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From Its Beginning, HBO Has Had a Love-Hate Relationship With Sex

The network regularly pushed the boundaries of what we're used to seeing on television in terms of erotica, only to retreat.
  • Euphoria, Game of Thrones, and Real Sex (Photos: HBO/Primetimer graphic)
    Euphoria, Game of Thrones, and Real Sex (Photos: HBO/Primetimer graphic)

    This month marks the 50th anniversary of HBO, which launched on November 8, 1972. In our "HBO at 50" retrospective, Primetimer tracks the evolution of the cabler, from fledgling network to prestigious programmer and awards magnet.

    There have been multiple heydays for sex and nudity on HBO, but the first — and for many longtime subscribers still the greatest — came in the first half of the 1980s. Back then, independent producers were turning out cheap slasher movies and teen sex comedies in bulk, and for households without one of those expensive VCR contraptions, premium cable channels were the best way to see adults-only material in the comfort of one's own home. Teens in the 1980s would surreptitiously sneak peeks at the monthly HBO guide when it came in the mail, making a mental note of what to watch late at night, when the adults were asleep.

    But by the end of the decade, HBO started adding more original programming and courting industry prestige. The sexier movies started getting offloaded to its sister channel Cinemax… colloquially dubbed "Skinemax." HBO, for a while at least, declared itself to be too sophisticated for smut.

    The history of HBO, from 1972 to now, has more or less followed this cycle: pushing the boundaries of what people were used to seeing on television in terms of erotica, and then somewhat sheepishly retreating. To some extent the HBO programmers have followed societal trends. During times when moralists, religious leaders, and concerned parents raised the alarm about what the kids were watching — as in the back half of the '80s, after President Ronald Reagan's landslide reelection — the big media companies played it safer.

    But it’s also true that "classiness" has always been fairly integral to the HBO brand, and that the people who run the company have never wanted anyone to presume they were peddling sleaze. Their content might be R-rated sometimes, but it would never cross the line to X. The original HBO business model involved asking people already paying for cable TV (itself kind of a hard sell in the early going) to pony up a little extra for a channel offering uncut, commercial-free movies alongside access to stand-up comedy specials, concerts, sporting events and recordings of live theater. The proto-HBO was essentially pitching itself to potential customers as a more exciting PBS. 

    Nevertheless, for long stretches, one of the channel's main selling points — whether openly acknowledged or not — was that its library of movies and TV shows offered something subscribers could never get on the broadcast networks. Even during HBO's initial wave of original scripted series in the late '80s and early '90s, the basic idea behind shows like 1st & Ten and Dream On was that they were just like the TV people were used to, only with a few topless ladies and swears per episode. 

    Gradually, the channel's approach to scripted programming evolved; and by the time the "It's Not TV, It's HBO" era arrived at the turn of the millennium, the mature content was less gratuitous and better integrated into series like The Larry Sanders Show, Oz, Sex and the City and The Sopranos, which all took legitimately fresh approaches to TV storytelling. These shows and others in the late ’90s/early ’00s HBO lineup reflected real life, sometimes at its rawest and raunchiest. There was nothing leering or exploitative about them.

    For the leering and exploitative, subscribers back then had to tune into the non-scripted programming. The next great heyday for sexually explicit content on HBO spans this era, when three docuseries — Real Sex, Taxicab Confessions, and Cathouse — were all in production. These shows blurred what had previously been pretty rigid lines between the merely titillating and the near-pornographic. They all featured frank talk about sex acts and sometimes even some fairly revealing depictions of same, with careful camera angles and some judicious blurring to keep the content from becoming actual porn. 

    When HBO Go (now replaced by HBO Max) launched in 2010, those sexy reality shows could be found, alongside some of the super-low-budget softcore movies that Cinemax was airing after midnight at the time. They're not available to stream any more though; and neither HBO or Cinemax airs anything like Pornucopia or Hookers at the Point these days. For whatever reason — changing corporate values or just changing times — some of the longest-running and most popular HBO originals have disappeared down the memory hole.

    That's not to say that HBO in the 2020s is completely chaste. Following the lead of The Sopranos and the like, the service has continued over the past decade-plus to produce mature dramas and comedies laced with nudity and sex. (It has even been criticized at times for overdoing it with the likes of Game of Thrones and Euphoria, which have found ways to slip some bare skin into scenes where it may not be strictly vital to the plot.) And you can't talk about HBO's history with sexually frank material and not mention shows like Girls and The Deuce, which have been bracingly honest about human sexuality in ways that would surprise even those who were surreptitiously staying up late to watch Private Lessons and Screwballs in the early '80s.

    Still, something has been lost from HBO in recent years. Call it "obscenity for obscenity’s sake." Granted, there's no shortage of actual X-rated content available on the internet to anyone who wants it. But throughout its history, even as it's wavered back and forth on making the unsavory a priority, HBO has generally provided a home and even a context for the sexually graphic. Scheduling the sexy stuff alongside the groundbreaking comedy specials and the award-winning dramas has been a way of affirming its larger social value. (This approach has clearly had an influence on Netflix too, which in trying to offer something for everybody has made sure to import some racy foreign TV and to back some steamy documentaries.)

    The good news is that, if the past is any guide, it's only a matter of time before the pendulum swings and HBO starts getting a little dirty again. In the meantime, if someone who works at HBO Max wanted to quietly sneak Real Sex or a lineup of '80s Canuxploitation movies onto the service, that'd be great. We promise not to tell our parents.

    Noel Murray is a freelance pop culture critic and reporter living in central Arkansas.