How Normal People, Sex Education are Changing the Way Sex and Intimacy are Portrayed in TV Shows

(Photo Credits: Twitter/Netflix)

Once someone asked me, what draws you towards films/TV series and why would you rather spend a weekend watching stories about fictional people rather than stepping out and meeting some real folks. My answer was pretty simple actually, I said, “Films let me interpret and perceive people the way I want to see it minus the real-life awkward conversations. They’re the much-needed escape from all things real and I don’t have to worry about the ‘laundry day’ when I like a flawed character unlike in reality.” Although, the narrative of visual medium as we know it is changing. There’s enough realism in cinema too and it can be an equally good teacher. Relativity is vital and hence, today we see a lot of filmmakers trying hard to break away from the larger than life image that has always been synonymous with the visual medium. The appeal for raw and real stories has now soared and interestingly it has now even reached genres beyond the conventional. It’s no more about the happily ever afters (or happily ever afters of straight, white people). There’s more diversity, more nuanced narratives for women characters and the fearlessness to experiment with the advent of digital mediums.

Been familiar with the term ‘sex sells’? While nudity and intimate scenes have forever been used as marketing tools by producers, there’s a slight shift one can see in the inclusion and representation of these in the past few years. The sole motive of a sex scene in a series no more indicates titillation. There’s a clear difference in how a few filmmakers and producers are achieving this feat. But are they doing it the right way?

Sex Therapist Samantha Heuwagen says representation matters especially when it comes teens and young adults and it’s important how it gets translated on-screen. She says, “I would like to see producers and screenwriters talk to sex therapists and educators before creating relationships and unrealistic sexual situations. That way there can be no mistaking what is healthy versus what is not. It can also help create discussion surrounding consent and what that looks like in reality. Plus, it can offer great ways to talk about safe sex practices by offering a glimpse into how it can play out.”

The Before and Afters Of Consensual Sex

For decades, the celluloid representations of physical intimacy have been highly unrealistic. We may have moved on from implied flower-mating sequences to actors indulging in physical acts of love but they have only resulted in setting some unrealistic expectations. Keeping in mind that spontaneity is a huge factor when it comes to sex, wouldn’t you discuss things like protection beforehand? In BBC’s latest series Normal People, when Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Conell (Paul Mescal), decide to take their relationship based mainly on physical attraction forward, in one of the rarest TV moments, we see her asking him if he has a condom and that she’d prefer if he’d use it. Following that moment, Conell on realising that it’s Marianne’s first time in a perfectly portrayed concept of consent, asks “Is that okay? Is this what you want? … If you want to stop or anything, we can obviously stop.” It’s a telling moment and probably one that needs to go into a sex education curriculum. Conell and Marianne are giggly, uncomfortable, often fumbling and imperfect during their sexual encounter. You realise there’s a gentle approach to their first time together because Conell is aware of Marianne’s anxiety over losing her virginity. It’s as real as it gets.

(Photo Credits: Twitter)

Embracing the Imperfections of Physical Intimacy

In Netflix’s Sex Education, Otis (Asa Butterfield) asks one of his classmates who seeks sex advice from him a pertinent question, he says, “If you don’t like yourself how are you supposed to believe that he (her boyfriend) does? This is after his classmate’s boyfriend ends up breaking his arm while the two try to get intimate in the dark because she isn’t confident enough to keep the lights on. For addressing an issue that has probably ruined the physical act for several self-conscious people, the show deserves to be appreciated. Blame it on porn or even the PG-13 intimate scenes but sex isn’t about two pretty people indulging in something ‘magical’. One of the biggest misconceptions that these representations have forever nurtured is the idea that only perfect bodies can achieve carnal pleasures. I don’t remember the last time I saw an intimate scene involving and an actress who showcased even a single strand of body hair. Sex can be particularly daunting if you’re a teen/young adult and being self-conscious of your body can certainly shape the way you approach intimacy.

But it isn’t only about sex is it? How many teen dramas or films get the portrayal of a healthy romantic relationship right. With Twilight as an example, Samantha says, “Twilight, took the world by storm but did nothing to help portray healthy romantic relationships. It was a big let down since it had the potential to help an entire generation deal with complicated adult sexual relationships. Instead, it showcased a needy boy, who didn’t respect boundaries, a male friend believed in this “friend zone” phenomena and the main female character was just not respected or honoured the way she deserved and Hollywood served it up on a silver platter. A true opportunity missed.”

Female Masturbation and Female Desire Exist

Self-pleasure isn’t a common practise for many women mainly because female desire is a topic that remains highly unexplored. Separating male gaze from intimate scenes involving women is an issue that hasn’t been tackled well by entertainment industry but in some rare cases, such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, a woman opening up about her sex life with such candidness seems to be a step forward. In Friends, when Monica mistakes Chandler to be ‘giving himself a treat’ while watching a shark channel, she tries to get intimate with him the next time by getting him a shark film to watch. Turn the tables, Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag gets caught masturbating to an Obama speech while her boyfriend is asleep and his reaction? Packs his bags and leaves. Men are not accustomed to the idea of females pleasuring themselves and somehow take female masturbation as a potshot at their ‘ability to satisfy a woman’.

(Photo Credits: Screengrab -Netflix/Sex Education S1)

Yet another telling TV moment on the importance of self-pleasure in women is 13 Reasons Why where a sexual abuse survivor finally takes control of her body again and rebuilds her broken self-image by pleasuring herself. It’s a powerful moment because we finally let sexual abuse survivors realise, they are not to be defined by their horrific experiences and that their body needs the same kind of love and care like any other.

Lack of an open dialogue surrounding female desire has resulted in women being unaware of what they want or like. It’s like when Sex Education’s Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) says, “No one’s ever asked me that before” when asked about what she would want to do with her partner. A consensual sexual relationship isn’t only about agreeing to explore each other sexually but also about discussing one another’s desires and sometimes you may not be on the same page when it comes to them. After Marianne’s character in Normal People starts gravitating towards BDSM, at one point, she asks Conell, “Will you hit me?” Silence prevails for some time and Conell then starts pulling away from her. “No,” he says. “I don’t think I want that. Sorry.”

Lack Of Dialogue About Queer Sexual Relationships

Every teen (queer or not) needs a lesson on sex education though it has been widely observed that sexual issues relating to LGBTQIA communities, rarely make it to the curriculum, thus leaving several teenagers with confused ideas sex. Luckily, Sex Education did take the mantle of making sure there’s as much attention they can provide to the show’s LGBTQIA characters as its straight protagonist Otis and hence we got an entire episode on what is “douching”. Not just this, it is evidently brought to everyone’s attention how ignored the subject of sex among the LGBT community is when a character raises a question during their mandatory sex-ed class about the type of lubricant they would suggest for anal sex and the importance of wearing a condom if it hampers the experience of pleasure. While these questions do find their answers in the show, how many sex-ed classes, in reality, take the onus of preparing for them and have helpful answers to them?

With shows like Sex Education, Normal People going the extra mile to make a statement on the realities of intimacy and sex in diverse relationships, it seems like there’s an effort being taken to change the narrative of sex on-screen. There’s no denying that these nudity-filled shows rule out a chunk of the family-viewing audience but thanks to digital mediums making personalised viewing the new norm, this content is likely to hit the right target audience help clarify key concepts that sadly, no sex education curriculum around the world or Google can safely provide.

Addicted to Coffee, Films and Sarcasm. Pop Culture/Cine Writer. MA Birmingham City University

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