I Was Just Flipping Channels...

No one watches it. Everyone has seen it. How does softcore porn stay on TV?

11:48 p.m.: The couple accompanying the photographer has sex. Rather, they "make love." Everyone in softcore "makes love," with air quotes included. The act is accompanied by swooning romantic soundtrack gush or some boppy/seductive synths; it's every adolescent's idea of what ideal sex is supposed to be like but actually isn't.

Softcore sex involves the woman taking her top off, then writhing. (If raised by wolves with a satellite dish, you would learn that intercourse required much swaying and bouncing, and little else.) What you can show in softcore: full frontal female nudity; men from behind; female pleasure and orgasms. As far as I can tell, simulated cunnilingus is acceptable, as long as it's not too graphic. Thus we have extensive attention to the erotic possibilities of the hips, the kissing of which seems to arouse women enormously. What you can't show: simulated fellatio; more than two people engaged in sex; erections; insertion; male orgasms. Is softcore sort of secretly feminist? Perhaps these restrictions power the attraction here--not the nudity, but that we're watching, and implicitly subscribing to, an outdated and irrelevant set of fantasies. In this post-repressive age, the last remaining sin is sexual innocence.

11:54: The same couple, in the hot tub. Dialogue smothers the possibility of arousal: "I can't help it." "You...can't?" "This house is driving me crazy." "You drive me crazy!" And so, to bed.

Stop, drop, and roll: The rules of the game on Cinemax's Passion Cove
Stop, drop, and roll: The rules of the game on Cinemax's Passion Cove

12:02: Female characters go at it: "Tell me something: Are you curious?" "Your skin is so soft. You are really beautiful." "Are you trying to seduce me? It's working." Could this be pomo mockery, the blankness of porn discourse set out in all its disconnection? Alas, no: The actresses appear apologetic that they're obligated to deliver such drivel and seem to be wondering when they get to drop their clothes. Again, the mute button is understood as the essential condition of viewing.

12:08: Photographer and model have sex on a bridge. Music slow, romantic; camera slow, romantic. Presumably, this represents a meaningful emotional/erotic coupling, since the two drive up to San Francisco to renew their acquaintance.



Gooey and pleasure-dazed, Paradise Cove presents Erica Jong's zipless fuck in living color. But this show knows it's a lie: Where Seventies sexual revolutionaries dreamed of sex free of consequence--male and female, gay and straight--softcore recreates that revolution as farce. It doles out het T&A with a meaningless smirk that undercuts any possible pro-sex argument these shows might mount. Softcore wanders a formless middle ground, not raunchy enough to ponder the plumbing itself, but not feminist enough to bother establishing any real relationships between the characters. At best, these people project the plastic intimacy of any TV commercial "family," bonded for the duration of the ad.

So who does keep programs like this on the air? Best I can figure, it's connoisseurs of the secondhand pleasure, the predigested breakthrough: in short, everyone who loved neo-swing or video deer-hunting. Or televised golf: Between the Masters and the Skins Game, this stuff already sounds like lite porn. And anyone who has squandered four hours watching the hushed intimacy and supersaturated colors of the PGA knows the Skinemax hangover--the sluggish, wasteful feeling that comes after a long night of watching Red Shoe episodes back to back (or is that belly to belly?). Ultimately, as guilty pleasures go, softcore certainly feels guilty, but it doesn't offer much in the way of pleasure.

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