National Geographic Channel’s Sex: How It Works hits the “Refresh” button on TV’s attitudes regarding sex. With anatomically accurate 3D graphics, articulate interviewees, crisp scientific evidence, and uncondescending bravura, the program is sober alternative to the usual salaciousness of primetime. If it focuses on the mechanics and physiology of heterosexual sex, and more specifically, on male sexual experiences, the show yet expands viewers’ knowledge of the spectrum of desire and practice in the US and the UK. And that might be reason enough to watch it.
Sex: How It Works—which premiered last week and re-airs on 25 June—includes its fair share of little known facts. Sperm leaves the penis at approximately 28 miles per hour, for instance, and no scientist has yet uncovered the physiological necessity for the female orgasm, but these are so neatly contextualized that they never trip into sensationalism. Instead, the research is delivered by individuals willing to talk about sex frankly but intelligently, whether they are academic scholars or “ordinary people” on the street.
From the charming woman of a certain age, who was happy “to donate an orgasm for science,” to bisexual Aiden, who faced few problems in arranging hook-ups but struggled to convince partners he was relationship material, interviewees seem candid and self-aware. Almost all speakers, even the young woman who remained a virgin until her wedding night, assert the belief that sex, and the desire for sex, are healthy and life-enhancing. The show early on integrates hard science supporting these ideas into its voice-over, a fine example of the exemplary here-are-the-facts, make-up-your-own mind attitude of this piece.
But Sex: How It Works doesn’t always play fair with its rich human material. For example, the focus on a young student who defines herself as asexual is tantalizingly brief. The segment no sooner raises the fascinating distinction between desire for the sexual act itself and desire for physical affection and human touch, than it wraps up and moves on to the next topic. When the documentary does take its time, it captures the pain and isolation of falling outside the norm. A young hockey coach says he discovered the blood flow to the penis was so impaired that he could not sustain an erection. As he and his father remember their first discussion about his problem, the father’s response focuses solely on his own shock at fathering a child with a birth defect, and how that reflects on his physicality. As the camera turns to the son, his face shows an absolute absence of any emotion. From here, the show cuts to the son’s demonstration of his $30,000 erection (tastefully fogged for TV), courtesy of a penile implant.
This sequence suggests the show isn’t entirely averse to judging its subjects’ stories. Such edits might be a result of changes made from its source, the BBC’s three-part series, How Sex Works. Or perhaps they derive from this version’s focus on the mechanisms of attraction among 18–40-year-old heterosexuals, a point made by the air time devoted to Dr. Linda Papadopoulos’ entertaining, but not exactly earth-shattering, series of experiments on the physiology of such attraction. Few women, for example, need Papadopoulos’ results to know that men who have been drinking stare more at their breasts rather than their faces. And the story that symmetrical facial features serve as a visual cue to solid genes and good health is a staple of high school science classes.
These repetitions are less worrying than some of the show’s other decisions, including Monica’s valiant effort to achieve orgasm in an MRI tube, under the anxious eyes of a team of neuroscientists. Through a mix of scientific politesse, self-deprecation, and gentle humor (the subject wears black lace under her medical gown), the photographing of a woman’s brain activity as she climaxes offers some insight into human arousal. But do we need to see, not once, but several times, shots of her restless, blanket-covered lower body as she performs in the MRI tube? When male subjects in a later experiment masturbate to provide samples for sperm count and motility research, the camera waits patiently outside a private cubicle’s closed door.
While such choices suggest a bias towards male primacy, the show displays another intellectual imperialism, too. Its research is focused mostly, though not exclusively, on Caucasian subjects, within the US and UK, a strikingly visible constraint on possible conclusions. That no one notes this is troubling: it would have been reassuring to know that the production team, and the scientists invoked and interviewed, at least considered the potential limitations to their conclusions, or understood the need to consider additional research outside their own cultures.
Despite these limitations, however Sex: How It Works offers a useful sex education through personal stories and scientific data, abjuring lifestyle and cultural judgments. And in that, it might help people see the lie that structure the notion of a sexual norm. It’s a lesson that all citizens, young or old, need to learn.