The sex inspector 

Gay sex guru Michael Alvear helped save the marriages of several straight couples, then lost the love of his own life

With a million television viewers in the United Kingdom watching, Michael and Katie sit down on a bed.

Katie is in her mid-20s. But her face is marked by the physical and emotional exhaustion of a long-term relationship with Mark that has grown tense and largely sexless since the birth of their child.

Katie wants her partner to be more assertive in the bedroom, but has to modify her own behavior if it's going to happen. That's why she's with Michael.

Michael is the co-host of "The Sex Inspectors," a reality show that helps struggling straight couples reinvent their sex lives. The show debuted in the U.K. in 2004 and on HBO in the United States in 2005. Cameras in Katie's and Mark's bedroom allowed Michael to study how the couple interacts. Viewing the footage, he easily spotted one of the reasons Katie's partner had become less assertive and affectionate, and he's ready to talk to her about it.

"Can I show you what you do?" Michael asks, after they sit down on the bed.

He invites her to put her arm around him. But as her arm touches his back, he slaps it and turns away.

"I'm not that bad, am I?" she asks, laughing nervously.

"How did that feel?" Michael asks.

"It's just blatantly 'don't touch me' isn't it?"

"What else do you feel?" he asks.

"Rejected, which is kind of sad. It's not a nice feeling."

"It makes you feel hurt, rejected, abandoned and not very loved. Fair?"

"Definitely," she says.

"Can I tell you a secret?"

She nods and Michael leans in to whisper in her ear: "Men have feelings, too."

After spending much of his professional writing career in Atlanta on the fringe as a gay relationship columnist and author, Michael Alvear didn't decide one day to go mainstream. The mainstream came to him.

Alvear, 49, is no longer merely a gay sex and relationships guru. He's a sex and relationships guru who happens to be gay.

He is proud, he says, to be part of a cultural movement that shifted the common perception of gay people away from malicious, hateful stereotypes.

"Queer Eye For The Straight Guy" was a great leap forward, Alvear says, precisely because its central premise became passé so quickly. Gay people advising straight people is now so OK that it's almost dull.

Alvear, however, has just relearned the painful lesson that even though he may be a mainstream figure whose work appeals to both straights and gays, he's still ostracized in many essential ways from the straight world.

While in London, Alvear met the man he considers the love of his life. They want to build a life together in Atlanta. The only way Alvear's boyfriend can get a visa to stay in the United States is through marriage. But because they're in a same-sex relationship, they can't legally marry.

The striking difference between the two worlds hit home recently when Alvear was in a dressing room preparing for a television appearance. He overheard a woman talking about falling in love with a Brit. "I met the most wonderful British guy," she said. "I married him and now he can work here."

It was a wrenching conversation for Alvear to hear. "Isn't it rich?" he asks. "I've helped so many straight people improve their love lives and yet it's straight policy that has ruined mine."

The gimmick for "The Sex Inspectors" was simple, yet provocative. The show was hosted by Alvear and Tracey Cox, a sex and relationships expert from the United Kingdom who advised foundering straight couples on how to improve their sex lives. Cox -- a straight woman -- most often coached the men on how to relate to women, while Alvear -- a gay man -- coached the women on how to relate to men.

The show was critically acclaimed in the U.K. "If only all makeover programs were so worthwhile," wrote the Times of London of the show in November 2004. "Though moralists will yelp, some people may genuinely be helped," wrote the Guardian.

Each week, the show featured footage of couples, like Mark and Katie, who agreed to install cameras in their homes so the show's producers, co-hosts and the viewing audience could watch them interact behind closed doors.

Viewers saw the couples watching TV on the couch, doing (or not doing) the dishes, playing with their kids, and having sex in their bedrooms.

Or at least attempting to have sex.

The act itself, as seen on the show, was usually fraught and miserable. And unless watching likable, well-intentioned people in emotional pain turns you on, it isn't especially voyeuristic.

It's graphic reality without ever being prurient. The climax of most episodes wasn't erotic; it was emotional. The satisfaction of watching the show came from seeing hope in the couples who seemed miserable and depressed when the episode started.


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