The emergence of the visionary and provocative television of the 1990s and 2000s, the period that gave us The Sopranos, The Wire, and The Larry Sanders Show, owed a great deal to HBO, whose narrowcast distribution model and welcome appetite for risk helped make such programming possible. More recently, the premium network has found distinction with Show Me A Hero, True Detective, and Chernobyl. Sex Diaries, however, HBO’s new series of 30-minute documentaries about the sex lives of Brooklyn hipsters on the make, is a much more cynical enterprise.
Sex Diaries is derived from a popular New York magazine column of the same name, which ran from 2007 to 2013. Anonymous New Yorkers wrote in to describe their sexual activity (or lack of same) in a given week; columnist Rachel Kramer Bussel, a former NYU Law student and the editor of sex-themed anthologies like Big Book of Orgasms, Vol. 2 and Crowded House: Threesome and Group Sex Erotica, curated and edited the submissions. Kramer Bussel aimed to capture a representative sample of New Yorkers, both gay and straight, from the very sexually active to the more solitary, from vanilla to kink. Inevitably, the television series leans more heavily into less mainstream lifestyles, from polyamory to latex fetishism to trans sex. What provided a frisson a mere decade ago now seems tame, even banal.
The show is bad—extraordinarily bad, in fact, both hollow in conception and, unusually for HBO, badly made—but there is always plenty of bad television to go around. What irks is that HBO is trying to pass off this trash as avant garde. Is it brave and provocative in 2023 to show people engaging in threesomes or in leather bondage, or using Tindr or Grindr to find the assignations that will briefly shore up their sense of self? At the leading edge of opinion in a large U.S. city, the really brave thing would be to suggest that we should impose some limits on our desires. Who besides church leaders is willing to come out in favor of sexual continence and fidelity to a partner? Who would dare to suggest that someone who has sex with many nameless partners is putting their soul at risk? Most of us would much rather be derided as libertines than risk looking like a square.
The series’ first subject, “James,” a British-born female bartender, is rarely clothed, and she looks exceptionally good naked. This was a promising start. And yet, by the episode’s seventh minute—I made a note—I was losing interest, because there’s simply nothing else going on. The producers have no interest in letting us know who James is, aside from her being an exhibitionist.
Episode three gives us a very overweight black woman living in Coney Island. She’s engaged in polyamorous relationships with people she meets out of town. She acknowledges that sex is more fraught for her because of her race and her body size. Something interesting is beginning here—she is trying to tell us something about her inner life—and then the camera just moves on.
In Episode four, we meet a gay, middle-aged, single father who lives in Brooklyn Heights. He’s handsome and elegant. He’s also more cultivated, more centered than the other subjects, perhaps because his children need him to be. During the pandemic, he has met a younger man online, and as the danger of infection wanes, the younger man flies to New York to spend the weekend. They have sex almost immediately, conclude relatively quickly that there’s not much between them, and decide to part company. Does it occur to either of them that there might be something flawed with this business model?
The problem is not that the participants in Sex Diaries are presented as having unconventional sexual identities and desires. It has been an article of faith in the West, at least since Freud, that sexuality is at the core of who we are and that desire does not want to be contained. The problem is rather that they are presented as having only sexual identities. It’s impossible to say what any of them is interested in, what their values are, whether they see their lives as meaningful. The medium that shows people having sex without reference to social context or personal identity is pornography. I don’t think that the creators of Sex Diaries were trying to make pornography, but they weren’t trying not to do so, either. (It’s possible that they would regard the category as meaningless.) Worse yet, Sex Diaries does not even offer the transient pleasures of honest trash. Its pretentiousness gets in the way even of that modest achievement. The sultry James aside, for prurient interest, you would be better off watching old episodes of The Love Boat.
It’s interesting to consider whom HBO intended to watch Sex Diaries. Not, I think, New Yorkers, who by virtue of the close confines in which they live must cultivate an indifference to the private lives of their neighbors or risk madness. Certainly not religious conservatives, few of whom likely subscribe to HBO in any case. Perhaps the ideal viewer is a young person stuck in some little hamlet, dreaming of the anonymity and license that only the city can provide. New York, and these days especially Brooklyn, speaks to such people in ways that even other large cities do not. (In Los Angeles, pleasure seems to have been privatized.) Of course, one of the things New York is about is sex; that has been true for decades, through periods more and less licentious, and for people whose sexual identities are conventional and less so. It is only if we think of Sex Diaries as a commercial product, and an exceptionally cynical one, that it begins to make sense. Selling New York to the tourists—there’s always been a buck in that.
The poverty of language among the show’s subjects is especially striking. The world of Sex Diaries is one of unrelenting self-seriousness—and its handmaiden, the earnest cliché. “I don’t want to fit into any molds at all,” a trans woman tells us. “I want to know myself,” says a young man. The word “like,” used as filler, is tolled relentlessly. “I just want to, like, do like, whatever I want to do. You know what I’m saying?” This, finally, is the show’s ethos and its characteristic mode of expression.
Sex Diaries wants to be a generational portrait of young people rejecting conventional sexual identities, but what it actually reflects is the panicked emptiness of digital culture’s casualties. These people want to have great orgasms, which is fair enough—more interesting people have died on that hill—but what they want more than anything is to believe that they are enough to hold the camera’s eye. Mere reality has lost its texture for them; nothing that hasn’t been recorded and uploaded has existential weight. And their loftiest moral aspiration is to be nonjudgmental—as if such a condition were remotely achievable.
As the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein said, apropos of an earlier revolution in manners, “Each generation thinks it invented sex.” Each believes that no previous generation ever fully explored its pleasures or understood its liberating potential. Imagine if all of our desires could be fulfilled, without illusion or promise, without the threat of pregnancy or disease or unwanted text messages—what a paradise that would be! By such illusions, I suppose, do some of us find our motive for living. Sex Diaries is an especially tedious addition to this long, futile quest for carnal utopia.