Welcome to Home Watching, a column about the wild and wooly world of renovation television from a self-proclaimed expert in the genre.
Part of the appeal of sex is that the act at its core requires very little: just willing and consenting participants and a chunk of free time. As an activity, it isn’t site-specific, though it’s likely to be done in private. Any room of the house can be a sex room, if you squint. But part of the luxury of home ownership is control: your house is your castle, and within those walls, what you say goes. If you want a room that’s explicitly dedicated to sex, who’s to stop you?
This premise is the focus of Netflix’s How to Build a Sex Room, which is exactly what it sounds like: a straight-faced home renovation series featuring couples who want dedicated rooms in their houses for having sex. The host of the show, Melanie Rose, has been designing sex rooms for a decade—a task she undertook after being approached by a client who wanted one for their home—and treats everything she does with a heady combination of seriousness and sensuality. She’s earnest about her job and executes her clients’ deepest desires competently and with gusto. As a designer, she wants her clients to be happy, and if that means making a crawl space in the basement under the laundry room into a dungeon-cum–"sexy lounge" area, so be it.
Part of the show’s gimmick is to play up the sex bit, and that cheapens what is, at its heart, a solid show about good design. Like any interior designer tasked with creating an intimate space, Rose acts as a therapist in the way a savvy reality TV personality of this nature is. She regularly carries around a Mary Poppins-esque carpet bag full of feathers, cat o’nine tails, and handcuffs, showing these to her clients as a way of getting them to open up about what their pleasure demands. One assumes that these contrived scenarios are purely for Netflix: It’s hard to imagine that every couple Rose works with gets to sit in a recording booth blindfolded, while she feeds them lines like, "I love feeling your cock in my mouth."
Even though the show strays from HGTV’s playbook, the idea—that the heart of good design is creating a space that both looks and feels like a reflection of its inhabitants—isn’t so different at all.
There are other rhetorical flourishes that pad out the show; couples who express interest in getting more into light bondage are traipsed in front of two kink experts, and flogged gently on camera while fully clothed. Because this is Netflix and not PornHub, there’s no real danger of these scenarios veering off—the result is, as the kids say, cringe at best and embarrassing at worst. There’s no need to fill empty space with this sort of playacting, when what the show could benefit from is process.
How to Build a Sex Room doesn’t hew to the unimpeachable formula pioneered by HGTV, where each episode of any show is as predictable and comforting as a crime procedural. Instead, the filler cuts into valuable minutes that could and should be dedicated to the design process and the inevitable conflicts that arise. Watching a sledgehammer smash into a plaster wall or seeing a living room taken down to the studs in time-lapse footage is part of the necessary tension that makes the inevitable thrilling conclusion worth it. (After you’ve watched Mina Starsiak and Karen Laine of Good Bones freak out for 15 minutes over tricky electrical or replacing half the foundation, the reward is seeing just how it all shakes out: another nail in the coffin of Indianapolis gentrification in the form of a slickly renovated home that may be not to taste, but is impressive.)
It’s hard to judge the 16 sex rooms featured on the show’s eight episodes objectively, because doing so would be yucking someone’s yum, which is antithetical to this entire operation. But what stands out for each room is how well Rose listened to her clients and provided exactly what they wanted. A spanking bench, shaped like a pommel horse and covered in lipstick red leather, would be a curious design choice that could work in a specific sort of living room (loft conversion, concrete floors, Tom of Finland prints on the walls), but nestled in a brightly lit dungeon, it looks homey, comfortable, and even cozy.
In the end, the payoff somehow works. When Rose’s clients step into their newly created temples to sexual hedonism, they’re delighted. Some of her design flourishes—which include penis hooks and a Saint Andrew’s cross when appropriate—are repeated throughout the interiors she decorates, but like any good design, these pieces fit seamlessly into the space. Each room’s reveal is treated with the same sort of reverence usually reserved for a stunning dining area, and no one is ever disappointed. There’s a refreshing bravery in these couples, who discuss the granular details of their sex lives like one might backsplash, but that’s part of the fun.
Even though the show strays from HGTV’s playbook, the idea—that the heart of good design is creating a space that both looks and feels like a reflection of its inhabitants—isn’t so different at all. If meditation is an important part of your life, repurposing a walk-in closet into a moment of Zen makes sense; if the garden shed in the backyard is taking up space that you could use for yourself, turn it into a she shed. Repurposing these spaces to fit specific needs is truly homemaking. A sex room carries a similar message: that the act is so sacred and important that it, too, deserves a room of its own.
Top photo by Caleb Alvarado/Netflix.
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