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‘Real Sex’ is the Raunchy ’90s Docuseries That We’re Still Talking About

This steamy series was ahead of its time…

Credit: HBO

Real Sex was ahead of its time. It took a frank and uncensored look at the world of sex, and ripped off the bandaid for its prudish ’90s audience.

In the open-minded age of the late 2000s where sex is far less taboo, the show wouldn’t have batted many eyelids, but in the ’90s it was fresh, exciting and almost scandalous.

Before HBO put their name on the map with shows like The Sopranos and Oz, late night options such as Real Sex captivated viewers with its sexual sincerity.

Real Sex was an explicit documentary series that aired from 1990-2009. Each hour of the show was composed like a 60 Minutes broadcast, with four or five short scenes highlighting a particular subculture, kink or advancement in the sex industry. Segments were separated by street interviews with random people, adding an unfiltered and unpredictable edge to the show. 

It’s hard to fathom the ground that Real Sex covered during its time on the air. The show featured segments on phone sex, stripping, drag shows, a female masturbation workshop, and much more. What no one anticipated was that 2.8 million households would tune in, giving it the second highest rating of any HBO documentary to date. 

Image from HBO / Real Sex

The staff in charge of the show were mostly women, including producers Patti Kaplan and Sheila Nevins. “We started research for what was intended to be one 60-minute special,” said Patti Kaplan. “It became 33 episodes.” In an oral history about Real Sex in Vulture from 2013, Kaplan states: “We were very proud of the show. And while we weren’t all women, I think it’s good that many of us were, because we didn’t want it to be a T&A show. There is some of that, of course, but it’s not the thrust.” 

“The show was conceived at the end of the eighties, during the time of AIDS. Everyone was so frightened of sex and there was nothing like it on TV. People kind of didn’t dare,” said Kaplan in an oral history about Real Sex, later adding: “There was a conversation about sex on the show that was very candid and frank. And there were no experts, no narrator. We were just letting these characters speak for themselves.” 

The “sex-positive” show was educational, empowering and erotic, and attracted an incredibly diverse audience. It answered the questions that high school sex ed classes avoided and society bashfully turned away from. 

The sex researcher Dr Frank Sommers made an appearance on HBO’s steamy, documentary series Real Sex in 1992 to make a stirring case: If the world could re-orient around love, eroticism and sensuality, then society would avoid mutual destruction. 

Though we may not live in the utopian future that Sommers envisioned, the show was “a breakthrough” and has paved the way towards female sexual empowerment. 

In 2018, HBO quietly removed its remaining adult-oriented archives from its various streaming services. Real Sex, along with the brothel serial Cathouse and voyeuristic Taxicab Confessions, are now lost to the past. Shows like Real Sex are far less shocking and captivating to a modern audience. The internet, and more specifically PornHub, is largely to blame for HBO’s decision to take down their sexy shows.

If you want to transport yourself back to the ’90s, check out The Best of Real Sex on VHS, available on Amazon (there are also clips and full episodes on YouTube). 

Or for a modern sprinkling of sexual sincerity, click here to read about Netflix’s second season of its hit show Sex Education. 

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