meant to be a sort of 'reality TV of sex,' even (or perhaps especially) the tired scenario where the guy comes to the door delivering a pizza, the girl customer can't pay for it, and sex ensues." He explains, "Porn thrives on its faux 'realism'; the idea that any guy could find himself in a situation where an attractive woman wants to have sex with him."

As for what genre "Gigolos" fall into, he says, "Please! It's porn! If they're showing hardcore sex, and the theme of the show is sexually oriented, it could hardly be anything else."

What's different about "Gigolos," though, is that its genre confusion creates a jarring dissonance. I happened to watch the screener at work and when the first sex scene came on, I shrieked, ripped off my headphones and squirmed about in such a way that I actually broke my office chair. Now, I'm no prude. I'm one of those members of the Internet generation who is thoroughly inured to hardcore pornography and, as a "sex writer," I even come across smut at the office all the time -- but this was very different. It was like watching a guilty pleasure like "Millionaire Matchmaker" where you're having a laugh at the rich bachelor's entertaining neuroses when all of a sudden he's dropping trou with his date. It makes for a confusing mix of contradictory cultural expectations.

The sex scenes in "Gigolos" are also decidedly less anthropological than in HBO's "Cathouse" and far more performative. You strongly feel the cameraman's presence, the insinuation of a large TV audience -- all of which makes it reek of desperation. Jennifer Pozner, author of "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV," points out that "'Cathouse' was almost more honest in its depiction of sexuality" than "mainstream shows like 'The Bachelor,' which pretend they're about 'true love' but are about manipulation, humiliation of women" -- because at least it didn't hide the commerce element. I agree -- but I had the opposite reaction to "Gigolos." The show makes clear that the men go on their dates for money, but no money is exchanged on camera (and, as I mentioned earlier, it's unclear who exactly arranged the transactions).

It isn't just that the sex scenes go against the mainstream reality TV or documentary framework. Porn is typically "wonderfully devoid of vulnerability and emotional complexity and conflict," says Breslin. "All those things work against getting turned on. We don't want to humanize porn stars, and reality TV is about human stories." There is nothing titillating about watching Steven, the struggling and often tearful father of a young child, sleep with a client immediately after he looks into the camera and says: "I'd do anything for my son. Anything and anyone." (Interestingly, no one is making the usual noise about sex workers being exploited here -- because, of course, these are men.) Most unsettling is that the sex scenes don't seem designed to arouse but rather for laughs and to horrify. "Gigolos" may represent an inevitable union between porn and reality TV, but it's a very uncomfortable one.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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