Sex Box review: WE TV’s new show wants to have its smut and censor it, too.

Sex Box Wants to Have its Smut and Censor it, Too

Sex Box Wants to Have its Smut and Censor it, Too

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Feb. 27 2015 3:45 AM

All Box, No Sex

WE TV’s new show wants to have its smut and censor it, too.

Sex Box.
Sex Box encourages viewers to think inside the box.

Photo courtesy WE TV

The salient piece of information about Sex Box, the new reality show starting tonight on WE TV in which couples have sex in a box on stage, is that viewers of it will see and hear absolutely no sex. This is both a reassuring and disappointing tidbit of information: What is the world coming to if couples are having sex in a box on basic cable for our titillation? But what is the point of a show called Sex Box if there is no sex in it?

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

In the runup to the show’s release, WE has been trying to navigate its way through this particular conundrum. WE does not want to be mistaken for a smut peddler—especially when the smut it is peddling is not even all that smutty—but it also does not want to lose the ratings that come from peddling smut. The network ran an ad in the Hollywood Reporter encouraging viewers to watch the show and to then sign the Parents Television Council’s petition against it if they were truly disgusted by what they saw. Simultaneously, WE has described the series as television’s “most extreme couples therapy series.” Who would show up to watch the more honestly titled No Sex Box?

So many reality TV shows inhabit this strange territory, where the inappropriate hovers just in and out of reach. Series spin themselves as altruistic—The Bachelor is about finding true love; Keeping Up With the Kardashians about strong ties of family; Sex Box about helping couples in need—while delivering something more prurient and voyeuristically thrilling. And yet what is delivered is almost always a tease, a vague rendering of situations that are hardly ever as debauched or thrilling as the show suggested in its “scenes from next week.” What we end up seeing is neither wholesome nor scandalous, but just enough of each to permit both as excuses for watching.

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Sex Box, which is based on a British format, is like any number of reality shows that purport to help people: Whatever help is being doled out, that assistance would surely be better provided outside the context of a reality TV show. And yet like all do-gooder reality TV, Sex Box takes its mission on with stone-faced self-importance. In each episode, a couple with a relationship problem walk into a theater in the round, sit down on a couch, and hastily explain their issues to a trio of couples counselors: a Beverly Hills therapist in the yenta mode, a black female pastor, and a tattooed clinical psychologist who was presumably cast because Dan Savage said no.

After having a hurried chat about their problems, the couple are invited to use the sex box, a room into which we cannot see or hear, plopped down in the middle of a reality TV show set like some inverse Panopticon. Whatever happens inside the sex box stays inside the sex box. There are no cameras or mics. To make up for this lack of sexiness, the show resorts to comically juvenile gambits. The participants are timed, so that a couple who spend a whole 30 minutes in the sex box are greeted with a knowing “woooooo” from the audience—even though, for all we know, they could have been discussing groceries and fiscal policy. Upon leaving the sex box, the participants are asked to wear silk pajamas, as if the specter of Hugh Hefner were the best way to reinsert a jolt of sex appeal to the situation.

The first episode of Sex Box features three couples with a range of problems. In the first pairing, the female partner never orgasms, and until they are on the Sex Box couch, the male partner doesn’t really know this is a case. Another married couple, together for 17 years, have a wild sex life involving “twosomes, threesomes, and moresomes,” but the husband wants to have another woman co-habitate with them. His bisexual wife is eager to keep having sex with multiple partners, but she is not enthused about a potential sister-wife living with them and their small children. The third couple used to have sex all the time, but since the birth of their child, the wife’s libido—previously so strong she gave her husband a blow job while she was in labor—has cratered.

These are all, give or take a sister-wife, common enough sexual problems that could be helped by a therapist. What is less clear is if they can be helped by the sex box. Sure, bring on the sex box for the first couple, who are invited to use it so the husband can pay some attention to his wife’s orgasms. But why exactly does the couple with the wild sex life, but a disagreement about whether to become a thruple, need it? Here the sex box clearly becomes a gimmick, with the experts explaining that having sex in the sex box mid–therapy session is necessary because it will help increase oxytocin levels and make both partners more open and honest. It’s mumbo-jumbo used to mask the truth: It’s necessary for the couple to use the sex box so that the show can be called Sex Box.

If anything, Sex Box suggests over and over again that what is troubling these couples is—surprise, surprise—not just sex. The couple disagreeing about whether to bring a third party into their home are fighting about boundaries more than they are fighting about sex. When the panelists ask the new mom who has become much less interested in sex about her own mother, she starts to cry, and it becomes apparent that there is a whole fraught history there that cannot be resolved with a go-round in the sex box. The woman who hadn’t been having orgasms goes into the sex box and orgasms. (Sex Box doesn’t take on problems that might take multiple trips to the sex box to handle.) This may seem like a sex box victory, but it is also a victory for honesty. Imagine: If she had told her husband about her lack of climax months ago, as any therapist might have suggested, she could have orgasmed in the sex box known as her very own house.