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Masturbation, Nudists, and Street Interviews: An Oral History of HBO's Real Sex

In November of 1990, HBO viewers who stuck around after yet another Tuesday night showing of She’s Having a Baby found themselves watching a documentary special called Real Sex. The show featured segments on phone sex, stripping, and, most memorable, a female masturbation workshop. It aired at 11 p.m., hardly a desirable time shot. 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 (only The Making of the Sports Illustrated 25th Anniversary Swimsuit Issue had done better). “We started research for what was intended to be one 60-minute special,” said Patti Kaplan, the series’ producer. “It became 33 episodes.”

During the next two decades — the show’s last episode aired in 2009 — the “60 Minutes of sex,” as Newsday termed it, provided a master class in human sexuality for anyone with access to a premium cable package. (And masturbation fodder for legions of teenagers.) By turns bawdy, sexy, hilarious, and simply weird (though never not sincere), it filled in the gaps high school sex ed classes left, which turned out to be vast. Real Sex covered not only sex toys and polyamory, but the vaginal molds of porn stars, squirting demonstrations at swingers’ conventions, and workshops in which participants were prompted to dip their testicles in sprinkles. Through it all, the mostly female team that produced the show experienced firsthand the almost absurdly vast array of desires that comprise human sexuality. “One of the main things I remember was how much we laughed,” said Katie Smalheer, who worked on the show for nine years. “We weren’t laughing at people; we were just laughing at how silly we can all be when it comes to sex — role-playing, dress-up, sex toys, dirty talk, strap-ons, corsets, striptease, mud play, latex. That was the essence of Real Sex, real people doing what turned them on, and having fun.”

We spoke with five members of the crew about what inspired the show, what went on behind the scenes, above and below the belt, and how they managed to get strangers on the street to share such explicit stories about their sex lives.

Patti Kaplan, producer and director, 1990–2009: 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. 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?”

Katie Smalheer, associate producer, coordinating producer, supervising producer, 1996–2005: When the first one aired in 1990, little did we know that “sex positive” would become a whole category of thinking.

Patti Kaplan: It appealed to me even though I had no background that related to this — I came to HBO from Children’s Television Workshop. I did always have a personal taste for outrageous characters, though, and 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.

Katie Smalheer: All those women just got in a circle and took their clothes off. Did Patti mention Betty made her take the workshop too? Betty was the real deal. She was not interested in having someone come in who didn’t understand.

Lynn Sadofsky, line producer, co-producer, 1990–1996: Except for one guy who drove the truck and stayed downstairs, it was an all-female crew. You had to create an atmosphere where people wouldn’t feel threatened. Though in most cases, these people were already pretty comfortable with themselves.

Patti Kaplan: The five women in the masturbation workshop, I think they thought it would be buried somewhere. It was supposed to be just a single show that would air on late-night HBO. But it turned into a long-term series with episodes that were shown again and again — that was tricky.

Marla Ratner, production coordinator, associate producer, 1994–1997: I did a lot of street interviews and people often said things I couldn’t believe they’d say on-camera. Then with the workshops, you’d realize, Oh, wait, they’re not just willing to talk about this stuff, they’re willing to show us these things.

The segments were separated by a then-novel narrative device — short interviews in which couples, groups of friends, and the occasional single person held forth on everything from their favorite place to have sex to the name their partner calls his penis (one woman’s memorable answer: “Mr. Snooky Wooky Dumpling Buns”).

Patti Kaplan: The street interviews really helped to validate the show. [It was like,] if you think some of these stories are insane, wait until you hear what some guy in a restaurant will tell you about his sex life.

Lynn Sadofsky: At the beginning, it was challenging to figure out where to do them. You had to be able to find people. I remember trying to film in San Francisco, walking around for hours but there was nobody around. New York and South Beach were the best. You also had to get people who had a little drink in them, so they were in the mood

Marla Ratner: We were very strategic about neighborhoods. We’d go to ones filled with lots of bars. We had lists and lists of questions. But some we stopped asking because we always got the same answer. Practically every guy said his biggest fantasy was a threesome.

Deb Wasser, street interviewer, segment director/producer, 19952003: What worked best was getting couples to tell on each other. You ask the guy, “What does she sound like when she’s coming?” Then you challenge her to reveal something great about him.

Patti Kaplan: You could do a sociological study on what it was like to do street interviews in the beginning and what it was like later. At first we thought it was amazing when someone said, “I sometimes masturbate.” Eventually we got to the point where people were telling us everything. “Oh last night, in the restaurant … ” We’d be like, “Okay, thanks, that’s enough.”

Deb Wasser: I liked the street interviews better in early years, when there were more unexpected-looking people, not just beautiful young things. I interviewed these blue-haired theater ladies one time, the kind who lunch and go to the theater on Wednesday. I even interviewed my grandparents. They grew up before the “rubber,” as my grandmother called it, and nobody had asked them to articulate anything about sex before. My grandmother’s name was Emmy Lou and my Grandpa said, “Oh, I love Emmy and her Lou!”

Patti Kaplan: The street interviews were comforting, because they were just people and nothing surprised them. It gave the aura to the whole show that [all the other stuff] was fine.

Watch a sampler of nudity-free (yet still slightly NSFW) Real Sex moments.

Behind the scenes, though, the crew was often privy to things they never could have gotten away with airing on television, even on a show with a self-imposed R rating.

Marla Ratner: There was one event we filmed called the Smut Fest, and after this burlesque performance, people came onstage and started cutting each other with lasers. I remember thinking, I can’t believe this is happening in front of my eyes. We never showed that. We tried to keep it fun and sexy.

Patti Kaplan: There were two rules: no erections and no penetrations. Sometimes we’d show penetration but not the point of contact. It could be tricky. But we worked with phenomenally wonderful cameramen. It was very much vérité on the fly.

Katie Smalheer: I always had to go see the lawyer and sit in his office if there was a problem. He’d have the video up and we’d going through it. He’d be like, “For this I went to law school!”

Deb Wasser: The lawyers were very careful about what we could show. They would examine it frame by frame. What a job. Then they’d come back to us and say, remove these three frames. Of course when we were out there filming people really having sex, they weren’t stopping and starting for the camera.

Lynn Sadofsky: It could feel a bit absurd sometimes. I remember one sex workshop where the participants were in the throes of whatever practice they were doing and I literally had to call lunch because the crew had to stop filming — we weren’t a union set, but we did basically follow union rules. Finally I just called, “lunch time.” I guess [the workshop participants] stopped. I guess they lined up for lunch.

Early on, the decision was made to forego digital cameras and shoot on film (at the time, there was still a sharp distinction between the two) — the hope was that this would help distinguish Real Sex as a documentary about sex rather than simply porn. The problem was that film demanded a relatively large group of people be involved.

Deb Wasser: We would try to blend in as much as we could. We did this piece called “Fun 4 Two” about this sex party house in the Netherlands that was really classy. We’d go into some fabulously cool room where there would be people having sex, but it wasn’t like we were just filming with a little video camera. We were filming on 16 mm film, so we were a big crew. We did try to be discreet. I was wearing lingerie and most of the crew was scantily clad. But there’d be the guy with the boom, and the other guy with the boom mike, and the person with the lighting. Shooting in 16 mm film was a much greater challenge, but that’s what made the show beautiful.

Annie Sprinkle was once asked the difference between pornography and erotica, and she said it’s all in the lighting. Which is exactly true. It would have looked like cheap porn if it was shot the way porn was shot, but having a nice fat budget to play with meant we could produce something that looked really good.

Katie Smalheer: It was a great in between job for lots of producers. They’d be producing hardcore issue documentaries for HBO then have three months down and Sheila would say to them, “Go talk to Patti and do a Real Sex piece.”

Deb Wasser: It was the best gig in television. You were shooting in nice 16 mm film doing aerial photography work with a beautiful music budget. My wife would come home and watch me on Internet porn sites and say, “I can’t believe they pay you to do this.”

In the early days, of course, there was no Internet, and finding fetishes, subcultures, and workshops deserving of their own Real Sex segment depended on a combination of old-fashioned shoe leather reporting, creative thinking, and blind luck.

Patti Kaplan: We used telephones, or the library, or the newspapers. We had some access to Lexis Nexis.

Katie Smalheer: At one point, we were looking for drag performers. I would just go down to Christopher Street and pick up copies of the gay weeklies. They listed every club and drag performance — Duplex has Lady Bunny. Over here is Lypsinka and Varla Jean Merman.

Lynn Sadofsky: There were also certain people that were big sources for us.

Patti Kaplan: Annie Sprinkle [a sex educator and former porn star] was a gold mine of recommendations. Her entire entourage of friends and associates were all quite outlandish and interesting.

Katie Smalheer: Even in the early days of Internet, we weren’t really researching on the Internet. Patti would say, “I need strippers in the Bahamas.” So I’d call up the Bahamas Visitors Bureau and some guy would know about a strip club out by these sugarcane fields. This was an actual thing that occurred. I told Patti, and she asked him to take some images and send them to us. When the photos finally came, it was the sleaziest backwoods backwater. Patti was like, “No.” That was my first experience thinking we had some great lead on a story and it [turned out] just terrible. But that was how we did research.

For a segment to work, participants certainly needed to be open and willing to let viewers in. But however wacky things became, producers made a concerted effort not to make fun of anyone.

Lynn Sadofsky: I’m sure there were times when we were in the back laughing at the absurdity of it all. But for me, I felt really good about it. I thought it was a really ahead of its time.

Patti Kaplan: 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. And speak they did.

Deb Wasser: I did one segment on sploshing, which is where you take food or other sticky substances and roll around in them. It was big in Britain, where everyone is so uptight that fetishes have to be completely wacky. Sitting in pies was a big deal. What was cool was taking something weird and finding a kernel of sexy in it so the audience could relate.

Lynn Sadofsky: I was always amazed we could find people to participate in the workshops on-camera. Most of the time we left that to the person running the workshop. We would give them some parameters, though. You want fairly nice-looking people.

Katie Smalheer: It was always a challenge for us to find good-looking people. It’s certainly true of nudists, but a lot of people doing weird sex stuff are not necessarily young and attractive. Though in early episodes it was so astonishing to have people taking their clothes off, it didn’t even matter.

Marla Ratner: When I came in, the show had already been on the air for a couple of years and would still do segments that weren’t that salacious, like about a photographer who shot beautiful nudes. After I left, it kept getting sexier. I think other shows prompted that — they were competing with the Playboy Channel. The network also began to be more willing to show things that initially it wouldn’t.

Katie Smalheer: There were a couple of segments toward the end that I remember clearly. 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.

Patti Kaplan: 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 and A show. There is some of that, of course, but it’s not the thrust.

Katie Smalheer: I only had someone quit on me once. We were doing a segment called “Bottoms Up,” about an anal sex workshop run by Tristan Taormino, a super-brainy sex activist. I asked a PA to clean up some condoms and she actually walked off the job. I was like, “Well, fuck it, I’ll just clean it up myself.”

Marla Ratner: There was a good amount of shock factor for all of us. It was always pretty awkward on set. It definitely felt like encroaching on something that should be private, except that we were there, filming away. What I learned is that I can’t judge — whatever floats your boat.

Katie Smalheer: For the “Bottoms Up” workshop, there were six couples in a room having sex. Normally we would have people naked, but not necessarily having sex. This was like, “Holy shit.” And they were not only having sex, they were fucking each other in the ass. And that was our job! Later you’d be talking about it in a crowded elevator with your co-workers and then realize, “What did I do? What did we say?”

Working on the show provided endless conversational fodder and could even be a kind of claim to fame. Marla Ratner was in a wedding where she was announced as the bridesmaid who “produces the Real Sex show!” It also forced everyone to get completely comfortable talking about sex.

Patti Kaplan: Sheila and I would be sharing a cab not thinking about the driver at all, throwing words around casually. Often people would do a double take.

Since then the culture has changed. Recently, I was in a taxicab chatting with the driver and told him I’d worked on Real Sex. He spun around and said, “That show was a breakthrough.” I think now women are much clearer about what they deserve. The show opened up the door. It was seen very broadly, even beyond the HBO subscriber — however they came across it.

Katie Smalheer: I think that the corporate powers that be weren’t interested in promoting Real Sex. For Christ’s sake, it was never sold on video. People would ask all the time, how do we order it? It was not how HBO wanted to put itself out there. It was said in the documentary department at HBO that Real Sex and other late-night programming like Taxicab Confessions allowed [creator] Sheila [Nevins] to make the Alzheimer’s documentary, or the alcoholism documentary. The late-night shows gave her the financial credibility within the company to make things she knew nobody would watch.

We were like the stepchildren of the office — we were always getting moved around. Before one of the moves, I was cleaning out a file cabinet and found a vibrator. Patti was like, “Betty Dodson gave me that.” We had all kinds of crazy stuff in that office. The mail guys loved us, because we used to get porn in the office all the time and we’d give the magazines to them. We did a segment on these guys who made Pyrex dildos, and they gave Patti one they called the juicer because it looked like an orange juicer. And another time I did a piece on a sex-toy store in Seattle, and you can’t do a piece with people who own a sex-toy store without them giving you something. I left that butt plug hanging on my bulletin board until I left HBO. I think I still have it somewhere. You can’t really throw it away — it was a gift. And Patti still has that juicer. I know she does.