Sex has as much meaning as words: how Normal People handles intimacy

The BBC adaptation has remained faithful to Sally Rooney’s novel by keeping the intensely evocative sex scenes freighted with meaning

The weird thing about Sally Rooney is that you always know exactly what she means, and yet are never bored. I thought that would be the difficultly of getting Normal People on to the screen. If successful drama fires off its unknowns – what will happen next, what is that character thinking, how did their misunderstanding come about, how will it resolve? It’s quite a tricky proposition to televise something that had the clarity of pure spring water.

The sex, though, was its own conundrum, televisually speaking, and much was made of the hiring of an intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien (she’s the best in the business, apparently – which comes across a bit droll, if you didn’t realise that was a business). How do you tell the story of two characters whose entire journey is sexual, without just making a soft-porn film? These two questions – how do you present a story so clear without telling it too simply? How do you put the sex in the centre, without making it the point? – are in fact the same question. I only realised that when I saw this quote of Rooney’s: “When I hear the phrase ‘sex scene’, I think about a dialogue scene.” There is no such thing as some sex that just happens, it is as freighted with meaning as words are. The characters are saying something important to one another, something that will propel them forward. If sitcom characters chat and characters in drama talk, then by extension, in the Rooney school, sitcom characters shag, and these characters, well, they do something other than shagging. I wouldn’t say “make love”, so let’s just say “fuck” and let its Anglo-Saxonness transmit the vitality of that. I found their first sex scene really moving, and not especially erotic. I wouldn’t write off anyone else finding it erotic – and there have been some complaints about the volume of sex scenes – but I think I’d defy anyone not to be moved by it.

In the history of the printed word, there are about four or five books that do a sex scene sexily, about four or five billion that make a hash of one. The more vanilla the sex, the harder it is to descriptively convey, so it’s often a kink – from The Story of O to Fifty Shades – that makes it work. On screen, the reverse is true: kinks are really hard to pull off (Killing Me Softly, oh my God), whereas you can make regular sex titillating with the judicious use of two (or more) really good-looking people and a camera. One of the extraordinary things about Normal People, the book, was that the sex was intensely evocative, but not in a way that you’d project yourself into it, which is what erotica demands. It was like a best friend, whispering what had happened directly into your ear. This, incidentally, is what made it so much of Rooney’s own generation – “she’s creating love stories for the post-romantic age”, Fintan O’Toole wrote. This is the generation that is extremely explicit with one another, that will happily send each other nude pictures, never mind of their boy and girlfriends, but of themselves. They are sexually open in a way that Generation X really struggles to get its head around, except to note that there is more going on, here, than transparency.

Asa Butterfield and Patricia Allison in Sex Education
Asa Butterfield and Patricia Allison in Sex Education. Composite: Sam Taylor/Netflix

Anyway, if that best-friend whisper had been metamorphosed by the screen into two smoking hot young people being smoking, it would have told quite a different story. Not necessarily a terrible story (I don’t mind explicit content, so long as it isn’t euphemistic; Sex Education isn’t rendered low-brow by the fact that they’re constantly at it) but certainly not the original story.

Instead, as the cast and most of the reviews have been quick to point out, their first encounter is quite awkward – clothes take ages to get off, there’s a dramatic moment when, as a viewer, you’re not quite sure whether it’s in or not, which is surely eerily reminiscent, for a lot of us, of losing one’s virginity. Yet whereas awkwardness is often made bearable by comedy, there is nothing funny about the scene. It is intense; all those encounters, before the pair go to university, are heavy with significance, especially as Marianne inches towards this unsaid burden of trauma and shame which is written into the code of her sexual awakening, even though the sex – with Connell, at least – seems at first to offer an escape from it. They may be at it like rabbits, but these are not light-entertainment rabbits. It’s more Watership Down than Beatrix Potter.

Connell, incidentally, is never sexier than when he’s playing football, which is about the only time he has clothes on.

I still can’t put my finger on what it is, if not erotic, if not bathetic, if neither joyful nor sad. The simplicity of the prose was a trick of the light.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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