Content Warning: brief allusions to sexual assault
Readers generally have a problem with sex scenes in fiction and, often, rightly so. It seems to be that poorly written sex scenes are the rule rather than the exception, as demonstrated by the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award. The judges cancelled the 2020 prize-giving, stating that “the public had been subjected to too many bad things this year to justify exposing it to bad sex as well.” However, sometimes sex scenes in fiction swim against the tide of “sighs” and “blushes” and offer something worthwhile. Furthermore, these successes might even resonate with, refresh, and empower the reader.
One such example is in Sally Rooney’s best seller, Normal People. The novel (and its on-screen adaptation) has garnered much praise from readers and viewers alike, for its significant and moving portrayal of sex, relationships and consent.
Rooney tenderly focuses on Marianne’s emotional states during her various sexual experiences with Connell and Lukas, illustrating the stark communicative and psychological differences between them. Sex scenes between Marianne and Connell are marked by his regular sensitive questions such as “Is it ok if I-?” With Lukas, the story is different. Rooney harrowingly describes Marianne’s inner turmoil; as she wishes for Lukas to stop, “the inside of her body seems to be gravitating further and further downwards, towards the floor, towards the centre of the earth.” This contrast in emotional security, physical safety and varying degrees of openness in communication profoundly depicts issues with consent that affect so many.
Significantly, Rooney also portrays the oft-overlooked anxieties experienced by men during sexual encounters. Connell’s delicacy is revealed in the most intimate moments shared with Marianne. He fears his “errors, and, so much worse, his excruciating attempts at tenderness,” being made public. He treasures privacy and craves security with Marianne, wishing that sex would be “between them only, even awkward or difficult things.”
Rooney’s highly commended, complex and compelling portrayal of sex and intimacy is so significant to our understanding of consent and the emotional vulnerability experienced by both women and men. Normal People’s sex scenes thankfully provided 2020 with some rawness, emotional validation and important information, and went against the grain of bad sex scenes from literary fiction’s recent history (thanks a lot, E. L. James).