In Sex Box, WE tv’s new reality show, intimacy-starved couples mix it up in an enclosed space in front of a live studio audience, then emerge from the throes of passion and detail their experience to a trio of relationship experts too telegenic to be authoritative. It’s a concept so purportedly provocative, it inspired the professional tut-tutters of the Parents Television Council to emerge from their dormant state. The PTC scrambled its publicists to denounce Sex Box, but the show hardly seems worth the effort. It’s far from explicit, because what happens in the Sex Box stays in the Sex Box, though the sheets on which it happened are presumably removed by a production assistant who stands to become the poster child for unionization. The Sex Box is soundproof and surveillance-free, affording the couples as much privacy as can be expected while having sex on a national television show. Owing to the British format on which it’s based, Sex Box emphasizes the rudimentary couples’ therapy over the actual sex—the couples don’t so much as kiss in plain view. Don’t let the stupid-brilliant title fool you: On Sex Box, the talk is the action.
The problem with Sex Box isn’t the absence of graphic sexual content, it’s the absence of honesty or logic. Sex Box calls to mind the controversial stunt series for which Fox was once best known, including Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire? and The Littlest Groom. Like its forebears, Sex Box makes the crucial error of pretending to be well intentioned. The show is goofy, exploitative trash, but at this point, what’s wrong with that? Fox also feigned noble intentions, but it was necessary back when reality television was in its toddling phase and there was a starker division between the public and the private. By now we’re inured to cannibalistic reality television, due in part to the rise of social media, which has made everyone the star of their own dumb reality show. Broadcast exploitation isn’t what it used to be, and in our post-dignity age, exploitative reality shows no longer need to be equal parts offense and apology. The Sex Box producers apparently think otherwise, presenting the show as an effort to mend broken relationships as if the patina of benevolence makes it less offensive. In fact, that’s the most offensive thing about it.
Sex Box takes its formatting and visual cues from syndicated daytime talk shows, introducing its struggling couples in video packages, then having them discuss their intimacy issues with the show’s hosts: psychotherapist Fran Walfish, clinical sex therapist Chris Donaghue, and Yvonne Capehart, a pastor and couples’ counselor. The discussion takes place a stone’s throw away from the Sex Box, which from the outside resembles a Hollister-brand nuclear fallout shelter. In a bizarre choice, the Box’s interior is never shown, leaving the audience to wonder if it has a vibrating bed, a mirrored ceiling, or an appropriate supply of hand sanitizer. The couples are asked if they want to enter the designated hook-up suite, and they pretend to deliberate, as if they haven’t already resolved to join hands and step lively into the gaping maw of the Sex Box. After they finish the deed—a graphic shows how much time has elapsed—the couple emerges in Sex Box-branded silk jammies and talk about their erotic discoveries.
The hosts promise the exercise, which is essentially “Seven Minutes In Heaven” for grown-ups, will help repair these relationships. Perhaps it will; time in the Sex Box is a somewhat reasonable solution for couples with specific, mechanical issues such as Brandon and Elle, whose sexual encounters end with his orgasm but without hers. But most of the couples’ problems, while adjacent to or involving sex, stem from deeper issues that predate the sexual decline. Sex Box makes far less sense in those cases, so as if in anticipation of the obvious questions—Why? How? What the hell?—Donaghue explains the rationale:
If we could actually be in your bedroom and help you with this, we would, but we can’t. So that’s where the Sex Box helps us, because after sex, the oxytocin’s at its highest, so you’re going to feel the most open, and vulnerable, and honest, and that’s when we can really, really best help you guys.
The reasoning is plainly ridiculous, not to mention awfully creepy. Donaghue stresses the importance of oxytocin, the hormone associated with feelings of love and trust, because apparently, the Sex Box isn’t simply about the sexual act. Its real magic lies in its ability to facilitate open, vulnerable communication about sex or any other troublesome issue. But if that’s the case, the show could just as easily be called Puppy Box, because petting a dog also raises oxytocin, as does riding a rollercoaster, though the producers can be forgiven for avoiding the cost-prohibitive and logistically arduous task of building a rollercoaster inside of a box. The show becomes cruel and unusual when a couple’s lacking sex life is a chicken-and-egg paradox that clearly won’t be solved by getting it on in a by-the-hour motel room built on a soundstage.
The concept looks wobblier with each new couple. One couple, Rebecca and Dyson, have been together for 17 years and married for 10, and they’ve been sexually satisfied for much of that time on account of her bisexuality and willingness to invite other women into the bedroom. But Dyson wants to invite another woman into their relationship on a full-time basis, and Rebecca has reservations. The segment exposes the flawed dynamic between the hosts. Donaghue is sex positive, while Walfish and Capehart (again, a pastor) are not. So while Donaghue is trying to have a judgment-free conversation about how to align the couple’s needs, Walfish and Capehart are busy bullying Rebecca into accepting that any freaky notions in her head were put there by Dyson. Though Rebecca repeatedly tells them being with other women gratifies her, they’re convinced she’s being manipulated and won’t be convinced otherwise. They aren’t the first television shrinks to insist on being right, but they want to be right about advice that seems oddly conservative for the occasion.
What’s the use of putting a pastor on a show called Sex Box? There isn’t any unless the goal is to pretend the show is something other than what it is. Sex Box could be a great guilty pleasure if it wasn’t afraid to live up to its title. If, for example, these were couples wanting to try a new position, toy, or technique and in need of a pep talk, tutorial, and debrief, it would be a naughty, compelling, and informative show. But making that show would require the producers to stop pretending they’re trying to save relationships from the brink and start thinking inside the Box.