At first blush, the mechanics of “Sex Box” sound like an ersatz religious ritual, a cult-like initiation process designed to intimidate, humiliate and then assimilate the participants. It’s waiting outside the bedroom for the newlyweds to consummate their marriage, except with a metal box, panelists and a live studio audience. WeTV’s “Sex Box” is a show in which couples have sex in a soundproof, opaque box in front of a live audience. The box looks to be a 10-foot cube, more or less; while inside, the couple is not recorded or filmed. We just watch the exterior of the box—which, to encourage us to pay attention, lights up red when the door is locked. It is presumably outfitted with a bed, but the audience never gets a glimpse of the inner sanctum. Perhaps most bizarrely, the couple is furnished with “intimates”—silky pajamas and slippers. Before the box, they are interviewed on the couch in their regular-person clothes. Post-box, they’re interviewed in pink and blue polyester satin. The questions from the panel are all versions of the one crucial question that the whole show hinges on: What happened in there?
Reality television—especially reality television that centers on love, sex and relationships—has a way of leaving its viewership feeling a little like they’ve been poisoned. For example, a show like “The Bachelor” both glorifies the process of dating and is ruthlessly cynical about it; TV court shows like “Judge Judy” make spectacle of the conflicts of intimacy; talk show hosts like Steve Harvey and Maury Povich make hay out of reductive relationship advice and onstage conflict. Every version has some metric for judging the participants and the health of their relationship, but the so-called advice is just the excuse to get the participants to share the secrets of their intimacy.
“Sex Box” has the same strategy. The show justifies the aforementioned sex-in-a-boxing with a veneer of relationship therapy that, the show declares, is scientifically proven to be more effective in the immediate post-coital state (something about hormones). The three panelists are eager and frank—a tattooed male sexologist who takes a moment in one of the episodes to draw out what doggy-style sex looks like for the audience; a couples therapist who keeps repeating that she has a private practice in Beverly Hills; and a relationship-oriented female pastor who goes out of her way to forgive the lesbian couple in the second episode for their crimes against heterosexuality.
Maybe the science is accurate; maybe the panelists are completely well-intentioned. Who cares? The experts and the “research” are drawn in to make the spectacle of people having sex in a box seem a bit more reasonable, but the point is still the sex in the box. The pseudoscience is just there to assuage the audience’s feelings of relative decency. The fact of the matter is still that we, as a country, a culture and maybe even as a race, are both obsessed with sex but terrified of depicting it. So we must construct any number of contrivances, theoretical and actual, to satisfy both our desire to center it and our desire to keep it behind closed doors. In that sense, the sex box of “Sex Box” might be the most perfect artifact of our society’s treatment of human sexuality. It’s an enormous opaque structure that takes up an awful lot of space and is the center of everyone’s attention—but heavens no, we couldn’t possibly look inside.
“Sex Box” is never able to shake off the fundamental weirdness of its participants having sex in a box—basic questions of hygiene come up, like: Do they change the sheets? Is there a shower in the sex box? Tissues? Moist towelettes? And what about something like birth control? Is there a bucket of condoms in there, or is it just a mattress and a closed door? There are out-of-the-box questions, too: Are they actors hired by the show? Are they just pretending to have sex in the box? What if they’re having really awful sex in the box and then lying about it to the panelists? Wouldn’t the pressure of being in a box onstage make it kind of hard to enjoy having sex? And exactly how much money do they have to pay contestants to make them feel OK about having sex in a box for a TV show?
“Sex Box” answers so few of these questions. The show does reveal that not all of the participants of “Sex Box” ending up having sex in the box. At least one couple in the pilot emerges without having done the deed (though they made an effort); another couple is so dysfunctional upon meeting the therapists that the panel tells them to just go home and break up. The rest claim to. (The couple that tried and failed was sent back into the box after some more out-of-the-box therapy. Their second attempt was more successful than their first.) To add drama (if that’s what it is), when the lights go red and the box is locked, “Sex Box” times how long the couples are inside. The elapsed times, in the first two episodes, range from 10 minutes (the couple that tried and failed) to half an hour. When they emerge, the panel asks them things like: Did you enjoy it? Who orgasmed first? Did you communicate? Occasionally the couple will rate the sex, and if their numbers align, the panel declares victory.
But “Sex Box” is constrained by its own desire to titillate. The show wants to both prominently showcase the closed-door nature of sex, but then it hauls all the participants onstage to discuss it in as much detail as possible. More than once, the sexologist Chris Donaghue says a version of the sentiment, “If we could, we’d be there with you during sex—but since we can’t, we’ll be right here afterwards.” A fine sentiment, but one that begs the question: Why can’t they be right there? Like almost all reality television, “Sex Box” wants to be provocative, but not too provocative; vaguely laudatory, but not truly groundbreaking. It plays up society's paradoxes without seeking to resolve them, and makes money off the gradient. It is a fascinating illustration of the contradictions of American audiences, too—we're amazingly comfortable with a big, lit-up elephant of innuendo in the room, as long as we don't have to go inside ourselves.