Sex, Lies and Videotapes and TV
Originally published in The Lifted Brow Issue 21.
We moved into the new house when I was eight and Mum left Dad when I was eleven. If I had to guess, I’d say I was about ten years old when this obsession started. I may have been hairless and prepubescent but I was far from sexless: I was a little creep.
On most evenings, long after I was put to bed and a single lamp lit the entirety of the house, I would sneak to the top of only five stairs that made our house a ‘split level’, crouch down in the dark and spy. I would peek, eyes wide with wonder, from behind the sliding door, to watch my silent parents watch low-volume adult entertainment.
Now, by adult entertainment I don’t mean my parents sat around in shared silence, enveloped in hostility on their separate sofas, watching porn in the lounge-room. By ‘adult entertainment’ I mean movies aimed at grown ups, broadcast on TV, not meant for my only just fully formed eyes (apparently this happens at age seven, who knew?).
In the post-bed p.m., from my nervous perch, the stakes were high. These were secret nocturnal viewings and I enjoyed the thrill of watching a movie I wasn’t allowed to; the buzz of staying up way past my bedtime to watch TV was sordid in itself. But I had no interest in risking parental punishment to watch violent movies or those filled with high drama – it was all about the moaning, the pashing and the pumping: I was there for the sex.
Movies broadcast on TV were still a scheduled viewing event at this time and as the technological advancement of a remote control hadn’t yet made it to my house, there was no channel surfing either. So, after a few minutes, I could judge whether staying up was worth my while – whether the potential titillation would outweigh the potential anxiety attack or grounding. Likewise, from the permitted comfort of my bedroom, I would press my ear up against the wall and if I could even faintly hear the potential for saxophone on the soundtrack, I would swiftly and stealthily leap from my covers to the stairs. After all, this was an era when sax was sexy and apparently my seductive siren song.
I saw Clint Eastwood do it in the likes of Play Misty for Me (but note: Dirty Harry is not sexy to me, only the ‘dirtiness’). I distinctly recall watching The Crying Game through to the end reveal – you know, the reveal: the ultimate spoiler of all spoilers before spoilers were even a ‘thing’. Take note: this was before my innocent eye had seen anyone beside immediate family in the nude, too. So that was a formative moment. I’d strain my eyes to read subtitles, which obviously often paid off.
It was around this time we got our first VCR. This was the early-to-mid nineties, so we got one far later than everyone else. Like all of our technology to come (and clothes before), it was a hand-me-down from our wealthier, more savvy extended family. It was silver and boxy and ejected the tapes at the top. It may have been an 80s model, but it looked like the future to us. Little did I know that my instinctive ability to navigate the features of this clunky chrome time machine better than my parents would see it become a big part of my not too distant, but still secret, sexual future too.
Soon, my parents split and Mum moved us to a single storey (single parent) shithole (it happens). This house and my mum’s solo habits were not conducive to sneaky viewership. With no stairs to hover on and no parents to watch past, my kinky clandestine viewing ways were a thing of the past.
I continued my sexual education via television regardless: my after-school routine consisted of rushing home to turn the TV on, the volume down muting the ‘Parental Guidance: Sex Themes’ warning, and then back up to sing along to Degrassi Junior High’s theme. The kids of Degrassi had sex, but they also had babies and AIDS and were taught a self-help section of moral lessons on the matter. Entertained but far from satiated, my intrigue and desire became stronger: I missed watching the titillating sex scenes in grown up movies. I wanted to see and hear the sex not just see and hear about the rules and bad stuff that came with it.
A couple of Sundays ago, waiting for my coffee, I was rummaging through the newspaper detritus at a café when I happened upon the weekly TV guide; the colour television magazine, printed and placed in the middle of the paper, amongst the advertising material and commercial car guides. I hadn’t had my hands on one in ages. In fact, I hadn’t watched broadcast television in ages, let alone a movie screened at a specific time, on a specific network on the box. Now, ‘the box’ at my house was more like a shiny flat oblong—one of Charlie Brooker’s ‘black mirrors’—utilised on rare occasions when I decide the couch is preferable to lying in bed beside my computer.
The odd times I’ve been curious about what’s on the free-to-air television networks recently, I’ve sourced the information online, not a print TV guide.
Published and distributed in Melbourne in 1957—a year after TV arrived in Australia—TV Week was our first local television magazine (originally TV-Radio Week). As TV’s popularity steadily grew, media companies created their own newspaper-affiliated rivals, made available free of charge with paper purchase. Surprisingly, TV Week is still sold in its current form print form at about $170 for an annual subscription. (Unsurprisingly, it’s published by Packer’s ACP Magazines.) I could readily recall cutting up my grandmother’s TV Week to make my own, youthful ‘magazines’ as a kid (they looked more like ransom notes to Australian starlets than anything), but holding this newspaper TV guide at the café, it all came flooding back.
At some point I graduated from sneaky upstairs lurker to full-blown video recording sleuth with the weekly TV guide my innocent sexual scripture. That wonderful little lift-out was a compendium of perversion and with the magical VCR, it was the entry point into my own private, secret sexual education
You’ve all heard the stories: ‘Once Upon A Time, Before The Internet’ and ‘there once was a girl called Gen Y(ish), blessed with the gift of teaching her parents how to use technology’. But at this point in my youth, my single mum was too busy trying to run a household solo to bother. Anytime she needed something taped, I would program it for her. After all, there were far too many buttons on the remote to press (by this time we’d upgraded to a more modern, ‘slimline’ 90s VCR and a TV with remote). What mum didn’t know, was that I while I’d schedule her missed viewings of The Bill, on nights she wasn’t recording anything, I would record everything of carnal interest.
Investigating the TV guide every Sunday was a treasured pleasure. I spend hours crosschecking the scheduled movie listings with their ratings and blurb, what most aroused my interests in arousal. ‘MA15+ for Mature Audiences Only’ was the preferred classification, but at times ‘M15+’ (only recommended for those fifteen and older) would be fine too, so long as it was accompanied by my favourite little letter: ‘s’ for ‘Sexual References’. Sometimes watching the tapes in my brief heated time left alone in the house, I would disappointingly discover that that little s indeed only meant ‘references’. So my favourite of all the ratings was that beautiful union between ‘s’ and ‘n’ meaning ‘sex references’ + ‘nudity’ = it was on.
I was far more discreet with this secret self sex-ed than my younger brother would be in later years, often leaving porn videos in the family player only to be found out when mum pressed play on her BBC drama, but got smacked in the face by some dramatic flesh smacking instead. I was also far less explicit: I didn’t want to source porn, I wanted to watch these movies in my private world, get to know the characters, read the subtitles and discover completely whack foreign films like the erotic Japanese Weatherwoman series (which also scared the shit out of me). But honestly, due to alone-time restrictions and very specific focus, I’d often fast-forward to the good stuff.
Then the day arrived when Mum, genuinely baffled, asked why I had recorded SBS at 11.30pm on a Wednesday night. She noticed the click of the player turnover after staying in the lounge far later than usual. “Oh,” I stammered, “I meant to record a documentary at 11.30am, whoops!” It was a plausible excuse. It was lapped up. But it didn’t matter because for me, once even almost caught too away some element of the game: the wet dream was over. My obsessive scheduling-recording-watching sexual education extinguished, my secrecy detained. I stopped pressing record.
Videotapes are no longer rented or borrowed and movies are no longer recorded where one particularly erotic scene—legs open, shirt off, mad-make out, penetration party—is rewound and re-watched so often that it damaged the tape. No longer do TV guides or the ratings thrown down in them matter as much. No longer are kids staying up in the masses to watch an almost-mute version of a free-to-air screening of Basic Instinct.
The transgressive time that I spent as a secret junior perv was indeed erotic, but strangely never masturbatory. That’s something that came far later. As much as the content was pleasing and viewing sex scenes the goal, voyeuristic secrecy was the most stimulating part. When I crouched on the stairs, any creak from the floorboards sent a wave of pleasant panic through me. I would relish the moments I could covertly flick through the TV guide and plan my week that was solely mine.
Being voyeuristic is somewhat normalised now while fear, power, secrecy and newness remain libidinal because the element of surprise, awakening revelations incite reaction. I still enjoy watching life go by, peeking into people’s windows as I stroll past a house is intriguing to me. I also enjoy dirty movies and TV and porn and pictures – but in different ways of course. Because now sex is more than just unattainable fiction on hidden tapes: its both a lived and fictional experience.