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From phone sex to webcamming: Capturing the evolution of sex

Salon talks with the director of a new HBO documentary show being dubbed the next "Real Sex"


Tracy Clark-Flory
January 5, 2014 6:00AM (UTC)

The last time I watched HBO's "Real Sex," it was the '90s and I was covertly masturbating late at night in my parents' living room. That documentary series was my pubescent sex education -- at least until I discovered Internet porn a short while later. It was everything they weren’t telling me in those impotent middle-school health classes. As a result, my erotic catalog is disproportionately made up of images from that show -- a stripper shaking her breasts in a man's face, a couple having sex at a swinging convention, a woman writhing behind glass.

When I saw the premiere this week of HBO’s “Sex//Now,” a new show being billed as the next “Real Sex,” I had to rewatch those old episodes. I was like a grown man revisiting his first issue of Playboy -- so much of the titillation and mystery was gone. What I was surprised to find was that in hindsight, despite the fact that I sometimes joke about perilously imprinting on "Real Sex" like a horny baby duck, the show wasn't the worst education. It showed that, despite my health teacher's insistence to the contrary, sex could be a great many things.

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I decided to speak with Chris Moukarbel, the director of the "Sex//Now" pilot, which aired Thursday, about his own pubescent relationship with "Real Sex" and how the carnal act has changed since that legendary series.

As a pre-pubescent, "Real Sex" was my sex education -- and I know I'm not alone in that. I've read that you had a similar experience.

I think a lot of people from my generation who didn’t necessarily have access to a lot of the stories and images that are available online now, we looked to television and specifically "Real Sex" for a lot of those stories. HBO's "Real Sex" was in a lot of ways proto-reality TV. It was radical, not just because of the subject matter but because it was one of the first times people in America were seeing real people and their real stories. So it was seminal in many ways.

[Laughs]

Sorry. I didn’t even mean that pun.

So, what do you remember from watching "Real Sex" as a kid?

Obviously the on-the-street interviews made a real impression. The segments were racy or sexy -- or a lot of times they were really not sexy and just plain funny -- but the on-the-street interviews gave people at home insight into what other people's sex lives could be like. I read this oral history of "Real Sex" that Vulture did and [the show's producer] Patti Kaplan was talking about her experience -- she really got a sense of how the show was changing popular culture and ideas around sex. When she first started doing her on-the-street interviews, people would be super-shy, super-careful with what they said. After a while, after the show had been on the air for a while, there was a precedent for that kind of confessional experience, so the floodgates opened. Eventually she had to be like, "OK, enough," and pull the microphone away from people because they had so much to say.

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What about today’s pubescents? Are they going to watch "Sex//Now" to learn about the birds and the bees or are they too immersed in Internet porn to care about the relatively tame titillation found on HBO?

I think a show like this has relevance now almost more than ever. It's not so much about exposing young people to ideas around sex that they couldn’t access otherwise. Everybody knows it's all available online and young people have come of age in that culture. What our show sets out to do is essentially curate the Internet. There are so many people out there who want to tell their stories, who want to share what they think about sex culture now. We're bringing an audience to those subjects and individuals. You can watch in 30 minutes some really fascinating stories and meet individuals you might not be able to immediately find online.

One of the early episodes of "Real Sex" features a segment on a live call-in "tele-fantasy" show. The technological difference between that and the first episode of "Sex//Now" is stunning. But how fundamentally different are these interactions -- the tele-fantasy of the '90s and the webcamming of now?

In a lot of ways that’s why we thought the show should happen now, because so much has changed since they stopped producing "Real Sex." You take a service like phone sex or even peep shows, there was a really incredible episode about peep shows that I remember coming across and when I saw it I realized there are probably not many peep shows anymore. They used to exist all around Times Square. It was the form of sex entertainment that was least likely to survive the rise of the Internet, because there's no purpose for it. Why we ended up focusing on camming is that it was the most one-to-one example of how something like that would dematerialize and reform online as this other form of sex entertainment. Camming is essentially a virtual peep show, but instead of the glass wall and the curtain that comes up and down, it's the glass wall. So it became this interesting metaphor for how different our relationships are and how they're mediated by technology.

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Is technology making it easier to connect with one another or is it further isolating us from each other?

It's definitely both. In certain ways, I'm much more connected to people in my life, people that live across the country. It's really liberating -- especially for people in rural areas with access through Grindr and other hookup apps to certain partners or sex cultures that they wouldn't have even known were available to them. The Internet has provided an opportunity to connect with people with similar points of view or sexual interests. At the same time, social media is isolating within our physical spaces. How often do we walk into a party and see everyone staring at their phones? It’s super-depressing. I don’t think that there is a good or bad. It’s hard to make a moral judgment on technology because it’s so pervasive and it's always existed to some degree. What I'm interested in with this show is finding a way to frame this moment and understand it.

How much has sex changed since "Real Sex"?

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The act itself is essentially the same. We do feature a device on the show that is an interesting window into what could be coming. It's this device called the RealTouch. It uses tactile feedback -- feeling, touching in this feedback loop through your computer screen. Instead of using a traditional Fleshlight, which is just a masturbatory device, this is being controlled by somebody on the other side of the computer and whatever they do, however they touch it. The way it's featured on the RealTouch website, you actually set up a date with a cam model. Everything that cam model does to it you feel it inside the device. I haven’t used it personally, but one of the people that we worked with on the show used it and they were clearly having a great time. It definitely did what it was promising to do. It's interesting to see the evolution of sex toys not just as masturbatory devices, but as tools to connect with people through the Web. And I think we're going to see that in other areas, not just the sex industry. People always talk about the ways the Internet was built through porn and how early porn sites monetized the exchange of services that became the bedrock for companies like Amazon and eBay. So I think what we're seeing with the RealTouch is a really rudimentary form of technology being used for sex, but it has applications that I think will impact other aspects of our lives.

You look at an app like Grindr or Tinder; the way these apps geo-locate and bring people together in a very short period of time is fascinating. In a way, your app has the potential to date for you. It's interesting to think about your phone vetting the people around you while you're in a movie theater and you don’t even realize until it's already made its selection.

Assuming the show gets picked up for more episodes, what topics are next?

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Even doing this first episode we shot a lot more that we've already started production on. One of them is this girl Ceara Lynch who lives in Portland. She's a humiliatrix. She's essentially a cam model but she's really entrepreneurial; she doesn’t really use the main cam hubs. She started doing this when she was really young and has built a whole camming empire. She specializes in financial humiliation and domination. One service she provides is called "ignored," where for a few dollars a minute she'll ignore you. Sometimes she'll turn that camera on so you can watch her ignore you. It's interesting the way she's using technology to create a very specific service that a lot of people are apparently looking for and wouldn’t be able to connect with before.

We also are going to focus on the new wave of dating apps and the way people are using them for dating, but more importantly to hook up and find sex partners.

So you're really interested in the intersection of sex and technology.

At this point it's really all connected. At the time the original "Real Sex" was on the air, they would drive around the country looking for people who were interested in sharing their sex stories. They would go to strip clubs, they would go to brothels -- but all of those places exist online now. It’s not even that it's a niche subject, really the only way to access sex culture is through the Web. Any show that we do is going to use that as a point of departure.

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Tracy Clark-Flory

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