Health & Wellness

'Sex Box': Couples therapy or reality show trash?

Does the new reality show, "Sex Box," which premiered Friday night on WEtv, go too far? Or is it simply a case of coitus overshare?

In the new show, which is a reboot of a British series, couples having relationship problems are dressed in silky pajamas and led into a box on a studio stage where they supposedly have sex. The audience doesn't see or hear anything, but when the couple emerges, they then discuss their issues with the program's three relationship experts.

The network is hyping "Sex Box" as the boldest new show on television, so it's not surprising the program has already stirred up objections from the Parents Television Council, which started an online petition against it.

“Families are overwhelmed by today’s toxic entertainment media environment, and a program like ‘Sex Box’ will only cause a further erosion of standards on broadcast and basic cable television,” the Parents Television Council said in a statement.

While the show seems intended to shock the viewer, experts say it's a new low in twisting a nugget of real science into a titillating premise. The point of sex-in-a-box is that intercourse releases oxytocin, a hormone active in the brain. Oxytocin, in turn, facilitates honest, open communication between the couples and the experts.

But Heather Rupp, a neuroscientist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction told TODAY “there’s absolutely not any valid therapy going on there. It’s entertainment."

Oxytocin does indeed facilitate communication, partly by easing anxiety, Emory University neuroscientist Larry Young, a pioneer in the brain chemistry of love, sex and bonding, said. In the book "The Chemistry Between Us," which I co-authored, Young suggests that science study oxytocin therapy, in the form of a nasal spray, with real couples.

And it is true that sexual intercourse, eye gazing, touching, can raise levels of oxytocin. It’s an important bonding mechanism.

But sex in front of a studio audience — imagine the performance anxiety! — is counter to the warm afterglow of post-coital snuggling.

Rupp’s studies, as well as those of others, have shown that oxytocin interacts with the brain’s reward system to enhance positive mood. While that could ease communication, it also can lead to more reward seeking. “So you could end up with people not really communicating openly and truthfully, but seeking the applause and praise of the show,” said Rupp.

Finally, decades of research has shown that anxiety has the paradoxical effect of raising libido. That’s why couples in sex doldrums are often advised to go away to a new place together. The jolt of a strange situation can jump start romance.

“The more aroused you are, you bond,” Rupp explained. “These people are in a freaking box in a reality show, on a stage, so it’s exciting and they are together. The arousal of that situation could lead to misplaced arousal for the partner, so you think you like him or her more.”

But relationships are built on a constellation of brain chemicals, not just oxytocin. It’s a complicated, fascinating story. A lot more fascinating than looking at the outside of a box, Rupp said.

Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of "The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction." Read more at http://www.thechemistrybetweenus.com/

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