When it comes to sex on our television or cinema screens we, as an audience, are often left hanging.
Whereby every scene of a TV show or movie is detailed, allowed to be fully acted out, sex scenes are treated differently. More often than not, sex is only ever implied on-screen. Instead of a fully fleshed-out scene with a beginning, middle, and end, an audience is lucky if we actually get to see the whole thing through. Instead, sex is treated as the ‘dot dot dot’ at the end of a sentence; the classic fade-to-black motif proving to be a production favourite. The audience is left to decide how things went down for themselves, which can often lead to a distorted view of what actually happens during sex.
When sex is portrayed on screen it can often be very problematic, with acts of violence often going hand in hand with sex – we’re looking at you Game of Thrones. Whilst some TV shows such as Sex Education have done a good job in opening up the conversation, the sex scenes in the show can often be portrayed as parody.
All of this, thrown in with the throng of porn available out there, and it’s easy to see why teens and young people may have a very unrealistic view of sex. That was until Normal People came along…
A Refreshing Take On What We Usually See...
Whether people are loving it or loathing it, there’s no denying that Normal People has inspired many a conversation over recent weeks. With themes of class struggle, mental health, relationships, and friendships; the twelve part series is a whirlwind of emotions packed into 30 minute segments. However, it is the on-screen sex scenes that have dominated the conversation surrounding the show. I’m sure you’ve all heard coverage of that RTE Liveline debate by now…
But what is it that seems to have really offended people when it comes to the sex scenes in Normal People? Is the sex overly explicit in what they show? Are they condoning rape culture? Are women portrayed as objects meant only for a man’s sexual pleasure? Oh wait, no… that’s nearly every other on-screen sex scene on mainstream television…
Instead, Normal People illustrates a refreshing take on the run-of-the-mill sex scene. In an era where porn is thought to be “the norm” amongst teens, and young people are often made to feel ashamed for being sexual beings, Normal People is an evocative watch grounded in reality.
An Accurate Portrayal of Sex
Forgive me if I’m wrong, but rarely do we get to experience such an accurate portrayl of sex-for-the-first-time on screen. The likes of Gossip Girl portraying sex as some sort of Olympic sport where you need to be heavily skilled in order to gain the respect of your peers. On the opposite side we have movies like To All The Boys 2, in which Lara Jean’s virginity (and the possibility of losing said virginity) is made a huge deal of. Peter even compares sex for the first time to “jumping off a cliff.” Peter isn’t making this statement based off of his own experience, but rather emphasising the notion that sex is a much bigger deal for LJ because she’s a girl. Implying that due to this fact, if she makes the wrong decision she risks regretting it for the rest of her life.
In the middle of these two overly dramatic takes on sex is where we find Normal People. The series is especially poignant for Irish audiences. Based in Ireland, a once heavily Catholic country where some would still prefer to think that sex is a myth, Normal People acts as a reassurance of sorts to us normal people watching, that sex isn’t always what you see on-screen. The sex scenes drive home the message that yes, sex can be awkward; involving a lot of fumbling, confusing underwear (as illustrated by Connell’s struggle to remove Marianne’s bra), but most importantly it emphasises that communication is essential during sex.
An Example of Consent
The open conversation that flows between Connell and Marianne is an extremely important part of sex that is not illustrated enough on mainstram television.
We’re often shown couples engaging in sexual acts but no real talking happens. It’s all kissing and tugging each other’s clothes off, crashing down hallways into the nearest available bed. Normal People gives us a burst of normality when it comes to how the (sex) scene is set.
The two are in Connell’s childhood bedroom, a wall full of posters and a small single bed shoved in the corner. There’s no glamour and glitz, no romantic gesture. Instead, it’s brilliantly mundane. Connell ensuring that Marianne is ok with penetrative sex, assuring her that if she feels any pain or wants to stop for any reason she just needs to say stop, is an exemplifying display of what consent is. It’s not a yes that is locked in place until the act is over, it’s an “I’m comfortable with this for now, but that doesn’t mean I won’t change my mind.”
The importance of Connell understanding this, and making a point to reiterate it to Marianne was something that almost caught me off guard. A TV show in which consent wasn’t something implied, where it wasn’t brushed over with a simple “are you sure?”. Instead it was almost in your face, the elephant in the room being addressed on-screen. For once teens and adults alike have been given an explicit example of consent.
The Use of Contraception is Highlighted
The sex scene that takes place in epiode two of Normal People highlights one of the most important topics when it comes to sex: the use of contraception. Marianne makes a point to ask Connell outright if he had a condom. Connell’s response is not something we’re used to seeing on TV, with contraception often being viewed as a buzzkill, taking away from the hot and heavy situation our protagonist(s) may find themselves in. Normal People on the other hand makes using contraception what it is; a) a necessity and b) not something that’s going to cause all proceedings to grind to a halt. Connell obliges to Marianne’s request and they carry on.
Whilst Marianne was not afraid of what Connell’s response might be (as can often be the case with teen sex scenes on screen) it is important to not paint her as brave, risking being rejected for the sake of a condom. Marianne asserts her agency, which is extremely rare for us to see a woman do on-screen, acting responsibly in bringing up the topic of contraception, and Connell (rightfully) obliged to her request. He didn’t fight her on it, he didn’t accuse her of killing the mood, he didn’t make excuses like “oh, they don’t fit me” (condoms are made to fit), he just wore one, simple as.
The sex scenes in Normal People manage to mimic real-life sex in a way that evokes emotion and intimacy without the usual cringiness of a couple having sex for the first time. The usual on screen sex scene tropes are no where to be seen. There are no cheesy lines, no rose petals on the bed, no guilt tripping. It’s an honest display of sex, consent and contraception, and it’s something that everybody should see more of on TV.
What did you think of the sex scenes in Normal People? Did you feel the sex scenes in Normal People differed from the usual portrayal of sex on-screen?