Fridays Without Borders - Almost Masturbating in the Late '90s
by Rob White, 3.49am May 10th 2022
The fall. A magical time when the colours begin to change, people start to bundle up, and sexual journeys begin. For me and, I believe, for a certain generation, our local cable company’s annual Sigma Box promotion opened a carnal doorway. We didn’t have TV anymore. We had cable.
In the late ‘90s, cable was like an amazing gateway. It allowed you to see what your imagination would be like if you were smart or cared enough to write anything down. I remember the whispers around the schoolyard: “Channel 60 has nudity.” Keep in mind that this was pre-internet, and pre-me finding a porno magazine at the creek, so nudity was a big deal. The word just held power over my 12-year-old self. This wasn’t the nudity I was used to at the time either: Like a trucker stuck on a sexual highway in a blizzard, I had spent many hours trying to decode the snow of TV static for any glimpse of bare skin on the movie channels we didn’t get. The 1996 classic film “Barbed Wire,” starring Pamela Anderson, came in exceptionally clear on a particularly eventful Saturday night. By “exceptionally clear,” I do mean the image was jittering up and down violently, heavily distorted down the middle, and the whites and blacks were inverted like a haunted painting. Maybe I saw breasts? Maybe it was two cups on a table? I still don’t know.
But one day in September, it was official: at three o‘clock on Friday, my dad was going to Cable Regina to pick up The Sigma Box.
The Sigma Box was like a sexual spaceship. Its 3-month mission: Make me a man and be returned in good working order by my father to collect the full deposit. The design was sleek for its time: large and grey, the plastic was unfinished and had long, indented curved lines on the top, which I assumed was for speed. The number pad felt like an expensive calculator or the remote control of a fine craftsman. The digital readout glowed red, and it went past your precious channel 25. It went all the way up to 70.
70 fucking channels. Unreal. Movies on demand, strange American channels that played “Saved by the Bell” on a constant loop and weird local versions of NBC that constantly aired news reports of inner-city shootings and hyped something called “Doppler radar.” But there were daytime interests. Looking over the TV listings, it was pretty easy to find what I was really looking for: names of movies like “Lady On The Bus,” “Wild Orchid,” and “Scorpio Nights II.” Running my finger from the movies to find the corresponding channel was like stepping out of one part of life and into another. Channel 60. Showcase. “Fridays Without Borders.”
Friday nights became a ritual: Stay up late, quietly shut my parent’s door and sneak into the living room and fire up the sigma box. “Oh yeah,” I’d tell myself, “Sex is gonna happen.” I should probably mention now that no masturbation was actually occurring at this time in my life. It was all a pointless exercise in titillation. To say I was on the sexual sidelines doesn’t really make sense; I had no idea what sex really was. I guess I was just a fan of it, like someone watching a foreign sport, completely unaware of the rules. Imagine watching cricket with a boner, and you get the idea.
The movies were always terrible: sexual thrillers with thin plots and terrible acting. They showed real nudity, but the amount of endlessly terrible dialogue and contrived plot twists rarely made your time investment worth it. But the TV shows. The TV shows were the bread and butter: “Sin Cities,” “Web dreams” and the crown jewel of softcore porn: “Red Shoe Diaries”. While the other shows were like well-made sedans, not the flashiest, but they’ll get you where you need to go, Red Shoe always felt like a sexual Lamborghini: the ratio of erotica to plot was low, with as much time spent on character development as it was on a woman’s bare ass. While full nudity was only ever implied, the constraints of a half-hour format guaranteed the first softcore sex scene usually happened in the first 10 minutes and who knows how many you’d get after that. 3? 5? This was peak titillation.
Is it possible for something to be hopelessly dated before you even shoot it? That had to be the intention with Red Shoe Diaries. The look, the music, the genre, the round eyeglass frames; none of these trends had any hope of lasting, and yet still they managed to pump out five seasons and 20 “movies” in this inexplicable style. David Duchovny, who played the narrator, must have been blackmailed because that is the only reasonable explanation as to why he did this show for so long after he found success with The X Files. Whenever it’s brought up, he must cringe so hard he shits in his pants. I’m sure that one of the main reasons it was cancelled was due to the rising cost of renting lofts in Manhattan or simply the creators saw the breadth of their domain and wept, for there were no more softcore, pre-cum-stained worlds to conquer.
Eventually, Sigma’s 3-month promotion came to an end, and we would bid it ado for another year. Scott White would hook up the coax cable into the back of the TV, and that was it for my Sigma sexual revolution. It was like going from the swinging ’60s to the AIDs fueled paranoia of the mid-’80s with one trip to cable Regina. The glorious grey beast would come and go out of our household, and eventually, it would be replaced with a more generic cable box. The personality was sucked out: the sleek curves flattened, the keypad removed, and the size was reduced considerably. It went from being an event to just being a dinky box that sat on top of the TV. Truly the end of an era. Before the Sigma box, I was a boy, and after Friday Without Borders, I was a man.