There was always going to be a lot of sex in the TV adaptation of “Normal People.” The wildly popular book, by Sally Rooney, is brimming with it. The central couple, Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, have sex in childhood bedrooms, then college apartments, then childhood bedrooms again, coming together between long interludes when they just can’t be together for some maddeningly nonspecific reason. One is never quite able to convince the other of how much they care.
Say what you will about Sheridan and Waldron’s relationship: The sex part works. They know exactly what to whisper to each other, where to touch and when to stop.
“This is getting me a little hot and bothered,” a friend recently texted me after reading the first few chapters. “So sexy.”
Indeed, it is. Women are saying the same thing about the TV show, which premiered in the United Kingdom on Sunday, and will be available to stream Wednesday on Hulu in America. The sex between Sheridan and Waldron is “extremely intimate, very realistic, sexy” — maybe even a little pornographic. It’s also a master class in affirmative consent. The first time the two have sex, Waldron tells Sheridan, “If you want me to stop or anything, we can obviously stop. If it hurts or anything, we can stop. It won’t be awkward.”
The sex on “Normal People” feels different — “revolutionary,” even — because it is. There isn’t much sex that is good — like, really good — on TV shows that target women. When shows do include explicit sex scenes, sex is usually presented as a “problem to be solved,” said Lynn Comella, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas: It’s either “cringey” and “awkward” — think “Girls,” “You’re the Worst,” or “Fleabag” — or it depicts some kind of sexual violence, like in “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “Unbelievable.”
“It’s almost shocking to see sex that is supposed to be more appealing,” especially on television geared toward a female audience, said Elana Levine, a professor of media at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “Which is sad. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for pleasure.”
There has never been this much explicit sex on mainstream TV. Now that many shows appear off traditional networks, on streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, producers are no longer beholden to traditional advertisers. HBO, in particular, has leaned into its reputation for providing sexually explicit content.
“They’ve long been like, ‘well, you’re paying extra for this, you have to get something you can’t get elsewhere. So we’re going to show you lots of breasts,’” said Levine.
But while there are a lot of breasts, there are hardly any penises.
“Normal People” breaks from that convention: The show includes two scenes with full-frontal male nudity.
“That is incredibly rare. Off the top of my head, I’m having trouble thinking of even one other example,” said Levine. She specializes in gender, sexuality and television. “Often what we see conforms more to conventions of heterosexual male desire.”
Much of the explicit sex on TV appears on shows with predominantly male audiences, said Levine. “Game of Thrones,” famous for shocking audiences with its steamy sex scenes, is one example. (Approximately 42 of its viewers were female.) On television targeted mainly at women — soap operas and romantic dramas — sex scenes are often characterized by “a relative tameness,” Levine said. The camera zooms in on a soulful, lingering gaze. A strategically placed object might conceal certain body parts. The scene fades out at just the right moment.
You can’t talk about sex on women’s television without mentioning “Sex in the City,” says Comella. Culturally, she says, the show was extremely important,” depicting a group of women who spoke unapologetically about their sex lives and described, in detail, the kind of sex they wanted.
Most of the show’s “groundbreaking” moments were conversations between friends, not actual sex scenes. The “rabbit episode,” where the friends discuss the pros and cons of sex toys, put vibrators “on the map,” said Comella. When she worked in a sex shop for field research, she said, women were always asking for “the ‘Sex in the City’ vibrator.” When there was explicit sex or nudity on the show, it was “casual” and “fleeting,” said Levine. There might be an exposed breast here, a butt cheek there, but not much more than that.
“I don’t think the sex scenes were supposed to be a turn on for audiences, but rather something to feel good and positive about,” said Levine.
More recently, there’s been a movement toward explicit nudity in sex scenes that are meant to be uncomfortable. In a humanizing moment of self-deprecation, the character connects with the viewer over something that went horribly wrong: Hannah from “Girls” can’t get her tights off, Fleabag has to answer ill-timed questions about her bra size. It’s funny, and totally relatable — but it’s not particularly sexy.
There is also explicit nudity when sex is nonconsensual. This may have something to do with our “broader cultural reckoning with sexual violence,” said Levine: Producers don’t want to gloss over those moments. They’re willing to use nudity to help convey the severity of what’s going on.
Women want to watch good sex. It’s fun to fall for the hot guy or girl on screen, then watch them consummate a relationship in which you’re now totally invested. These kinds of scenes are so rare because directors and producers are overwhelmingly male, said Andrea Press, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia.
“There is the assumption of a male audience, that men decide what movies people are going to, what television is watched,” Press said. “I think people still feel they are taking a risk by producing something [sexual] that is primarily aimed at women.”
Producers and directors may also assume that women don’t want explicit nudity in their sex scenes. These assumptions reflect larger gendered stereotypes, said Levine.
“There is an assumption that women are more interested in the emotional aspects of a relationship, and find explicit representations less appealing.”
Of course, women are “complex sexual creatures,” says Comella: We don’t just want to watch one kind of sex. While “porn for women” was once typified by a very particular type of video — maybe a romantic picnic in a field, accessed on horseback, said Comella — the genre is changing, adapting to all different sorts of sexual tastes.
The TV adaptation of “Normal People” did not need to have this much explicit sex, said Comella: While there had to be sex scenes, the directors didn’t need to show quite so much. The full-frontal male nudity was a conscious choice.
All these years, Comella said, sex scenes have been choreographed around the male gaze.
Maybe someone finally realized that women like to gaze, too.