Normal People Shows Everyone How We Should Be Having Sex
As I’ve gotten older, and more aware of just how much sadness can be lurking behind closed doors, I’ve realised how precious few films or TV shows depict sex in a healthy or positive way.
Long before sex had even become part of my own life, I, like so many other teenagers, had quite the education through my small square bedroom television.
I’d seen naked exchange students being secretly filmed by ‘heroes’ of raunchy comedies, American Pie (1999). I’d seen girls too drunk to know who is driving them home being taken advantage of for laughs, Sixteen Candles (1984), and Pussy Galore struggling beneath James Bond’s forced kiss, before ultimately giving in to his initially unwanted advances, Goldfinger (1964).
Over and over, I saw the bodies of young women being treated as prizes to chase after and grab at, to crow over or trick into bed as if their emotions or desires could be somehow programmed or manipulated.
Sadly, I’ve seen this uncomfortable trope leak into the supposed golden age of prestige television, with acclaimed shows such as Game of Thrones dealing with huge, painful issues like rape with worrying lightness; a gratuitous plot device or even, horrifyingly, the beginnings of a romance.
Such depictions are arguably as demeaning and insulting to men as they are to women, insinuating that all men are simply hellbent on pursuing their own pleasures at any cost, without any thought to the living, breathing human being on the other side of the bed.
This is simply not the case, as the many, many good people who enjoy caring, consensual sex can attest. And yet, this sort of sex is rarely shown onscreen, given nowhere near the same amount of airtime as the numerous grim, gruesome shows where raped and murdered women are pulled from canals and shallow graves.
I read Sally Rooney’s Normal People in more-or-less one breathless gulp, and – like so many other readers of my generation – felt that lightning bolt shiver of a new, enduring love story entering the literary canon.
Anyone who has ever fallen in love, especially those who fell hard and young, will relate to the tale of Marianne and Connell; two seemingly very different individuals whose complicated inner lives connect and intertwine as they enter early adulthood.
As with many a great romance before it, Normal People is filled with sex. First time sex and post-reunion sex. Secret sex and sex where it’s clear there’s far more than just physical attraction going on beneath the surface.
It’s a beautiful – and yes, very sexy – book, which makes for a TV adaption that will make your heart pound. And yet, I did not imagine how much excitement the tender, communicative nature of the sex scenes would elicit.
Many viewers have been left deeply moved by the various ways in which the two main characters show consideration towards each other while in bed together.
Even though there are more than a few misunderstandings between the pair in other aspects of their relationship, this is one area where there is complete clarity.
Both Connell and Marianne communicate with each other and check in to make sure they’re both still enjoying it and comfortable with what’s happening.
During their first time together, Connell tells Marianne, ‘If you want to stop or anything we can obviously stop’, adding, ‘If it hurts or anything, we can stop. It won’t be awkward’. A moment which made me tear up a bit when remembering decidedly less supportive moments in my own teenage years.
Normal People hired intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, to make sure actors felt at ease during sex scenes. O’Brien’s influence shows throughout, making for a far more realistic and respectful result.
In Normal People, we see pauses for condoms and giggly, all-too-relatable bits where bras get stuck coming off. We see moments of insecurity, of vulnerability; all filmed with an emphasis on character development, while keeping the actors comfortable.
O’Brien, who has previously worked on shows such as Watchmen and Sex Education, told PopSugar:
It’s really gratifying and I’m really proud of the shift in the industry — it is just as it should be. It’s completely mad that for so many decades actors have just been left vulnerable.
This really shouldn’t be revolutionary stuff, and we shouldn’t be living in a society where programmes depicting safe, consensual sex are regarded to be somehow forward thinking. However, sadly, feeling unsafe with a sexual partner is not all that uncommon.
A 2019 study from the BBC discovered over one third of UK women below the age of 40 had experienced unwanted slapping, choking or gagging during consensual sex. Out of the women who had experienced this, 20% stated they had been left frightened or upset.
The deserved attention given to Normal People comes at a crucial time for those fighting to improve the way consent is spoken about in society, and in the courtroom.
More and more women are being seriously hurt or killed during so-called ‘sex games gone wrong’, with data spanning over 20 years making for sobering reading.
Back in 1996, two women each year were killed or injured during what defendants referred to as ‘consensual rough sex’. By 2016 this had risen to 20 women per year, a tenfold increase.
Readers will no doubt recall the tragic case of Grace Millane, a 22-year-old English woman who was strangled to death during sex while travelling in New Zealand.
The unnamed murderer claimed Grace died following a consensual sexual ‘misadventure’, with his defence team using stories of Grace’s sex life and online activity to support the notion that she had consented to being strangled.
Pre-existing case law (R v Brown) clarifies that an individual cannot consent to injury or death during sex. However, in a shocking 45% of cases where a man kills a woman during sex and claims it was consensual, the ‘rough sex defence’ actually holds up in court.
This means, horrifyingly, that the killer is prosecuted under a lesser charge, for example manslaughter, or – worst of all – not even treated as a criminal at all.
Grace’s killer was sentenced to life in prison, given a minimum non-parole period of 17 years. As per a report by The Guardian, crown prosecutor Brian Dickey described Grace’s murder as ‘personalised, depraved and callous’.
However, with far too many cases, perpetrators who use the ‘rough sex defence’ – sometimes referred to as the ’50 Shades of Grey Defence’ – quite simply get away with it.
Over the course of five years from 2014 onwards, 20 women and girls were killed during what their perpetrators defended as consensual sexual violence.
Out of these 20 women, just nine men were convicted of murder, according to campaigning organisation We Can’t Consent To This (WCCTT). Nine were convicted of manslaughter, and one case resulted in no conviction whatsoever.
It’s believed perpetrators are using this defence because they know it works, something which WCTT is working tirelessly to address.
After being controversially dropped last autumn, the much-needed domestic abuse bill has now – finally – returned to parliament.
WCTT now want to ensure this bill includes amendments to end the use of ‘consent’ claims to the violent injury or killing of women, effectively blocking perpetrators from claiming lesser sentences using the rough sex defence.
Furthermore, WCTT also wants to ensure that non-fatal strangulation is prosecuted as a serious assault, treated as a specific offence in the eyes of the law.
The domestic abuse bill passed its second reading on April 28, and will now progress to the ‘committee stage’ where legislation will be scrutinised. It is at this point MPs will get the opportunity to propose and vote for new amendments.
Labour MP Harriet Harman is among the MPs in support of getting rid of the rough sex defence, a defence which she has described as ‘a double injustice’.
Speaking before the House of Commons on April 28, Harman said:
Not only does he kill her but he drags her name through the mud. It causes indescribable trauma for the bereaved family who see the man who killed her describe luridly what he alleges are her sexual proclivities. She of course is not there to speak for herself. He kills her and then he defines her.
We do not talk about the issue of consent enough. We do not talk about how overstepped lines and frightening situations can leave lasting hurt, and this silence has far-reaching consequences.
Far too many people I’ve spoken to on this topic have described their first time as something they felt they had no real control over. They weren’t ready and they felt crushed under external pressures.
It’s no surprise then, that so many of us feel so invested in Connell and Marianne being so considerate of each other’s feelings before and while sleeping together. That far too many of us feel the pang of an old, enduring sadness.
This sort of sex is rarely shown onscreen, but it’s so important, and it should make us think about all those who have suffered at the hands of a partner, a person they should have been able to put their trust in.
Normal People has people talking about how we should look after each other during sex, ensuring the other person feels completely safe and happy, and that in itself is a quietly powerful thing.
I soaked up so many terrible messages from gross-out teen movies when I was younger, which ultimately taught me nothing of value and bore no real resemblance to what enjoyable sex should actually look like off-screen.
With excellent shows such as Normal People and Sex Education delving far deeper into such matters, I like to think the younger generation will be more engaged with issues of consent and mutual pleasure; understanding the necessity of looking after each other in this very crucial way.
You can sign the petition to end the rough sex defence here.
You can catch Normal People on BBC iPlayer now.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact the Rape Crisis England and Wales helpline on 0808 802 9999 between 12pm–2.30pm and 7pm– 9.30pm every day. Alternatively, you can contact Victim Support free on 08 08 16 89 111 available 24/7, every day of the year, including Christmas.
Male Survivors Partnership is available to support adult male survivors of sexual abuse and rape. You can contact the organisation on their website or on their free helpline 0808 800 5005, open 9am–5pm Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays; 8am–8pm Tuesdays and Thursdays; 10am – 2pm Saturdays.