- Sex Sells: The History Channels History of Sex (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 30, Number 1, March, 2000
- pp. 80-81
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Rittelmann | Sex Sells: The History Channels History of Sex Aired in the wake of the Clinton-Lewinski scandal and the rush on Viagra, perhaps it is not surprising that last August an estimated 1.99 million households tuned into the first episode of the History Channel's five-part series chronicling the history of sex. Touted as the network's highest rated program ever, viewers were regaled with a synopsis of historio-sexual exploits that make more recent Oval Office escapades pale by comparison. Covering a chronological span from the Kama Sutra to Cyber-sex, this entertainingyet -educational documentary of sexual practices across the centuries is ripe with scholarly anecdotes destined to make even die-hard Jerry Springer fans blush. Seductively packaged as educational programming of epic import and proportion , the success of this five-hour program proves yet again the adage upon which prostitutes and politicians alike have unfailingly relied—sex sells. Narrated by veteran actor Peter Coyote and supported by interviews with more than forty scholars and pop-culture icons from Hugh Hefner to Dr. Ruth, The History of Sex is designed to educate as well as titillate. Given its potentially unmanageable scope, executive producers Jim Milion, Melissa Jo Peltier and Mark Hufnail judiciously confine their subject to include only those (primarily Western ) civilizations whose written histories provide firm ground for contemporary analysis. The series is divided into digestible sixty-minute segments that comprise an alternatively informative and amusing journey easing viewers backward in time from the present-day United States to Mesopotamia's fertile crescent circa 3,200 BCE. Careful to emphasize the reciprocal nature of historical circumstance and social practice, the producers demonstrate a genuine desire to analyze the way "sex has influenced history, just as history has shaped and defined sex." Occasional phallocentric and/or Western biases notwithstanding, each segment attempts a fair-minded assessment of the way in which sexual attitudes and practices have both shaped and reflected diverse political, cultural, religious and economic shifts across the historical spectrum. From discussions of ancient attitudes towards adultery, aphrodisiacs and contraception to more modern controversies over homosexuality and women's rights, The History ofSex admirably avoids the kind of fixed meta-narrative so characteristic of the episodic documentary format. In its introductory episode, the twentieth century "sexual revolution" is defined as the product of a distinctly American social and technological progressivism. In addition to a familiar overview of the women's rights movement, the two World Wars and the Great Depression , viewers are reminded that technological advances in reliable contraception, the explosion of popular media, and even the automobile were likewise responsible for loosening modern sexual mores. Titled "From Don Juan to Queen Victoria," the series' second episode charts "the carnal quirks of the Pilgrims and Puritans" from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries in Europe and America. Juxtaposing sexual extremes from the Marquis de Sade to Queen Victoria (who ostensibly advised her daughter to "close your eyes and think of England" during intercourse), this second installment reinforces the naughty-versus-nice dichotomy foregrounded in the first episode. Segment three examines shifts in Western sexuality from the decline of the Roman Empire through the Renaissance with a continued emphasis on the binarily opposed concepts of repression versus restraint and concludes with a brief discussion of Spanish-colonized Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Episode four, on the other hand, is entirely devoted to a summary of the history of nonwestern sexual practices in early Asian and Middle Eastern civilizations. Here, familiar Western oppositional tropes are eclipsed by a focus on the union of sexuality and spirituality in Eastern religions. The series concludes with an examination of the sexual practices and attitudes of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations centered upon the intertwining concepts of spirituality and sexuality predominant prior to the third-century rise of Christianity. 80 I Film & History Regular Feature | Film Reviews Although no historical retrospective can erase the disturbing discrimination that necessarily attends the cultural construction of sexual "normalcy" versus "deviance," one of the strengths of The History ofSex is its even-handed attempt to critically examine all sides of history's gendered and sexual relations. Images and quotes from the Kama Sutra are interspersed...