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The Sex Factor is a Porn Reality Show Straight Out of the Early 2000s

Years ago, I was approached to help develop a reality show about the adult industry, one envisioned as a sort of America's Next Top Model for porn. Whenever I'd mention the project to a friend, their eyes would light up at the possibility: even though no one had ever done a show like this before, the concept intuitively made sense. 

The porn industry is notoriously opaque for those not working in it, and the notion of a show that sheds light on the smut business' internal workings has inherent appeal. How are porn performers picked? What makes one more successful than the rest? And how, exactly, do they prepare for all those scenes? In the same way that America's Next Top Model demystified modeling, this show would demystify porn, offering a behind-the-scenes look at popular industry — and a built-in excuse for the kind of titillation most premium cable shows bend over backwards to justify.

For better or for worse, the show I was tapped for never came to fruition. But it's not a shock to see that, elsewhere in the world, another aspiring producer had a similar idea, one that — after years of development and delay — has resulted in The Sex Factor, an XHamster-backed web series where 16 would-be porn performers compete to prove their XXX prowess and potentially win $1 million.

The Sex Factor, which debuts today, is the brainchild of Silicon Valley veteran Buddy Ruben. It initially made the media rounds when it was announced that "Duke porn star" Belle Knox had signed on to host; but it took two more years, a new host, and the backing of XHamster for the series to actually debut. Ruben hasn't commented publicly on the delay, but there are some obvious reasons why this project would be a challenge to put together. TV is expensive and complicated to produce, even when you're not offering up $1 million in cash; and despite the common wisdom that "sex sells," most networks (and therefore production companies) shy away from anything that treats sex as more than just the punchline to a crass joke. Though Ruben's said on the record that he's had no trouble finding distributors, the partnership with XHamster — and decision to release the show online, for free — suggests otherwise.

But of course, all of that would be irrelevant if The Sex Factor managed to live up to the tremendous amount of hype it's produced — and most importantly, if it was entertaining. So was it worth the wait? Well, judging by the first episode... not really.

"Well, what do you expect? It's porn!"

Just a few minutes into the first episode, it becomes clear that The Sex Factor is a strange beast. It's obvious that a good amount of money was put into the project — most notably that million-dollar prize — yet at the same time it feels cheaply produced and poorly edited, with clunky, distracting background music; stilted performances from the hosts; and awkward shots and edits. (During the first episode's elimination ceremony, the show cuts to an aerial shot of the eliminated contestant as he reacts to the group's decision; to the left of his head is a very visible boom mic.)

The knee-jerk response here is obviously to say, "Well, what do you expect? It's porn!" ButThe Sex Factor doesn't want to be just porn: its own press release makes the grandiose claim that "it's a mainstream pop-culture brand" and "premium reality entertainment watched together by couples, college kids, and good friends in a familiar social setting." One would think that a show with such lofty aspirations would invest in a more-talented production team, but it seems The Sex Factor's producers assumed that the promise of sex alone would be enough to get them by.

But, alas, it isn't. Though it's billed as a porn reality show, The Sex Factor doesn't quite live up to either end of the bargain. There's not enough character development for it to feel like a full-fledged reality show — we're barely introduced to the contestants before we see them going to town on one another; in fact, we see clips of them in flagrante delictobefore we even learn their names. It's obviously a challenge to introduce 16 different characters — in addition to five different judges — in the span of a single, 30-minute episode, but the fact that the show barely tries speaks volumes.

"The grandiose cash promised by The Sex Factor is a not-so-humble brag that belies the cash-strapped reality of the adult industry."

And that lack of character development also hurts the show on the porn side of the equation. A standard porn scene is usually about 20 to 40 minutes long. Episode one ofThe Sex Factor is 30 minutes total, and that includes introductions, commentary, confessional interviews, and a trip to the clinic in addition to the bits of sex. As a result, the hardcore action is incredibly brief, which might be okay if we actually felt invested in the characters. But in this case, watching characters we barely know make out, fake orgasms, and give each other head fails to arouse — or even interest.

But far and away the biggest issue is the way the show handles its first problem contestant. Midway through the first episode, we're informed that David Caspian's been taking the libertine nature of the show a bit too far, jerking off in front of housemates and making a number of the show's female contestants uncomfortable. It's played for laughs, which is already strange; more troubling is the fact that, when Caspian is ultimately voted off, the judges all exclaim their disbelief — with Keiran Lee even going so far as offering to book him a scene as a consolation prize.

It's possible, of course, that most of the judges were unaware of Caspian's creepy behavior when the scene was shot, but the show's lax attitude toward his complete disrespect for his housemates' boundaries is rather appalling. In a post-James Deen porn world, giving a pass to performers who cross the line feels deeply tone deaf — that sort of "boys will be boys" attitude feels out of place in an industry that's vowed to take performer conduct seriously.

The Sex Factor doesn't feel innovative: if anything, it feels stuck in the early aughts — both in terms of what porn and reality shows it's channeling. In addition to the played-outBig Brother vibe, the cast is mostly white, the male performers more gawky and awkward than suave studs intended to attract the female gaze, and — at least in the first episode — the sexual dynamics aren't exactly equal (it's telling that there's a blowjob contest, but no test of anyone's cunnlingual skills). Even the much ballyhooed million-dollar prize feels more like embarrassing ostentation than a sign of success. In today's adult industry, performers are far more likely to make comfortable, five-figure salaries than anything approaching seven figures; the grandiose cash promised by The Sex Factor is a not-so-humble brag that belies the cash-strapped reality of the adult industry.

But while it's tempting to point and laugh as the pornographers churn out an ill-advised, subpar project, it's a mistake to see the failures of The Sex Factor as singular to the adult industry. Pornography isn't the only industry that's been deeply disrupted by the internet, and it's hardly the only industry hoping to reclaim past revenues by doing the same thing as always, just with a tiny, half-assed twist. But in our increasingly competitive media landscape, where more and more properties are battling for smaller amounts of revenue, "that thing you used to like, but slightly different" just isn't enough to retain viewer interest or secure viewers' dollars. The Sex Factor didn't learn that lesson — but hopefully some of their competitors will.

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