Read the countless glowing reviews of the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestseller Normal People and you will see the same two words popping up time and time again – ‘relatable’ and ‘realistic’.
It’s the reason the book was such a huge success; young people could see themselves in every aspect of the story. Whether they were Marianne having sex for the first time, or being an outcast at school, or becoming popular at college, or they were Connell struggling with loneliness when moving away from home, or worrying too much about their friends’ opinions, or someone dealing with the prospect of a long distance relationship.
And with its move to the screen, the realism has increased tenfold, with reviews praising the sex scenes in particular for being so awkward and sexy – everything that makes sex, sex.
Daisy Edgar-Jones (Marianne) and Paul Mescal (Connell) are both shown nude, bringing a level of equality rarely seen on TV. While most shows would initiate a love scene with a loaded pause, followed by a passionate clinch, the hitch of a skirt and three thrusts culminating in simultaneous orgasms, the scene in episode two in which Marianne and Connell have sex for the first time is slow-paced, careful and… well, real.
But try telling that to the handful of people who see Normal People as something abnormal. On Thursday afternoon, the Irish radio talk show Liveline started a debate about the show – set in Sligo and Dublin – and while there were plenty of callers who praised the depiction of sex in the series, others weren’t so impressed.
One caller (a devout Catholic) said: ‘I have two daughters and if they think that’s what’s going on in secondary school, it’s shocking. I wouldn’t like a daughter of mine to be engaging in sexual promiscuity before she gets married, I think most parents wouldn’t. It’s morally wrong, it’s fornication. Is the national broadcaster promoting fornication?’
Others suggested Normal People was like a ‘porno’, that it’s essentially watching ‘children’ having sex and it’s promoting behaviour that can ‘damage the immortal soul’; while one man delcared it was ‘shoving sexualisation down the throats’ of young people.
Now, I don’t want to alarm any of those callers, but I don’t think any teenager is going to decide to have sex because of Normal People. Shockingly, teens have been having sex before Normal People, they will continue having sex after Normal People and it will not be because of Normal People. It will be because of them fancying other teenagers, and having raging hormones, and being a young adult exploring their sexuality, and because it’s FUN.
Listening to Liveline from my bedroom in Dublin, I remembered the moral panic that erupted when Skins aired. Newspapers shouted ‘THIS IS RUINING YOUR CHILDREN’, believing that teenage sex and MDMA originated on E4. While I’m sure there were some teenagers with lives exactly like Tony, Michelle and co, my own teenage life couldn’t have been further from it – a West Coast Cooler was my vice of choice – but watching Skins wasn’t going to make me trash a house and fall into a K-hole. And those who were trashing houses and falling into K-holes certainly didn’t get the idea from Skins.
Normal People isn’t coercing teenagers into sex. It’s simply a mirror to what happens everyday in teenage lives – and frankly, is a mirror providing a reflection far more flattering and ideal than to many real life examples. One of the most deservedly praised moments of Normal People is how consent is portrayed in the sex scenes. In episode two, Connell tells Marianne, who has never had sex before, that she doesn’t need to do anything she doesn’t want to do. He reiterates his point, adding that if it’s hurting her, they can stop at any time. It’s a masterclass in portraying consent – it doesn’t detract from the sexiness of a situation, and makes it more comfortable and natural when everybody knows that they can retract consent at any time and they won’t be judged.
I’m lucky that my first time was respectful and consensual, but I know for many young people, that’s not the case. Normal People shows that you’re not prudish or frigid – or whatever other ridiculous words that are thrown around – for wanting consent to be a big part of sex, it just makes the sex better for everyone involved. Have you seen the level of thirst for Connell on social media? It’s not all down to his GAA shorts, you know.
The show also ensures that safety is just par for the course, with Connell obliging without fuss when asked for a condom, and later in the series, him only proceeding with sex without a condom when Marianne says she is on the pill. These shouldn’t be afterthoughts – they’re vital parts of sex that are often glossed over.
If Normal People showed two teenagers having sex fully clothed against a wall, with no mention of a condom and no checking for consent, I could understand the backlash. But as someone who grew up with very little sex education in school, bar ‘penis + vagina = baby’, in a society where most young adults’ idea of sex is formed by performative porn, I would have loved to see such a healthy depiction of sex and relationships when exploring my sexuality. It shows that as long as everyone is of age (both characters are of the age of consent), consensual and safe, sex can be loving, fun and pleasurable for both people – yes, women too!
Another caller into Liveline, arguing against a man who insisted sex should be preserved for marriage, said: ‘Sex outside of marriage can be precious as well, it depends who you’re with.’ Those first times are some of the most precious, whether that’s when you’re 17 and sleeping with a friend, or 19 in a relationship, and whatever is shown on TV – chastity or healthy sexual appetites – those first times will happen. Nobody will fight their urges.
But what we can change is the depictions of these acts and what is expected – a counteraction to the coercion and performance and solely male pleasure that dominates a lot of porn. Showing a sex scene on television will not influence a teen to have sex, but it may influence them to think about how they want to be treated when they do.
The reality of the world is that sex is natural. Normal People reflects that in all its consensual, sexy glory, and if you don’t like it, reach for the remote control.
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