Normal People: we need to discuss this BBC show’s portrayal of sex and consent

Posted by for Life

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sex scene like this,” tweeted one viewer of the BBC’s adaptation of Normal People.

It’s easy to forget just how much sex there is in Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Indeed, one friend messaged me over the weekend to inform me that she’d started watching the BBC’s TV adaptation whilst quarantining at her mum’s house – only to realise that it’s not the sort of show you watch with your parents.

“I’ve never felt so awkward,” she told me, hinting that her emotional trauma levels had reached an all-time high. Which is fair enough: things do get pretty steamy pretty quickly.

For those of us who aren’t perched on sofas next to our mums and dads in lockdown, however, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal)’s sex scenes feel… well, they feel revolutionary in their normality: a bra gets stuck over Marianne’s head, Connell trips over his trousers, they laugh during one particularly awkward fumble, they use condoms – without making a joke of it.

Best of all, though? Connell and Marianne are constantly checking in with one another for consent. In one quietly powerful scene, in fact, Connell reminds Marianne that consent – once given – can be withdrawn at any time.

“If you want me to stop or anything, we can obviously stop,” he says. “If it hurts or anything, we can stop. It won’t be awkward.”

In a world still reeling from the #MeToo movement, it’s perhaps unsurprising that so many women have come forward to praise Normal People for its unflinching portrayal of sex and consent.

“The sex in Normal People is better than any sex,” tweeted one viewer.

“Safe, consensual and communicative sex should be included so much more in film and TV!” said another.

One more said: “I’m in awe of Normal People so far. It’s absolutely stunning and true to the book. And I also want to call out an actual sex scene on TV that involves a condom and doesn’t turn it into a joke either… they’re just practicing safe sex.”

Another agreed, adding: “This show is so good at showing consent and safe sex! And it’s still sexy and intimate! Yes!!!”

“The consent shown in this scene is just [perfect]… it’s so believable and well done. This is how sex scenes should be,” tweeted another.

One pleasantly surprised viewer tweeted: “Marianne and Connell doing a sex scene better than 98% of full time porn actors and actresses. Take a seat, Pornhub.”

Another insisted the show’s “depiction of safe sex and consent in episode two should be mandatory viewing for all teenagers.”

Still one more said: “I don’t think I’ve seen a sex scene like this ever in tv/film. Consent should be normalised just like this.”

The one we feel sums it up best, though?

“Whole lotta shagging for a Sunday morning but I am SO LOVING how much more consent and checking in with each other is being shown in young people’s sex scenes.”

It’s a sad reality that many women – and men, for that matter – feel unable to say “no” to sex, especially if they have initiated the encounter. As such, we can end up breaking our own boundaries in order to please the person we’re with, or because we’re afraid of dealing with that same person’s hurt feelings.

Why? Because we are taught, from a very young age, that we should avoid making people angry, take responsibility for other people’s emotions, and work extremely hard to keep everyone around us happy. That, if we want to say no, we have to make sure we do so in a conciliatory, gentle, tactful way – using the sort of “non-verbal cues” that can so easily go unnoticed.

Normal People, though, shows us there’s another way to handle these situations. In fact, Connell’s sweet “it won’t be awkward” reinforces the point that we always have the right to say no, no matter what the context. It reminds us, too, that – no matter how hurt or rejected someone may feel when consent is withdrawn – we should always respect that no means no.

It is worth remembering that every sex scene in the BBC’s Normal People was carefully choreographed by Ita O’Brien, an “intimacy coordinator” who makes sure actors are comfortable while filming scenes of a sexual nature.

Speaking to The Guardian about her role, O’Brien reminded viewers that Rooney herself has likened sex scenes to just another form of dialogue.

As such, the sex in Normal People “isn’t just there to show us sex – those scenes chart the delicacy, the beauty, the openness of this incredible, something-other relationship.”

“It was crucial for me to honour Sally’s writing,” she says. “There is nothing gratuitous. But there is also a lot of sex.”

With that in mind, then, make it your business to check out the BBC’s Normal People. Just be sure to watch it without your parents in tow.

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: BBC

Share this article

Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

Recommended by Kayleigh Dray