Sex instruction videos
"One finger on the pause button"

by Robert Eberwein

from Jump Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 36-41
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1997, 2006

Linda Williams and Gertrud Koch have observed that the connection of "education" and pornography is not new. Williams mentions how, following the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision defining First Amendment Freedom of Speech rights, essentially pornographic works appeared such as CENSORSHIP IN DENMARK and HISTORY OF THE BLUE MOVIE (96-97). And Koch explains,

"Numerous studies on the social history of pornography indicate that the pornography producers have always perceived themselves as contributing to sex research" (22).

Recent developments in the use of explicit sexual material for education suggest the usefulness of examining current materials from a more complex perspective.

For example, appearing on a segment of "CNN's Sonya Live" (May 11, 1992), Dr. Judy Seifer, sex therapist who devised the BETTER SEX VIDEO SERIES, states,

"I think this video series gives couples...an opportunity to see what they don't want to do as [well as] what they might want to explore. Ideally, I would like for couples to watch it with one person's finger on the pause button and stop and talk about it and say, 'Hey, I never thought about doing that. Is that something you're interested in?' Or, 'Gee, it didn't look like that when we tried it'..."(14).

In Volume II, "Advanced Sexual Techniques," Seifer suggests couples use the tapes "like a textbook. Stop the tape; freeze the frame, like rereading a chapter." Similarly, Dr. Sandra Scantling, sex therapist who devised the ORDINARY COUPLES, EXTRAORDINARY SEX video series, tells viewers in Volume I, "Discovering Extraordinary Sex," "Feel free to stop this tape at any time to discuss areas of interest to you."

Such directives introduce major issues I will explore here, specifically strategies used to legitimate the viewing experience and therapists' relation to their assumed audiences of heterosexual couples. In addition, I will identify the series' paradigmatic elements while assessing the tapes' cultural and ideological significance.

I use the BETTER SEX and ORDINARY COUPLES, EXTRAORDINARY SEX series as my primary focus because they are the most popular, as evidenced by sales figures and advertising. According to Karen Karbo, the BETTER SEX series commanded 90% of the market as of November 1993 (64). Benedict Carey asserts that this series had sold almost one million copies by October 1995 (47). Originally each series seemed separately marketed and advertised by two different organizations: The Townsend Institute (Seifer) and the Sinclair Institute (Scantling). (As Don Steinberg has noted, the word "institute" has the effect of making the organization "sound like it has students and a campus" [34]). I was told that originally the two entities were sister organizations. But recent advertisements now indicate that the Sinclair Institute markets both tapes.

This fact probably explains the two series' similar advertisements, including at least one actual duplication. Specifically, in a Sinclair advertisement for SEXUAL POSITIONS FOR LOVERS, a tape not part of the ORDINARY COUPLES series, we see a couple clad in towels, both wearing wedding rings and embracing, with the caption: "Sex Education for Me? Know-how is still the best aphrodisiac." The same caption accompanies another couple clad in towels but lacking wedding rings for Townsend's BETTER SEX series.

The two series' advertisements, which typically include a picture of a couple wearing variable amounts of clothing and engaged in some form of embrace, have appeared in a variety of venues including Psychology Today, Health, The Boston Globe, The New York Times Book Review, US, Esquire, Playboy, Details, GQ, Men's Journal, Men's Health, American Woman, Woman's Own, New Woman and Cosmopolitan.

The dynamic of the relation between sex therapists and viewers begins with a complex ideological process, initiated by the placement of the ads in "respectable" sources. The range of both men's and women's magazines indicates this. The men's magazines target middle- to upper-middle class readers. The women's magazines show greater range. For example, Health is clearly for upper-middle class women; American Woman seems targeted for lower-middle-class women and deals only with romance and sex. US, Psychology Today, and, in particular, The Boston Globe and The New York Times Book Review suggest a mainstream middle- to upper-middle class readership. Obviously none of these magazines and newspapers is associated with adult magazine shops. Rather, all are available anywhere — hence, understood as forming part of anyone's reading experience.

With one exception, the advertisements use two strategies to interest potential customers. The first involves photographs of apparently happy, sexually satisfied couples — evidence that seems to testify to the tapes' efficacy. The second focuses on the therapists themselves. For example, different advertisements describe Judy Seifer as "one of the country's most respected experts on sexuality" or "one of the country's foremost experts on sexuality." Dr. Scantling is described variously as "one of America's most renowned sex educators and counselors" or "a nationally known psychologist and sex therapist."

The copy legitimatizing the therapists continues with more information in the videos. Each tape begins with by credentialing Seifer and Scantling as well as the male associates who assist them. Such credentialing echoes that in Dr. Ruth Westheimer' s earlier television show on the Lifetime network, as discussed by Mimi White (37). We learn of the therapists' degrees, relevant past experience and present appointments. The therapists, wearing glasses and dressed conservatively, are seen in professional-looking sets representing offices. Scantling sometimes directly addresses viewers as she sits in front of a computer.

The verification of these women as degree holders and professionals is enhanced by presenting them as disinterested and caring specialists who see a way to help their audience. Repeatedly they insist on respect for each partner's needs and desires, and they stress establishing loving, respectful relationships. An implicit and unspoken moral contract is presumed: "If you are watching me, you must be a trustworthy member of a heterosexual couple. Since I am a trustworthy professional, I would not show you anything, even if it can be described as arousing, that isn't acceptable to watch." Validating spectatorship is vitally important to counteract any sense of mere voyeurism-the mode of viewing associated inextricably with pornography.

This is a more complicated version of what Jane Banks and Patricia Zimmermann have observed about Dr. Ruth's earlier television show in which callers described various sexual problems and received counsel. They describe the auditory presentation of the problems and advice and the particular physical arrangement of furniture in the set's mise-en-scene, which they see as neutralizing voyeurism:

"The studio audience represents the sexual health of the home viewer, the set duplicates the home of the spectator (but with more perfect taste), and Westheimer's clinical and medical gaze professionalizes and thus effaces the voyeurism of the viewer" (64).

Moreover, the presence of the clinician like Dr. Ruth and her "clinical gaze and her diagnoses of sexual problems situate sexuality within the authority of science and the power of the clinic, both institutions of 'benevolent' regulation" (69).

Explicitly accepting therapists' professionalism and implicitly agreeing to a contract of trust, viewers are positioned to enter into similar legitimating relations with the material presented. That is, embedded in the proposition, "We can watch this in the first place because the therapist is credentialed and sincere, and we are seeking improvement in our sex life," is the corollary, "The material itself that we are watching must be something we can watch in good conscience." This positioning both denies suspect voyeurism and negates any act's potential illegitimacy.

Significantly the only ad I have seen that doesn't refer to therapists' credentials appeared in September 1994 in Details, a magazine for upscale men in their twenties and thirties interested in issues such as contemporary fashion, music and media. Here we see a partially dressed young man and woman in cowboy and cowgirl garb (actually the back jacket photo from BETTER SEX VIDEO 7, ADVANCED SEXUAL FANTASIES). There is no mention of Dr. Seifer. Rather, the caption reads:

"Want Sex to Last for Hours A 10-minute roll in the hay may be fun, but why stop there? That's why THE BETTER SEX VIDEO SERIES was created — so that healthy, sexually active guys like you could enhance their sexual pleasure with their sexual fantasies."

The absence of even the semblance of an educational pitch legitimated by the academy says as much about an advertising campaign targeted at young males as it does about the dominant practice used overwhelmingly in the other ads, stressing a combination of pleasure and education. It also reflects awkwardly on the prevailing pitch's candor and on Dr. Seifer's comments to "couples" presumably watching the tapes.

Commentary from magazine reviewers of the tapes also relates to this problematic issue of a targeted audience of heterosexual couples. Specifically, as noted, Seifer and Scantling advise couples to use the pause and freeze frames. In contrast, writing in Men's Health, reviewer Don Steinberg says:

"It can be argued persuasively that these [sex therapy] tapes are actually aimed at men alone, perhaps those legitimately searching for techniques that can help in the trenches. (But be prepared to hit fast-forward when the tape inevitably gets to 'Gary pleasuring himself.')" (34).

Maury Levy, reviewing the BETTER SEX series for Playboy, describes it as:

"Three-vid tour of everyone's favorite subject, produced especially for couples. Hot footage is maddeningly cooled by sugary commentary — but that's what the FF button's for" (26).

His attitude is echoed by Karen Karbo in Redbook who says of Seifer's advice: "After you get the gist, you'll thank modern technology for the fast-forward button" (64). These comments somewhat undercut the assumptions about the presumed audience's heterogeneity and the value of the experts' legitimatizing commentary. Whose finger, one wonders, will be on the pause or fast forward button?

Even more of an issue is the explicit sexual activity. Playboy and Redbook reviewers' advice to skip the commentary with the fast forward button connects tellingly to Steinberg's observation:

"Sex-help tapes are being made by everyone from certified psychologists to erotica merchants...But when it comes to showing the nitty-gritty aspects of sex, if you turn down the audio, you can't always tell the video made by the doctor from the one made by the erstwhile porn producer" (34).

Elements in the tapes invoke pornographic conventions, and in some cases "adult" — i.e., pornographic — material actually appears. In BETTER SEX VIDEO 3, for example, we watch an extended sequence in which one of the married couples engages in various sex acts in the wife's office. She is clad only in high heels, not atypical for pornographic film. The prolonged sequence concludes with a money shot, a staple of porn, as the expert's voice-over commentary intones, "Some women get very excited when men ejaculate on their breast."

In BETTER SEX VIDEO 7, commentary designed to answer questions viewers might have about their sexual life is supplemented with sequences supposedly enacting harmless fantasies. In response to, "How often do people fantasize," Marty Klein, a Playboy writer appearing intermittently here as a commentator, explains that fantasies are common. We then watch Fantasy # 29, "Primitive Love," a pornographic sequence in which a caged man and two women dressed as stone age characters engage in a number of sexual activities accompanied by two participants' voices over describing their experience and the pleasure caused by their joint fantasy. As the sequence ends, we learn from a title card that: "The fantasy scenes in this program were selected by sex educators from popular adult videos." Moreover, "the narration was scripted in order to illustrate fantasy themes." Thus, the voices over we hear may or may not have come from the original pornographic sequence.

Aspects of the scene from Volume 3 and the general content of Volume 7 as well as the advertisement in Details undermine the BETTER SEX VIDEOs' ethos that we are observing loving couples who offer heterosexual audiences examples of how to enrich their sex lives. The Primitive Fantasy sequence in particular echoes Steven Marcus' useful observation about literary pornography, which he says does not explore "relations between human beings":

"It is in fact somewhat of a misnomer to call these representations 'relations between human beings.' They are rather juxtapositions of human bodies, parts of bodies, limbs, and organs; they are depictions of positions and events, diagrammatic schema for sexual ballets — actually they are more like football plays than dances; they are at any rate as complicated as either" (274).

I will return to Marcus and his concept of "pornotopia" at the conclusion of the paper.

The language in the advertisements for ORDINARY COUPLES suggests,

"WARNING: [the series] is highly explicit and is intended for adults over the age of 21 only. All videos contain nudity and explicit lovemaking."

In another ad, the Institute anticipates that "Couples are likely to become highly aroused when viewing these tapes together." Absolutely explicit sexual activities are common to both series. Couples and individuals engage in various forms of sexual activity including masturbation, foreplay and intercourse, and they employ all manner or sex toys, vibrators and dildoes. In addition to the inoculating effect of the therapists' credentials, the contract of trust, and the denial of voyeurism, the explicit sexual activities are partially validated by various strategies that bear examination from an ideological perspective.

First, the script establishes participants' identities and professions. At the end of the BETTER SEX VIDEO series, both aspects are either overtly revealed or implicitly understood as patently false for the sake of privacy, but at the beginning of our acquaintance, we are informed about the jobs and responsibilities of Mary and Robert or Greg and Carrie, etc., and whether or not they are married and have children. Their professions include such diverse roles as airline pilot, social worker, partner in a health club, and business person. (The faintly glamorous and/or serious nature of the couples' professions is somewhat undercut when Gary and Donna admit on "CNN's Sonya LIVE" that they did nude modeling prior to participating in the BETTER SEX series.)

Second, we encounter a characteristic mise-en-scene that works ideologically to establish the couples' acceptability. They all seem to live in upscale California homes, graced with spacious bedrooms and the inevitable hot tubs. Scantling's series in particular situates participants in grand homes and locations. Third, the couples' ages range from mid-20s to 50s and their appearance suggests ordinariness and physical well being, that is, "normality" rather than glamour and movie-star sex appeal. One reviewer of the tapes found the use of "ordinary people rather than impossibly beautiful models liberating" (Mallet). With the exception of one African American couple, all the couples in both series are white, a point to be developed below.

Some other paradigmatic elements worth noting include the following. We see occasional scenes or suggestions of purportedly "actual" therapeutic situations. BETTER SEX 1 begins by introducing us to several couples who appear in "before" and "after" scenes, marking their progress as more successful lovers. They discuss their "before" status in voice over as we see them supposedly reenacting earlier inadequacies in such behaviors, including indifferent, hasty intercourse or failure to respond to a partner's sexual invitation. In ORDINARY COUPLES 3, Scantling talks with two couples (one being Fred and Samantha, the African Americans) as if on a television talk show but without an audience. After each explains their problems, Scantling counsels remedies such as role playing. We see scenes of the couples enacting the remedies, and then we return to the set as they report their success to Scantling.

The tapes have warnings, qualifications and disavowals throughout, especially at the conclusion. One constant warning is to respect each partner's wishes and not push anyone beyond what s/he feels comfortable with. Neither Seifer nor Scantling invokes infallibility or guarantees the value of their advice. Viewers are told to seek professional help if their problems significantly trouble them. The ORDINARY COUPLES series provides addresses and phone numbers of legitimate counseling agencies.

The dangers of AIDS and diseases attending unprotected sex are mentioned but not with the severity or urgency one might hope for or expect. BETTER SEX 1 promises a discussion of sexually transmitted diseases, especially AIDS, in Volume 2, where it occurs in the context of anal sexual intercourse but seems surprisingly perfunctory. Volume 7 opens with a warning about safe sex, fittingly given the sexual fantasies this tape explores. Each Sinclair tape begins,

"It is important to practice 'safer sex' techniques and be responsible about birth control. Unprotected sex should only be engaged in by committed couples who know they are risk free."

I want now to return to Fred and Samantha, the African American couple mentioned earlier, since their presence is central to ideological concerns raised by the series. Fred and "Sam," as she is labeled in the advertisemen, are the only African American couple in these series. They do not appear on any of the jacket photographs but do appear in the Sinclair Institute catalog. Their image appears once in an advertisement in Heart and Soul, a health magazine targeted at upscale African American women, where they are named and identified as appearing in tapes 2 and 3. In addition, there is a dearth of advertising by either series in African American oriented magazines. My exhaustive survey of Ebony and less systematic examinations of Essence, Jet, Black Elegance, Young Black Woman and other magazines directed at African Americans yielded only two ads for the Xandria catalog.

Significantly, in the tapes we first see this couple on a blanket outdoors in the teaser ad at tape 2's end, a scene that anticipates what will occur during their upcoming role-playing "therapy." The only other couple given shorter attention in the series is a white couple named Gary and Mair; Mair appears to be middle eastern. But of all the couples, only Fred and Sam are never shown within a bedroom. We see them having sex on/at a table in a well-appointed dining room and in two scenes outdoors. During the dining room scene, Fred's sexual urgency is signaled by the fact that he still has his trousers on for the first part of the encounter. Although both Gary and Mair and Fred and Sam have sex outdoors, the white couple is also seen in a bedroom. However, even in the parallel outdoor scenes, there is a racially inflected difference. Gary and Mair's one outdoor scene is preceded by Gary (clothed) playing the guitar as Mair dances to the music. Fred and Sam's second outdoor scene is preceded by Fred (nude) playing a large African drum as Sam dances to the drumbeat.

There may be other African Americans in the BETTER SEX VIDEO series in tapes I have not seen. But the only one I have seen appears in Volume 7, Advanced Sexual Fantasies. Here an African American male appears specifically in the context of two guilty fantasies. The first presents a lesbian fantasy with white women after the question: "If I fantasize something bad, does it mean I want to do it?" The second, "Fantasy 34, The Swimming Party" presents an African American male's fantasy about having sex with a blond woman at a swimming pool. Presented with his voice over under the category of "something bad," the treatment of this fantasy seems to suggest that what is bad" is interracial sex. Given how many sexual activities occur through all the tapes in pools and tubs, aquatic sex is surely innocuous.

Judging on the basis of what I have seen, African American sexuality would seem to be the repressed of both series, evidenced in both advertising and the tapes' enactments. The paucity of advertising in part gives testimony to the near invisibility of African Americans in mainstream culture, a fact underscored by the seemingly desperate identification of Fred and Sam in the one ad that names the tapes in which they appear. When the tapes do present African Americans, it is in contexts which covertly reinforce their status as the Other. The tapes deny them access to the mise-en-scene enjoyed by the other participants and correspondingly situate them more emphatically in settings that suggest unbridled primitive sexuality.

To conclude, a question that has engaged me since beginning work on these sex therapy videos is their location on our cultural map. Michel Foucault, a figure often invoked by scholars as they talk about sex and the media, has relevance here. Both Marc LaFontaine and Bill Nichols in particular refer to Foucault' s model of the panopticon, which Foucault draws from Jeremy Bentham and used in Discipline and Punish to describe the exercise of power. For LaFontaine, Dr. Ruth exercises a similar kind of authority: "Television simulates panoptic space..., a field of symbolization" (131). "What makes a televised Dr. Ruth a virtual panopticon is its simulation of the illusion of surveillance (132).

Nichols refers to Linda Williams' use of the term "pornotopia," a word coined by Steven Marcus in his study of Victorian pornography to denote "that vision which regards all of human experience as a series of exclusively sexual events or conveniences" (216). Nichols notes the similarities between pornography and ethnography and connects the latter to the panopticon:

"Ethnography is a kind of legitimated pornography, a pornography of knowledge...Pornography is a strange, 'unnatural' form of ethnography, salvaging orgasmic bliss from the seclusion of the bedroom" (210).

"Sexual actors are watched, while cultural actors are watched over. The paradigmatic representation of these two states is symbolized by voyeurism in pornography and the panopticon in ethnography" (212).

Interestingly, the graphics in BETTER SEX VIDEOS 2 evoke the panopticon. Each segment begins with three moving bands of images on the top, middle and bottom of the screen. Each image depicts a particular sexual activity with an accompanying title, such as "masturbation" or "fellatio," that the video will treat. After a brief display of the three moving bands, the camera zooms in on the one image/title that is the topic of the segment. This strategy seems to replicate the kind of panoptic gaze Nichols sees operating in ethnography. We see simultaneously an array of separate sexual acts from a powerful viewing position and then focus on one.

Although the connection with Foucault has relevance, it does not explain enough about how the tapes occupy cultural space. Perhaps, drawing on anthropologist Victor W. Turner, we could say that analogously the tapes have a "liminal" or border status, in that they

"elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial" (94).

The tapes are not pornography although some of their elements are drawn from or evoke pornography. They are not ethnography, although their examination of sexual activity presents information about contemporary sexual practices.

David James' useful comment on amateur home sex videos is also relevant here. Looked at from the perspective of the "liminal," these also seem to occupy a unique space on the cultural map. James observes:

"As text, the compilation [of sex scenes] differs from commodity pornography. Since the tape shamelessly proclaims erotic representation as its raison d'etre, it is not obliged to disguise itself as either narrative or documentary...Nor...are the sexual encounters or the video photography of them framed by any normative metadiscourse that would justify their introduction as anthropological data or evidence of pathology" (33).

Sex therapy videos occupy a unique cultural space. At least in conception, they offer viewers an opportunity to watch explicit sexual activities as students seeking information rather than as voyeurs. They assume a heterosexual audience of couples capable of imitating not only the sexual mechanics but also of adopting the loving and caring emotions enacted by the participants. Adapting Judith Mayne's explanation of the "mapping" of contexts in terms of cultural studies (95-96), one could say the videos constitute a way to negotiate complex and contradictory texts as well as aspects of our sexuality, legitimatizing what has been hitherto forbidden as they authorize our panotopic gaze.


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