Interior designer Melanie Rose specializes in something very intimate and unique in the home renovation space: She designs sex rooms. Remember Tommy Lee's dream of a boudoir playground in "Pam & Tommy," and how the racy redesign led to his sex tape being stolen? That's what Rose does for a living — well, except she doesn't steal her clients' personal belongings.
When she's not planning other folks' bedrooms, Rose is in her own home writing a series of erotic novels based on that career. It was under the guise of pitching those books as a scripted series that her manager approached Adam Sher, president of ITV America. But Sher had another idea: Why not turn her life and work into a TV-MA-rated reality show?
And so Netflix 's "How to Build a Sex Room" was born. In the show, Rose visits people who have lost some of the spark in their sex lives or who simply want a high-end, private space for their intimacy. "Sex Room" offers an unusual spin on the home renovation genre, and while the title of the show may have some viewers imagining a dungeon filled with whips and chains, Rose makes it clear the rooms can take on all kinds of forms for all kinds of couples.
"You don't want to go to the extreme side of seeing something that's really kinky and something fetishy that would instantly put your viewer off," she says. "What I'm trying to do with my line of work is show the sex-positivity side of things."
Yet, kinkier pleasures are featured on the show as well. In one episode, Rose builds a space for a seven-person polyamorous "family" whose requests include aspects of bondage, voyeurism and "water sports." But the series also focuses on couples who are complete neophytes when it comes to anything beyond the vanilla, with Rose guiding them through elements like impact play, Japanese rope bondage and role-playing.
"It's like 'OK, don't shame yourself by thinking you can't bring sex toys into the bedroom,'" she says. "You can and you can make it fun. You can make it something both of you could enjoy."
Perhaps this is the kind of show that might make a "Property Brothers" fan on basic cable blush. But there are no content concerns in streaming, just as there weren't in the early days of premium cable. The age-old adage that "sex sells" was absolutely true back then; churn was kept low in the 1980s and '90s thanks to the late-night soft-core fare that was never really promoted— but everyone knew existed.
Now, streamers eager to hold on to subscribers in a competitive marketplace are looking at similarly spicy programming. A number of sex-positive shows either have recently premiered on streaming or are about to. "How to Build a Sex Room" launched on Netflix in July, while Discovery+ has the sex-coaching docuseries "Good Sex" debuting on Aug. 19. Meanwhile, Hulu will begin airing the docuseries "Planet Sex With Cara Delevingne" in November. All of these shows offer unfiltered looks at modern sexuality and the many forms of pleasure people can experience.
This is not to say that streamers have been complete prudes prior to these launches. Plenty of streaming shows have leaned into their TV-MA ratings to feature steamy sex scenes — there's the bodice-ripping Regency drama "Bridgerton" or the sexually charged "Sex/Life" starring Sarah Shahi. But in an on-demand world where consumers can more easily choose, or choose to ignore, provocative programming, the envelope is being pushed in terms of what audiences are comfortable seeing and discussing on a deeper, more realistic level.
"I think that we're seeing in all popular culture, and certainly on social media as well, that the conversation is moving towards one that is increasingly sex positive and more nuanced around sexuality itself," says Caitlin V., the host of "Good Sex," who is a professional intimacy and relationship coach and a former sexual health researcher.
"Good Sex" follows Caitlin and her clients as they work through sexual issues in their relationships. What sets the show apart is the couples put cameras in their bedrooms, so Caitlin can watch how they interact physically and then talk it through with them. Caitlin says she has been involved in sex education and sexual health long enough to avoid being blindsided by any curveballs her clients might throw at her, but she appreciates that the show enabled her to try new methods in her practice.
"The format of the show allowed us to be innovative, and it allowed me to actually deliver even better coaching to my clients than I may have been able to create for these people under normal circumstances," she says.
Caitlin's unique approach to sex advice caught the attention of Howard Lee, president of TLC Streaming and Network Originals. Lee says that "Good Sex" reminded him of listening to famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer back in the day, and that Caitlin's advice to her clients on the show covers topics that people are still queasy about — even in 2022. Lee says he was also drawn to the idea of showing footage of real couples in their bedrooms.
"That's exactly how she does her coaching," he says. "That was completely new for all of us here. And you always gravitate to doing any kind of concept or something that has never been heard or seen. It's unusual yet understandable."
Lee adds that Discovery+ was mindful of how much of the footage actually made it into the show, given the voyeuristic nature of watching couples in their intimate environments. He says the streamer will "show enough that you have an understanding" while also respecting people's privacy.
"When we're working on a show for TLC or Discovery+, there are privacy issues, and we're very careful about how we are presenting the people who have agreed to let the cameras into their own bedrooms and let Caitlin V. talk about it," Lee says. "And we were sensitive about that. We want to really protect how people feel about seeing themselves on television and respecting what they might want as well."
Still, Lee says that he prefers people to be "incredibly open, direct and honest," so walking the fine line between tasteful and profane was a balancing act. But in the age of social media, he believes audiences are more willing to let their guard down, particularly when it comes to recording themselves and being on camera.
"Ultimately, in the end, they are trying to improve their lives," he says of the couples on the show. "They really are trying to get remedies from someone like Caitlin, and this is a perfect opportunity for them."
Both Caitlin and Rose are hopeful that their series will lead to conversations about sex and sexuality that are otherwise avoided in public. Caitlin says that by doing so, problems that might otherwise cause shame or embarrassment can instead be brought out into the open.
"My dream for the show is that it's going to normalize whatever the viewer is going through when they see someone else going through it, and then they see someone else going through it with the help of a coach," she says. "They get to watch as each of these couples experience massive transformation in their intimate lives. My dream is that that's very normalizing."
All of these programs are very careful to present themselves in a TV-MA or an R-rated format — in other words, do not plan to see hardcore pornography. But these frank portrayals of human sexuality would definitely be a hard sell on ad-supported broadcast or cable.
It's not only docuseries and unscripted shows that have been testing the limits of streaming standards and practices. Netflix's "Sex Education," which is preparing to air its fourth season, has been putting forward sex-positive messages from the very beginning. The HBO Max series "Minx," about a woman who launches the first erotic magazine for women in the 1970s, broke from TV norms with significant portrayals of full-frontal male nudity (including one memorable member montage). And Amazon's "The Boys" and HBO Max's "Harley Quinn" both featured rather explicit orgy scenes in their recent third seasons. In fact, the "Boys" episode "Herogasm" prompted Amazon to create a standards and practices department for the first time.
Ironically, the embrace of more explicit fare comes after cable moved away from such content in the internet age. But once upon a time, cable networks, seeking to establish a foothold in the marketplace, had their fair share of sexual programming. Premium channels like HBO and Showtime ran such late-night programming blocks; Cinemax earned the infamous nickname "Skinemax."
HBO aired the long-running docuseries "Real Sex," which covered topics ranging all across the sexual spectrum. That was followed by shows like "G String Divas," which was filmed in a strip club in Pennsylvania; "Pornucopia," about the porn industry; and "Cathouse: The Series," which shot at the Moonlite BunnyRanch brothel in Nevada. Cinemax and Showtime had their own lineups of soft-core pornographic films and shows like "Passion Cove" and "Red Shoe Diaries."
Basic cable also made forays into the space, although obviously with not as much skin as their premium cousins. Oxygen aired the call-in show "Talk Sex With Sue Johanson" and the erotic anthology "Bliss" late on Sunday nights in the early 2000s, while The History Channel debuted the docuseries "The History of Sex" in 1999.
According to one former senior HBO executive who spoke with Variety, network employees were surprised at the robust ratings for "Real Sex" when it began airing in 1990. The exec says the shows were not made by throwing money at a random group of pornographers. Rather, all of HBO's sex-themed shows fell under the purview of Sheila Nevins, the longtime head of the network's documentary efforts and one of the most respected voices in nonfiction filmmaking.
The exec also points out that these shows aired in the time before the internet. Now, any variety of hardcore pornography can be found. Back then, viewers had to pay for subscription outlets like The Playboy Channel if they wanted to see nudity and sexuality on television. Thus, an HBO subscription provided a bit of extra cover if they did not want to admit to indulging in their baser desires.
The decision to move away from that type of programming was not moral but financial — ratings began to diminish as viewers went online to satisfy their curiosities. Today, shows like "Real Sex" or "Pornucopia" can't even be found on HBO Max.
Streamers may have avoided similar programming at first partly because the "late-night" cover doesn't exist in a nonlinear world, and having such shows available on demand might be an unattractive option for parents who don't want their children to see such content.
So why is it a good time for this new wave of sexually progressive shows to make their debuts in the streaming world? One might surmise that people are looking for non-hardcore ways to learn more about their own sexuality or that of a loved one, and these shows provide a way to engage that some find more palatable. Then again, it's just as likely that these are businesses that are starting to mature, and they're looking for ways to keep subscribers enthralled and spending their $15 or so a month. And sometimes, it might take a little steam to keep the stream.
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