Twenty-five years ago this week, HBO’s Real Sex debuted, introducing middle America to concepts like pony play, Voyeur Dorm, and sploshing, and irrevocably changing how we look at we look at our neighbors. (Does Fred from up the street really eat all those cupcakes, or is he just sitting on them for fun? We may never know.) For 19 years, on and off, the show documented how people were getting it on in a time of rapidly changing sexual mores, through a mixture of documentary shorts and man-on-the-street interviews.
In an interview with Vulture, producer and director Patti Kaplan, who had previously worked for Children’s Television Workshop, says the show was originally conceived in the late ’80s, when people were still afraid of sex because of the AIDS crisis.
Everyone was so frightened of sex and there was nothing like it on TV. People kind of didn’t dare. Sheila [Nevins, the creator of Real Sex] thought, “People are still having sex and they’re still having fun and being playful. What are they up to?”
Kaplan added that in spite of her innocent background, she was always interested what she calls “outrageous characters.”
I knew a few in New York like Betty Dodson, who was running a class for women on how to masturbate. It seemed outlandish but interesting; I thought she and I would perhaps have a dialogue—she’d describe the class and show some discreet photos. “Oh no, darling,” she said, “we’ll do a workshop for you.” She did and it blew our minds. Also, we couldn’t believe there were willing participants. Now everyone does everything on TV, but at the time, it was way ahead of anything.
To celebrate the show that helped launch the Suicide Girls and an unknowable number of teenage tug sessions, here are five of the most memorable moments from Real Sex:
“Cherokee Sex Workshop” (Episode 3)
In which Harley “Swift Deer” Reagan introduced the world to a series of Cherokee sex rituals known as Chuluaqui Quodoushka, which involved categorizing people by their genitals. Females could be wolf woman, dancing woman, buffalo woman, and deer woman. Males could be bear man, dancing man, horse man, and coyote man. It turns out neither Reagan nor the rituals were were Cherokee, angering the Cherokee nation immensely.
“Giddyup!” (Episode 28)
This was the pony play episode. Now, pretty much everyone and their grandmother has seen one of those butt plugs with a pony tail sticking out of it, but in 2000, both the very idea of pony play, and the fact there was a ranch where people hung out and rode each other, seemed mind blowing. (Actually, that ranch is still pretty impressive.)
“Annie Sprinkle’s Sluts and Goddesses” (Episode 2)
It’s not that no one knew who Annie Sprinkle was before Real Sex—she’d starred in the second most successful porn film ever, 1981’s Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle. But Real Sex was the first time most people saw her working as a sex educator, teaching the women of America that there was a little Annie Sprinkle in all of them. Sprinkle would go on to appear on several more episodes of the show.
“Sploshing” (Episode 24)
While much of Real Sex was about showing how kinky Americans are, this episode proved that the Brits get just as crazy, sitting in cakes and getting in food fights for sexual gratification. Good work, England.
“Sexual Soirée” (Episode 31)
This was the sex party episode, and one of the favorites of Katie Smallheer, who was a coordinating producer and was also interviewed in the Vulture article. Here’s what she had to say about it:
Someone pitched us a story about these sex orgies and at first we didn’t do it because who wants to go to sex party and let you film them? Turns out a lot of people. We ended up shooting this orgy, which was basically a costume party, or a masquerade, like in Eyes Wide Shut. There was even a woman who looked like Marie Antoinette with one of those skirts with the structure underneath. And they were good-looking people. By the end of the night, everyone had their clothes off and were fucking. At a certain point when you’re shooting vérité, there’s nothing for the producer to do. You just have to let the cameraman shoot. Patti and I ended up hiding behind this bookcase looking at each other, like, “What life are we living that we’re in the middle of someone else’s sex party?” People were getting fucked by other people’s husbands. A woman was in a dentist’s chair with three guys. And it wasn’t horrible, either. There was something sexy about this.
Many of these episodes can still be found online, so go make sure to take some time today and appreciate how much we all learned about ourselves, and our friends, via Real Sex.