At long last, the show no one knew they'd been waiting for, “Sex Box,” is premiering tonight on WE TV. While most people in couples therapy deal with their intimate issues in the privacy of a counselor's office, this show hangs all the dirty laundry out to dry -- but only after the couples have sex in a soundproof box on stage, in front of a live studio audience.
The idea is for couples with ailing love lives to work out their struggles by having sex and then speaking to the show's panel of therapists immediately afterward, based on research showing people are more honest apres sex. The reality series' three Ph.D. "sexperts" -- Dr. Yvonne Capehart, Dr. Fran Walfish and Dr. Chris Donaghue -- bring specialized expertise in relationship counseling.
Walfish boasts a successful career as a licensed psychotherapist. She was enjoying her private practice in Beverly Hills, where she worked with clients including some Hollywood elites, when she got the call to be on the WE TV series. Ahead of tonight’s premiere, Dr. Walfish spoke to International Business Times about her journey on “Sex Box.”
IBTimes: The first thing I really what to start with is, as a successful psychotherapist – how did you find your way to “Sex Box”?
Dr. Fran Walfish: Well, I’m a traditional and a real doctor. I was on the clinical staff at Cedars Sinai Medical Center for 15 years and I have a doctorate in clinical psychology. I’ve been in private practice in Beverly Hills for almost 20 years. In addition to doing psychotherapy, I’m also an author. I write books, but I also write for other publications like the Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, Parents Magazine and more. Because of that, an agency represents me and the producers of “Sex Box” approached them. They found me, I think, online, and asked me if I’d be interested in interviewing with them as a possibility for the show.
IBTimes: What did you say when they called?
Dr. Walfish: To tell you the truth, just like some folks out there, initially I had my own share of unfair categorization of the show based purely on two words – the title of the show, “Sex Box.” But, because part of my definition of “good mental health” is openness and flexibility, I decided to go in and meet the folks and explore and see what they were actually doing.
IBTimes: What did you find?
Dr. Walfish: I discovered that this show is, no question, the most extreme couples therapy show on television or anywhere. But, it truly is a therapy show that is intended to help people.
It’s based on science. I don’t know if you know that Rutgers University in New Jersey did research and found that oxytocin levels – it’s the bonding love and cuddle hormone – are super duper high after sexual intercourse.
IBTimes: I wanted to ask you about that because I found that the concept of the show is that couples are supposedly more honest after they exit the Sex Box. Does that just allow you to talk to couples whose problems aren’t necessarily sexual in nature?
Dr. Walfish: The answer is Y-E-S. Not everyone on the show had a sex problem. Many of the couples had other issues and a lot of what I always deal with. From my perspective, a majority of the couples on the show, once we got into the core of what was going on in the relationship, the problem was lack of, or poor communication skills. People just don’t know how to talk to each other.
In my private practice and in my experience out in the world, it’s kind of stunning and shocking, but the vast majority of couples that come to my office are tolerating existing in sexless marriages or relationships that are sexually dissatisfying and they don’t know how to improve it. I was really excited to be on the show to give American couples some genuine help for a problem that’s pervasive that nobody is comfortable talking about.
IBTimes: You specified “American” couples, but what some don't know is that the show is based on a U.K. series. Can you tell me what the American version is bringing to the table that the U.K. version didn’t?
Dr. Walfish: I don’t want to put anybody or anything down because I like the U.K. version also. What I think it did was whet the appetites and the beaks of folks to at least, broach forbidden taboo territory. What I think this version does is take it another step further. We’re really getting into the details and a lot of the specifics.
Not graphically though, nothing is shown. There are no microphones or cameras in the box. No shadows and no hinting – everything is done tastefully. But, there’s a heck of a lot of detailed discussion. So we have that [on the U.K. version]. I also can’t remember for sure, but I don’t remember if they had any actual doctors on the U.K. version of the show, no PhDs.
All three of the experts on the American version have doctorates, each in their own lane. I’m the traditional psychological doctorate degree. Dr. Chris has a doctorate in sex therapy and Dr. Yvonne has her degree in the ministry -- she’s a pastor. So each one of us will be giving the couple suggestions and advice from a different theoretical point of view.
IBTimes: Circling back to the couples for a second, you said that a main draw for you to be on the show was the chance to give relationship advice on a grander stage but what do the couples get out of this?
Dr. Walfish: The couples come from all over the country, including the East Coast, the Midwest – everywhere. They’re from all over. Each one of them had a different problem or issue and each one was a relatable issue. One couple had a problem because they were having too much sex. They were using sex as a way of avoiding every other issue in their relationship. They never talked about anything – they just jumped into the sack when anxiety levels got too high.
Then there were couples that had issues with financial strains, difficulty balancing work and family, there were issues with children. One woman only wanted to get pregnant and conceive a baby. She turned her husband into a baby machine. There were infidelity and cheating issues, which are fairly common. The vast majority of couples that we treated all struggled with communication difficulties. So there was a wide range of issues and everyone that came on the show volunteered and wanted to come mainly because they’d tried everything they know and they were really stuck in a problem.
IBTimes: So their currency for appearing on the show is essentially the free expert advice of yourself and the other two doctors?
Dr. Walfish: That’s exactly right. Lets face it, therapy is very expensive unless you go to a non-profit, sliding-scale clinic where it’s the luck of the draw. You get who you’re assigned to and it’s hard to form a long-term relationship because, interns come and go. So, this is a way for those couples and the people in the audience to get free therapy.
IBTimes: Given the setting and the amount of time that you have with each couple, I assume it’s not as effective as paying for regular couple’s therapy. Do you find you’re still able to make an impact?
Dr. Walfish: Honestly, the answer is yes. It was a pleasant surprise to me. I do want to acknowledge though that it is a very different experience than coming to my private practice and having therapy. Private therapy in my office, if I define short-term therapy, I think of it as three months. Something like 10-12 sessions. That’s just short-term therapy. When you come on “Sex Box,” you’re there for less than a day because we do three in one episode and take one day to shoot it. That’s very short term.
IBTimes: I’ll say.
Dr. Walfish: But, I will tell you the God’s honest truth. When I first heard the concept of the show I scratched my forehead and thought “OK, what kind of real effectiveness can we really implement here, and can we truly be helping change people?”
I was knocked out because I saw some people, more people than not, transformed and changed right in front of my eyes. It was the experience. It’s almost like when you go through a climactic trauma. You go through a series of very poignant high-energy points where you almost come to Jesus. It’s like coming to terms with yourself. You have to take a painfully honest look within and yet you have three supportive wise guys there to hold your hand and lead the way.
There’s a safety net because we’re not there to criticize or judge, but rather guide people to help them see the light and get to the other side, because we know the struggle is hard. I know it’s difficult, I’ve been there before. I’m just going to hold their hand and walk them through it to get to the other side. You’ll see a lot of tears, laughter and people bonding.
IBTimes: I want to ask, have any couples been disingenuous with their problems? Has anyone tried to pull your leg just to get on the show?
We have not faced that and I have a hunch that’s because there’s a weeding process that the experts are not privy to. I think it’s pretty intense. I know for me to be one of the experts on the show the audition process was pretty intense. I was not offered the position after one call, it was many calls and I know that’s true for all three of the experts.
So nobody was there to pull our legs at all, but I did have one or two people that were challenging for me, as a psychotherapist, to get through to. In other words their defenses were so hard in place that it took a lot of work to chip away at them. But I told people right there on camera: “Look, I don’t believe you,” and you’ll see that.
I think in the end we did get through to everyone.
“Sex Box” airs Fridays at 10 p.m. EST on WE TV.