What HBO’s Programming Says About ‘Community Standards’

Q Boyer
LOS ANGELES — “We’re actors, not porn stars!”

That’s what Michelle Borth, one of the stars of the upcoming dramatic series “Tell Me You Love Me” from HBO, recently told reporters when asked about the element of the new series that has been garnering the most attention to date.

What is that buzz-generating element? The sex scenes in "Tell Me You Love Me" reportedly hit a level of sexual explicitness that has never before been seen on premium cable outside the realm of pay-per-view adult content.

Borth isn’t the only one from HBO seeking to downplay the show’s erotic content. In a recent interview, HBO Entertainment President Carolyn Strauss said, “The point isn’t to be prurient. The point is to show the language of intimacy.”

If advance reports concerning the show are accurate, the “language of intimacy” as spoken on "Tell Me You Love Me" translates into some pretty graphic visual depictions.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the first episode of the show contains a scene in which a woman played by actress Sonya Walger masturbates her husband, played by Adam Scott, to the point of ejaculation. In the article, the Times specifies that during the scene, “all relevant body parts [are] plainly visible.” (No word on whether the scene also includes HBO’s first visible ‘money shot.’)

Despite the precedent-setting penis pulling, Cynthia Mort, the new series’ creator and executive producer said she didn’t anticipate such a furor surrounding the show’s erotic elements.

“I didn’t realize people would be so focused on the sex,” Mort said — apparently straight-faced.

Regardless of whether HBO considers their new series to be pornographic, there seems little doubt that the strong sexual content will drive the publicity surrounding the show, and it seems highly unlikely that HBO did not anticipate the hardcore hype.

What does it mean for the adult industry when a major premium cable company takes sexually explicit content to a new level for their medium?

“The significance of that kind of material on cable TV is multiple,” Jeffrey Douglas, chairman of the Free Speech Coalition, told XBIZ. “Even without any argument, the jury pool will be much more receptive to sexual explicitness if they know that this sort of thing is being shown on cable.”

Douglas said that when defending a client against an obscenity charge, “the first thing you have to get past is the shock value.”

“Having a scene with male masturbation on cable tells the jury that the image of an erect penis is culturally acceptable,” Douglas said. “Non-erect penises are not uncommon in mainstream films, but an erect penis is kind of a ‘new frontier’ for mainstream entertainment.”

Beyond the ways in which the show’s mere existence could prove useful in the court of law, the fact that HBO is including highly sexually explicit content in a dramatic series is part of a clear trend in mainstream entertainment media, and in American culture generally, of increased tolerance of — and demand for — sexually explicit material.

“There is a cultural evolution going on here,” Douglas said. “And that evolution has been consistently in the direction of greater acceptance of sexual explicitness.”