|H ere they are in the Atlantic Monthly. Here they are, too, in The New York Review of Books. She is arrestingly beautiful, with a wild-rose complexion and lustrous brown hair that falls in
perfect waves around her shoulders. He is blond and movie-star handsome, complete with gleaming torso and flat, muscular flanks.
He parts the silken folds of her nightshirt, a fun-loving dimple lurking in his cheek. She gazes at him, her eyes full of astonishment and satisfaction.
The couple in this advertisement is about to have Better Sex. For a mere $49.85, a caption explains, you can join them as they scale the heights of unspeakable ecstasy and journey toward a richer, more fulfilling sexual relationship. All, of course, in the privacy of your own home.
Such are the blandishments of the Better Sex Video Series, a three-volume pathway to erotic expertise that has sold more than a million copies since its 1992 debut. Produced and marketed by the “Sinclair Institute,” in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the series aims its pitch not at the sexually dysfunctional, but at a heretofore ignored silent majority — the decorous masses of “normal adults” who crave new vistas of intimacy. The professional packagers of Better Sex describe their target market simply: “Upper income,” says Anne Weston, marketing assistant for the Sinclair Institute. “We advertise in GQ, Men’s Health, the New York Times Book Review. Our demographic is their demographic.”
There is a fan club and a web site; there are ambitious plans for various literary tie-ins. A licensing arrangement with the Townsend Corporation, manufacturer of high-end depilatories and emollients, is said to be in the works. And in the last few months alone, Better Sex has added several new titles to its burgeoning mail-order archives. There’s the “Guide to Better Sex Over Forty,” for couples seeking to overcome the lassitude of maturity. There’s “The Lovers’ Guide to Sex Toys,” for those who crave a jolt out of life’s routine. Lovebirds seeking to
elevate their spirit will covet “The Tantric Guide to Better Sex,” due out in September. Asked to describe this latest offering, Kathy Brummitt, Better Sex’s garrulous marketing director, turns uncharacteristically tight-lipped. “I can’t give you a sound bite,” she says. What about a one-sentence description? “It would take many, many sentences,” she says. Though the karma may be complex, the sex is grimly uneventful. I popped in “Advanced Sexual Techniques,” volume two of the series, expecting an ambient, tasteful frolic, the kind of discreet romp that quickens the pulse while assuring the viewer of his or her demographic pedigree. Alas, the airbrushed wonder couple who gambol through the pages of Men’s Health are nowhere to be found in the actual videos. They have been replaced by “ordinary couples,” a slim, vacant-eyed sexual proletariat. The men have mustaches and bikini underwear. The women are forlorn in their tinkling costume jewelry and pastel clouds of trailing chiffon. They perform their genital aerobics with an air of stoical endurance, accompanied by the restful strains of light disco music. I found myself imagining them clothed.
A voice-over repeatedly declares that these amateur thespians are “real-life couples,” authentic, modest married folk like you and me. “Each of our couples have had their own sexual problems,” says the narrator as the camera zooms in on a frowning stay-at-home mom. “The kind of problems that come from a discomfort with sex and a lack of information about sex.” The couples surmount this discomfort with impressive swiftness: moments later, the shy hausfrau is spread-eagled naked on a bed, chortling with pleasure as her “husband”‘s tongue roots around in her nether regions. Now, that’s progress. There’s Mary, a demure biology teacher who complains that sex with her husband Rick is “awkward . . . I don’t like it.” Rick, a musician, readily admits that his lovemaking leaves something to be desired: “It’s wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” Then there’s Virginia, a Lycra-clad bottled blond who says she is “an executive in a publishing firm.” Bill, her husband, says he’s “a co-pilot with one of the major airlines . . . If they found out I was doing this, I might be loading baggage next week.”
Bill’s got some baggage, all right. Triple-X buffs will immediately recognize him as Rick Savage, porn star emeritus. Smelling a ruse, I phone up Sinclair’s Kathy Brummitt, who readily admits that all is not what it seems. “Obviously we would prefer to use real couples,” she says. “When two people are in love, you can see it and feel it.” The problem, Brummitt says, is that few mainstream marrieds are willing to truss themselves up
for cash. “It’s been difficult for us to find real couples who are willing to share their personal behavior,” she says. The solution has been hack porn actors “without bionic body parts — no oversized breasts or extremely large penises,” she says. “We don’t want to have too many people in our videos who model a look that viewers can’t achieve.”
Brummitt readily admits that Bill, the airline pilot, is a virtuoso of porn films. Rick and Mary, meanwhile, are actually “John and Deirdre, from adult films,” she concedes. “They are an X-rated couple. But here’s the thing: they were actually married at one time.”
There is, then, a central irony at the heart of the Better Sex project. Butterfingered yuppies watch Better Sex in hopes of transforming themselves into kinky, lubed-up sexual dynamos. Meanwhile, the wanton stars of the videos, who really are all those things, must pretend to be maladroit suburbanites. All of this to flatter the yuppies’ fantasy that they are not watching porn movies. Why all of the fuss?
One reason, of course, is the volatile class politics of pornography — a genre long dismissed among the bourgeois as formulaic and debased. It’s easy to understand how the Sinclair Institute’s upper-income clientele would labor to establish their own distance from the genre’s suspect pleasures. And logical that the Sinclair Institute happily confirms them in this self-deception. In the videos, sex becomes a kind of upscale lifestyle accessory, honed through technocratic expertise. “There are golf and tennis pros, literature teachers and nutritionists,” explains the narrator. Now, those seeking “formal instruction” in carnality can acquire a new competence, under the sway of authoritative experts.
In forsaking porn for pedagogy, devotees of Better Sex preserve their own sense of moral superiority. They may also prevent themselves from thinking seriously about the sexual
problems they wanted to address in the first place. Squeamish suburbanites brought low by sexual ennui are unlikely to be helped by Better Sex’s remedial pointers: “Whatever you do, don’t bite down”; “Calluses can cause her discomfort”; “Unless you have a remarkable capacity to hold your breath, you’ll
find underwater oral sex difficult”; “Some women may not want to have a razor close to a sensitive part of their body.”
Much more satisfying are the sexual vignettes, replete with counterfeit yuppies in fetishistic garb. Here is “Bill,” just returned from a flight from Hong Kong, muttering incomprehensibly about “some turbulence east of the Island.” His pilot’s uniform, white and clean as starched linen, is a truly thrilling thing to behold. And here is wife “Virginia,” resplendent in pinstripes, exuding stern corporate rectitude as she barks into a cell phone. There is a sadistic frisson in the knowledge that within minutes, Virginia’s boardroom eyes will become bedroom eyes; that this Judith Regan manquée will be reduced to what she is — a down-at-the-heels porn actress, splayed across her pretend desk, her naughty parts pitilessly exposed. “Since you can’t see his face,” says the voice-over, praising the merits of a particular position, “You can pretend it’s anybody you like.” Even an airline pilot.