41 Minutes Of Sex
Forty-one minutes, according to a disapproving viewer, is how much sex and/or nudity is included in the six-hour-long hit show “Normal People.” The Hulu series, which is based on the Sally Rooney novel of the same name, has been getting a lot of press, not just for the time it spends on sex, but for how realistic the intimate scenes actually are. Upon hearing this, I had to check it out. What was supposed to be a quick sex-scene viewing party for one turned into completing the entire seasons that same day. Now that I have emerged from my hole, let's talk about it.
The Art Of A Good Sex Scene
“Normal People” is about the on-again, off-again relationship between Marianne and Connell, two young people in Ireland who attend the same secondary school and university. The show’s portrayal of sex has gained so much attention because the people in front of and behind the camera approached intimacy with realism. In other words, steamy sex coincides with the awkward or uncomfortable moments people face in real life.
What do those moments look like? For example, “Normal People” depicts a bra getting stuck in the process of taking it off. The lag time of putting on a condom. The funny and sometimes out-of-the-blue questions that slip out right after sex. The laughter and body shyness that can come with a new partner.
Furthermore, the show also ditches the unrealistic trope I’m calling “woman has an orgasm in 25 seconds,” and it does away with the fallacy that sex is amazing on the first try. The writers also included affirmative consent — which is something that needs to be portrayed with any sort of consistency in media, as asking for your partner’s enthusiastic approval is not only 100% necessary but also an easy and desirable thing to do during sex.
It takes more than great acting to bring Marianne and Connell’s relationship to life (though Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal both deserve props). This successful storytelling also rests in great writing, as well as in the hiring of an intimacy coordinator, which has only recently become a trend in Hollywood.
What is an intimacy coordinator? Think of it as a cross between a choreographer and a therapist. Intimacy coordinators not only help the actors feel as safe and comfortable as possible during any scene that calls for their expertise, but they also focus on creating movements that portray realistic sex. Normal People’s coordinator, Ita O’Brien, explained in an interview with Elle that she intended to make this content empowering and create character movements that tell an emotive story (1).
Intimacy coordinators have many tricks up their sleeves that may not be so obvious to someone outside of their industry. If you want to learn more about their role, what actors wear during these scenes, how they prepare, and more, check out this video interview here.
Media and Sex
While many people have rushed to support the actors, the coordinator, and the author of “Normal People,” there has also been a fair share of backlash — primarily from people who believe that bashing Normal People encourages teenagers and young adults to engage in sex. As we can see, someone went as far as to time how long each sex scene was to further admonish the show.
But when it comes to youth specifically, Mescal told Elle explained that young people who are discovering sex for the first time are often having as much of it as they can. “You don't typically recognize your own sexual experiences on screen — it's glamorized or it's made to be incredibly sexy,” he said. But when he read Rooney’s book, he could “recognize the situation both of these characters [were] in.” Therefore, to shy away from depicting sex — and particularly youthful and realistic sex — in media portrayals is to do a great disservice to people navigating these experiences for the first time.
Let’s face it: sex in media is not going anywhere, and glamorized sex scenes can have a detrimental influence on a person’s experiences — arguably more-so than porn!
Researchers call this the priming theory, which states that much of the content we absorb is implicitly and unconsciously processed. As Peggy Orenstein explains in “Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity,” the images that permeate pop culture may have such a stronghold on people precisely because they are mainstream, which makes them seem acceptable and realistic. By contrast, someone who is watching porn can often acknowledge that many of the scenes are unrealistic. The media, on the other hand, offers us something that is just slightly unrealistic.
This is not exclusive to TV shows and movies, but any type of content— such as video games, advertisements, or music. “Normal People” can provide a refreshing contrast, and might just challenge some people’s preconceived notions. And who knows — maybe shows like it will inspire others to create in a similar fashion, giving us more to watch than just a fantasy.
- Kosin, Julie. “How 'Normal People' Made Sex You Actually Believe.” ELLE, 5 May 2020, www.elle.com/culture/movies-tv/a32365986/normal-people-sex-scenes-hulu-adaptation/.
- Davies, Hannah J. “Normal People Producers Order Pornhub to Remove Pirated Sex Scenes.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 May 2020, www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/may/21/normal-people-producers-order-pornhub-to-remove-pirated-sex-scenes.
- Orenstein, Peggy. Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity. Harper, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2020.