HBO was forbidden in my household when I was a child, so I would not be exposed to what my youthful brain imagined to be a cornocopia of naked women. In true American form, my well-meaning parents were willing to incorporate sex into their lives without actually discussing it. Years later, I’ve come to find that HBO is actually practicing the same kind of hypocrisy when it comes to its own original series that revolve around sex—particularly the deeply troubling Cathouse , which follows the real-life employees of the Moonlite BunnyRanch, an infamous Nevada brothel.
For the uninitiated—which I hope is every one of you—Cathouse is billed as a “documentary series” by HBO, because it ostensibly deals with the daily lives and routines of a group of working girls. That the profession is treated with the kind of wacky glee you’d expect to see on more mainstream reality programs is only part of the series’ fascinating, rotten charm. The show is edited with flash and tacky style, and the brief segments are each given animated title cards that set up the action to follow: the lineup of girls presenting themselves for each new customer, the arrangements that go into a bachelor party at the ranch, etc. But instead of just being another annoying, behind-the-scences reality show, Cathouse is actually doing its viewers a disservice by blowing the opportunity to honestly examine the sex trade in America.
And it’s not like HBO doesn’t know how to make that show; HBO Documentary Films also produced the bluntly named Atlantic City Hookers , perhaps the most depressing thing I have ever seen on television. Ever. It’s a real-life look at emotionally tortured women who have wound up hooking on the streets of Atlantic City, and some parts of it are so sad and evocative I could barely watch it. But where’s the same respect for the women of the BunnyRanch? Surely, some of them must have occasional gripes with the job, or the customers, or the odd mechanics of sleeping with strangers for money? They can’t all be as happy as the talking-head interviews would suggest, can they? I don’t think it’s out of line to assume that something has gone wrong in the personal lives of each of these women that has guided them to their current profession. There’s so much to explore there, but HBO isn’t doing it.
And that’s because HBO would rather you watch Cathouse than Hookers , because the lightweight, superficial reality show hews more closely to HBO’s ultimate mission: to shy away from graphic sexuality in favor of the fantasy that sexuality can sell. Perhaps the most unsettling episode—and there are many—is the one in which an 18-year-old boy is brought to the BunnyRanch by his mother to lose his virginity. Pseudo-Oedipal politics aside, the segment is heartbreaking in the way the boy nervously shifts on the bed while his girl dances before him and discusses price. Afterward, they enjoy a drink in the lobby, and she walks away. The boy watches her go, not quite sure what to do. The show teeters on the brink of coming to grips with the price you pay for believing in a fantasy, but before it does, the credits have rolled.
Season two episodes of Cathouse screen on HBO at all hours of the night.