My thoughts on 'Normal People' - TW consent, submissive sex,
TW - talk on rape, consent, submissive sex
I found ‘Normal People’ quite a triggering programme to watch when it came to the submissive sex scenes. Like many people on lockdown, I fell in love with the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel and with the incredible on – screen chemistry between Marianne and Connell.
The story deals with the relationship between two young people, through school and into university Their mental health struggles and relationships (both with each other and with other people) are covered and, of course, we are left yearning for a reunion during the times when they are not together. Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones are phenomenal and the close bond between their characters makes for some beautifully intense and electric viewing.
I am, in no way, criticizing, the adaptation, because I absolutely loved it and, despite my unease with those scenes, they were portrayed powerfully and in a way that creates a dialogue. The story is fantastic and just seeing these two people in the same space as each other creates magic. But of course, love doesn’t always run smooth and misunderstandings, along with the couple’s separate partners, get in the way. Gareth and Jamie are Marianne’s vile ‘boyfriends’ and, although we feel safe in the knowledge that she will not end up with either of these people, the cruelty shown and inflicted on her is disturbing. There will be many saying that BDSM, as a choice, can be wonderful in a consensual relationship where communication and understanding of the other’s desires and boundaries is at the heart. This is not what is happening here.
I often feel that people, particularly in first relationships or when they are beginning to explore their sexuality, can get entangled in this kind of sex with a partner (perhaps even believing that they want this). Deep down, they may be eager to please and may feel pressured to keep the other ‘happy’ and sexually satisfied.
There has been an excellent conversation about consent over the last few years, with tea being used as an analogy for sex in one particular police awareness video. The campaign so clearly puts across the message that if somebody wants a drink and then changes their mind that you would not force them to drink it.
I think we need to go one step further. If a partner wants breakfast tea then you don’t swap the cup for green tea without having a conversation. Perhaps, they love the green tea normally but today they want coffee or orange juice or nothing – that s a no. Also, if you ever find yourself in dialogue where you are ‘negotiating’ on green tea and suggesting that you have it in the way that you might say ‘oh go on have another piece of chocolate. There’s one square left’ that is not consent.
When Marianne tells Connell she likes a different kind of sex with her current boyfriend, Paul Mescal’s Connell appears shocked. Then later, when Marianne and Connell have sex, she tells him that she belongs to him and asks him if he will hit her. Her numb, yet – pained, look when she was abused by Jamie had been poignantly portrayed by Daisy Edgar Jones and, perhaps it has been interpreted differently by others, but the idea that she enjoys being submissive and being hit, in my view, ties in with her self – loathing. Marianne thinks that’s what she’s worth.
As a young person, or as a person, it can feel incredibly painful to be in a situation where you are trying to convince yourself that you are participating in a sexual scenario equally and consensually when you are going through the motions. Trauma can mean that you can dissociate, shut off or mentally leave, when sex that you are in no way comfortable with is taking place. If you see a partner zoning out or looking fearful at any stage - that’s a no. Even if that person has said the word ‘yes’ – that’s a conversation you need to have and abstain until both of you are mutually consenting.
Awareness on your partner’s emotional status is essential. As has been said many times before, if it’s not an enthusiastic yes, it’s not a yes at all.
The first time Connell and Marianne are intimate this is portrayed exquisitely in terms of consent. After confirming that it is Marianne’s first time and that she is wanting to have sex, he tells her ‘If you want to stop or anything, we can stop. It won’t be awkward’. They discuss it and there continues to be a dialogue between them. So, watching, learning about and communicating with your partner and being aware of any changes in their consent or ability to consent is key. After all, a mutually enjoyable and respectful experience is best for both parties. Thems the rules.
(The consent / cup of tea video was produced by Blue Seat Studios for Thames Valley Police.)