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Let's talk about sex: the hyper-explicit shows laying relationships bare

Sex Tape and Sex on the Couch see couples sharing their most intimate moments with relationship experts – and millions of viewers at home. They’re cringeworthy, but strangely cathartic

Brian and Victoria in Channel 4’s Sex Tape.
 Brian and Victoria in Channel 4’s Sex Tape. Photograph: Brian Sweeny/Channel 4

“Fingering,” says Nick, a 34-year-old publisher, “and cunnilingus.” He is listing some of the practices his partner, Louisa, is more keen on than he is, for the benefit of the sex therapist Lohani Noor. But he is also doing it in front of potentially millions of TV viewers.

Recent years have seen a hard upswing in explicit dating and relationship shows, peaking with the dystopian horror of Channel 4’s Naked Attraction. There, singletons judge potential partners’ nude bodies from the ground up, leaving several people on each episode publicly rejected on the strength of their pubic zones. The question looming at the forefront of viewers’ minds – why on earth would anyone ever agree to appear on this? – is there again tonight as BBC One and Channel 4 launch reality shows in which pairs of punters discuss their bedroom agonies with intimidating frankness. They’re not naked for the most part, but they lay themselves bare.

Judging by its title, Channel 4’s Sex Tape looks gratuitous and titillating, but turns out to be more gruelling: for most of the hour’s running time it’s a tense shame-clench. Having had cameras installed in their home, three unhappy couples in each episode share a week of domestic interactions with the relationship guru Anjula Mutanda. Unlike in Sex on the Couch, where video diaries are used conservatively, these tapes include them having sex.

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Skilfully drives down into the issues ... Sex on the Couch.
 Skilfully drives down into the issues ... Sex on the Couch. Photograph: Leigh Keily/BBC/Leigh Keily/Gary Roylance

Because even a Channel 4 reality show called Sex Tape can’t broadcast full-blown amateur porn, the participants remain under the covers at the crucial moments, lending the night-vision footage the air of a Blair Witch sequel about a haunted duvet. But the emotional exposure is considerable, and it’s intensified by the twist in the format: the session with Mutanda is not private. All that week’s participants are in the room, together. The three couples take turns to watch each other’s tape, and then comment on them to these strangers’ faces.

Dominating episode one are nightclub owner Brian and hostess Victoria. As calmly outlined by Victoria, their problems are legion, but they can be summed up simply by repeating the phrase “nightclub owner”. We start with the news that Brian – a manbunned twinkler with piercing eyes and sharp features that suggest David Tennant in “bastard” mode – once instigated a threesome that Victoria visibly regrets. Then we hear how she found out via social media that he had kissed another woman in the club, and will not give Brian oral sex unless he has showered because “I don’t know where he’s been”.

Dystopian horror ... Naked Attraction.
 Dystopian horror ... Naked Attraction. Photograph: Channel 4

Brian and Victoria’s filmed congress, later described with admirable directness by Mutanda as “vanilla”, generates what will be the trademark Sex Tape moment: silence descends on the screening room as everyone endures several seconds of grinding awkwardness. For the other couples, however, all this provides the same smug reassurance as it does for us at home. Our relationships may not be perfect but, phew, at least things are not that bad.

Even Brian and Victoria derive some redemption from this brutal process, however. He recognises that his playboy quest for validation from other women is putting his relationship at risk, while she … doesn’t really have to improve anything, but she is pleased that he is going to. Then they both enjoy it no longer being their turn.

By the end of Sex Tape’s first episode, the six volunteers have arrived at a sort of group catharsis. You sense that, having gone through this hellish embarrassment together, they will be friends for life. And they have provided a valuable service: Sex Tape and Sex on the Couch reach places previous reality shows haven’t, thanks to the bravery of the people who were willing to take part. It’s a dirty job, but be glad someone did it.


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