Released at the end of April 2020 during quarantine for Covid-19 (on BBC iPlayer in the UK and Hulu in the US), the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, Normal People (Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, Ireland, UK, USA), was considered essential lockdown viewing. While it was praised for the tender naturalism of the sexual intimacy between its two young protagonists, Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal), its treatment of consent was especially innovative. In the nine-minute scene in which Connell and Marianne have sex for the first time, Connell stops to ask for explicit consent, making it clear that the agreement is active and ongoing.
The first thing to note about this moment is just how remarkable it is to see a male character elicit consent in such a clear and caring manner during an erotic sex scene. The consent conversation does not disrupt or unsettle the eroticism of the moment but rather heightens it. Normal People is part of an emergent television culture of consent and “sex positivity” – which is defined in a sex education context as open communication about sex without shame, judgement or embarrassment (Whitehead 2019 https://schoolofsexed.org/blog-articles/2019/11/4/what-is-sex-positivity).
What Normal People has in common with other recent TV series that focus on consent, such as Sex Education (Laurie Nunn, Netflix, 2019-) and I May Destroy You (Michaela Coel, BBC, 2020), is Ita O’Brien (https://www.itaobrien.com): a leading intimacy coordinator who guides actors through the filming of intimate scenes. Intimacy coordinators foster a culture of care and respect on set, helping actors to establish boundaries regarding what they are – and are not – comfortable with (in terms of nudity, sexual contact, and touch). In the #MeToo era, recognition of the significance of consent both on- and off-screen is paramount. As I watch Connell and Marianne, I am mindful of Paul and Daisy, and of their consent to the choreography of this embodied intimacy. While it seems incredible that intimacy coordination was not always a part of film and television production, the consent scene in Normal People demonstrates the value of the profession and is an important turning point in the screen history of sex. While the swell of public desire for Connell (the so-called Connell effect) led to an Instagram account and a boom in the sale of silver chains for men (https://www.instagram.com/connellschain/?hl=en), it also opened up a public conversation about consent as integral to good sex, indicating the potential for TV to serve as a form of public pedagogy on the topic.