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“It was not the easiest thing for me to do, to sit and talk about people’s sex lives,” says Christiane Amanpour.
CNN’s veteran correspondent rose to prominence as a boots-on-the-ground reporter dodging danger in war zones. So her upcoming limited series, Sex & Love Around the World, is a stark departure — for her and her network. “Mostly when you think sex and television [news], you think sex trafficking, you think child brides. This is exactly the opposite. It’s the vital other side that never gets explored,” Amanpour says.
Each installment of the six-part series — which bows March 17 at 10 p.m. — explores sex, intimacy and relationships in a different city. In Berlin, Amanpour visits the city’s sex clubs; at a BDSM workshop, ropes are thrown around her while she’s interviewing the “king” of bondage. But she also meets a young Afghan refugee, pregnant with her third child, who is shocked when Amanpour asks her if she believes she has the right to be happy. In Tokyo, she examines a culture where public displays of affection are exceedingly rare, sexless marriages are common and an astounding 40 percent of adult men are virgins. But she also meets an utterly charming couple who have created a group called the “Adoring Husbands Association.” (One of the rituals has the husband scream “I love you” to his wife — in public, at the top of his lungs.) She meets a transgender star in Shanghai and an all-female motorcycle gang in New Delhi.
The idea for the series was born of Amanpour’s curiosity about how people, particularly women, maintain intimacy in war zones. The idea came about three years ago, while she was getting ready to go to work at CNN’s London bureau and listening to a radio report about Syrian refugees.
“I’d been so used to reporting all these extreme things that refugees go through, that happen in war zones and crisis zones and disaster zones,” she says. “How do they stay alive? How do they feed their children? But never how do they maintain their love affairs? How do they maintain intimacy?”
She discussed the idea with Anthony Bourdain; the two have been friends for more than a decade. The host and executive producer of CNN’s Parts Unknown had for years been having the same type of conversations with people — particularly women — whom he had met in the course of doing his series.
“I would find myself talking to women in places like Beirut or Japan or Africa, places that are very patriarchal, places where it was very difficult for women to speak honestly. They would start to tell me these rather incredible, intimate and very powerful stories about their sexuality, their role in society,” recalls Bourdain. “But I’m not a journalist, I’m not a woman; I didn’t know that I had the gravitas to negotiate that delicate balance. And so when Christiane called me out of the blue and said, ‘Let’s get together, I have a project I want to talk to you about,’ it was kind of a dream come true.”
He adds: “It’s incredibly intimate and powerful material. I think it’s really going to surprise the hell out of people. And move them.”
The series — produced by Zero Point Zero, the same production company behind Bourdain’s Parts Unknown — features all female directors. Bourdain is an executive producer.
The long-gestating series is newly timely, coming as the #MeToo movement is beginning to reframe our collective lens on the world, putting more emphasis on the lives of women. “Having covered women and their roles in society all over the world, I wanted to uncover this particularly sensitive, touchy and yet vital human experience of sexuality and intimacy and love from a woman’s perspective,” says Amanpour.
For CNN, original series and films have become an increasingly important brand proposition at a time when news networks are working to diversify program and platform offerings. Sex & Love is a provocative concept that network executives hope will break through in a competitive landscape.
“We took it as far as we thought we had to, to tell the stories we wanted to tell,” notes Amy Entelis, CNN’s executive vp of content development. “We had a lot of discussions in the editing process. We did have a lot of discussions internally about how far we could push it.”
Some of the more explicit language had to be toned down. But, adds Entelis, “Ninety-nine percent of it is there. We didn’t censor anything; we never said, we can’t have that on TV.”
The series is less about titillation than awkwardly frank and intimate conversations. “Women are increasingly agents for their own happiness and their own fulfillment,” says Amanpour. “And it was just a beautiful opportunity to come face-to-face with that. And I loved it. It was reaffirming to me of life’s essential optimism. And I am an optimist, despite all the bad stuff that I’ve reported on. And I believe strongly that women will achieve all their rights, not just their political rights and their economic rights, but their right to fulfillment and satisfaction and their right just to be themselves.”
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