Sex on Screen

As part of SHAG week, RAZZ writer Lulu Bullman explores the depiction of sex on the big screen.

Sex on screen can either set hearts racing or cause feelings of embarrassment and unease – especially if you find yourself in that awkward situation, watching a programme with the rest of your family, sitting in stone cold silence as you view a scene that no one was quite expecting. I’m sure it’s happened to all of us at some stage or other. 

Whether you take pleasure or prefer to fast-forward through these steamier films, sex on screen often leave viewers wondering how close these depictions come to the real deal itself. Is raunchiness and fantasy favoured over realistic representation? Are all shows/movies misleading when it comes to sex? What exactly makes a successful sex scene? 

I think we can all agree that cinematic representations of sex have been saturated with countless corny and idealised depictions of intimacy. It can get tiring when we turn on the television only to see glamourous Gods and Goddesses, with smooth and glistening skin, perfectly toned, with nips and tucks in all the right places, holding one another with not hair falling out of place. These characters who are supposedly “doing the dirty” could not be further from such description, since these highly refined, slow-motion sex scenes set a glorified and unrealistic standard. Sex is a natural thing. It seems silly for the screen to represent in such an artificial fashion.  

However, there are popular TV programmes that do depart from this pattern – with one hit series immediately springing to mind: Normal People. Not only did the BBC Three adaption of Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel help to heat up the lonelier days of the first lockdown, but I would go so far to say that this television adaption revolutionised sex on screen for the better – setting a refreshingly realistic tone for many millennials to appreciate and enjoy. 

One of the first things that struck me surrounding the intimate scenes in Normal People was the way in which consent was captured and emphasised. Whilst saucy speech, romantic whispers and declarations of love frequently form part of the dialogue in sex scenes, the conversation of consent is something I’d never actually viewed before whilst watching a sex scene: checking that your partner is ready and comfortable, reminding them that they can stop at any point, that sex is a space where individuals can express themselves freely and openly at any point. This discourse is a fundamental step towards reminding viewers of the importance surrounding consent and should embraced with enthusiasm by all programmes and producers in future. In addition, Normal People not only took time to emphasise consent, but it also made a point of practising safe sex, with Marianna asking Connell if they could use a condom just before they are about to have sex for the first time – dialogue which greatly differs from the simply implied safe sex that takes place across most on-screen depictions. 

Ultimately, sex on screen should not shy away from franker discussions surrounding consent, contraception, and freedom of expression. Whilst the history of cinema has tended to depict sex in its most idealised form, this industry should seek to remind viewers that respect and consent, rather than perfection, is paramount when it comes to sex – both on and off screen.

– Lulu Bullman

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