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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Safe Sex - Normal People

Sex is an integral part of Normal People. Let’s get a definition.

(Wait…what? A definition of sex?)

Yes, we all “know” what sex is, but I like to begin with a definition of a concept I’m writing about so that everyone knows the basis of things.

(So that we’re all on the same page?)


It’s hard to find a useful definition of sex, which is notable, I think. The English word “sex” comes from a Latin word meaning to divide. Most definitions tend to involve circularities like “Sex is engaging in sexual relations.”

Here’s a rather legal definition of sexual relations: sexual relations are established when a person "knowingly engages in or causes . . . contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person". Contact is agreed to mean intentional touching, either directly or through clothing.


In an earlier post on Normal People, the old maestro cited a comment made by Anahid Nersessian, in the New York Review of Books: “…What sets Rooney apart is that she makes what ought to be the most ordinary aspects of intimacy seem aspirational, as if consent and mutual gratification—however defined—were the summit and not the ground of erotic possibility.”

Consent is a key concept here, just as it is in contemporary society. Is this “intentional touching” being conducted with mutual consent, or is it coercive, with one party having power over the other?

Consent is always given in Normal People, although the motivations for sexual relations may be complex, and painful.

In a compulsive manner, Marianne seeks out and promotes sexual relationships where she is abused by her partner(s), thereby acting out dynamics from her childhood and birth family. In a climactic scene, she tries to involve Connell in this pattern, but he refuses, and this is significant for them both in a positive manner.

One of the ways Normal People diverges from traditional romances is that consent is a necessary part of the recipe for sexual intimacy. There are representations of traditional gender roles, particularly in the way Connell eventually protects Marianne from those who mean her ill (and do her ill), but this is not a story where the man pursues the reluctant woman, and finally wears down her hesitations to win the “prize.” Although come to think of it, I guess that involves consent too—but it’s a different beastie in Normal People.

Initially, Connell is very aware of Marianne as a woman; he attends to the finer details of her attire and appearance. “…Marianne came downstairs in a bathrobe. It was just a plain white bathrobe, tied in the normal way. Her hair was wet, and her hair had that glistening look like she had just been applying face cream…He knew she was probably getting dressed in her room, and whatever clothes she was wearing when she came back down would be the clothes she had chosen to put on after she saw him in the hall.”

And Marianne is equally interested in Connell’s physicality: “It occurred to Marianne how much she would like to see him having sex with someone; it didn’t have to be her, it could be anybody. It would be beautiful just to watch him.”


After a first kiss, Connell “drops by” Marianne’s house where his mother is working. Marianne goes to her bedroom, and he follows her. They sit on her bed. “He touched her leg and she lay back down against the pillow. Boldly she asked if he was going to kiss her again. He said: What do you think? …he did start to kiss her…He put his hand under her school blouse. In his ear, she said: Can we take our clothes off?”

After they have sex, Connell muses about Marianne and about other partners he’s had: “With Marianne it was different, because everything was between them only, even awkward or difficult things. He could do or say anything he wanted with her and no one would ever find out…That’s so good, she kept saying. That feels so good. Her body was all soft and white like flour dough. He wanted to fit perfectly inside her. Physically it just felt right, and he understood why people did insane things for sexual reasons then…His decision to drive to Marianne’s house that afternoon suddenly seemed…maybe the only intelligent thing he’d ever done in his life.”

Well, sure.

My point here is again, this is not a story of a guy winning over a gal to have sex—and then how he’s insensitive about it. No sir. Connell and Marianne seem to be equally enthusiastic in their pursuit and capture of one another. And Connell is quite sensitive after the deed is done. (It should be said he is not always so sensitive later).

And Marianne experiences sex with Connell as healing.

“Connell… leans down and kisses her on the forehead. I would never hurt you, okay? he says. Never…You make me really happy, he says. His hand moves over her hair and he adds: I love you. I’m not just saying that, I really do. Her eyes well up with tears again and she closes them…She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person. But now she has a new life, of which this is the first moment…”

And consent?

“She stands at his chair and, looking up at her, he undoes the sash of her bathrobe. It’s been nearly a year. He touches his lips to her skin and she feels holy, like a shrine. Come to bed, then, she says. He goes with her.”

My view is that the story’s climax occurs when Marianne is attacked by her brother Alan, and calls Connell for help. He arrives at her house and threatens Alan and takes Marianne away. Prior to this, Marianne and Connell are having sex. She says: “You can do whatever you want with me.

He makes a noise in his throat, leans into her a little harder. That’s nice, he says.

Her voice sounds hoarse now. Do you like me saying that? she says.

Yeah, a lot.

Will you tell me I belong to you? What do you mean? he says.

“Will you hit me, she says?”

No, he says, I don’t think I want that. Sorry

Marianne indicates she wants to stop having sex, and Connell gets off her.

Are you okay? he says. I’m sorry I didn’t want to do that, I just think it would be weird. I mean, not weird but…I don’t know. I don’t think it would be a good idea.

You think I’m weird? she says.

After this, Marianne goes home, is attacked by Alan, calls Connell for help. He arrives, tells Marianne to get in his car, and threatens to kill Alan. The chapter ends with Marianne saying thank you.

The next chapter is entitled Seven Months Later. She and Connell are together at the university, and the perspective is the narrator reporting about her. “Marianne is neither admired nor reviled anymore. She’s a normal person now. She walks by and no one looks up.”

What’s going on here? A very complex exchange, my point in including it in this discussion is the sexual content. Marianne attempts to continue a pattern of sexual behavior that she has found compulsively meaningful—being hit during sex—with Connell, but he refuses to go along. He is confused and apologetic. She is embarrassed and leaves but when her brother assaults her, she turns to Connell for help. Although he doesn’t want to hit Marianne, he is moved to shove her brother against a wall and threaten to kill him. (This reader was happy about the whole thing). But after this, Marianne and Connell are finally at peace with each other. Marianne feels she’s a normal person, the implication is that she’s done with her abusive family and her desire for sex that reinforces her sense that she’s bad. Connell seems okay with the whole thing. Of course, soon, the couple will decide to separate but that’s another discussion. The point here is that consensual sex is powerful and healing. And that both men and women must give consent to mutual pleasure—not to conquest and domination. Sex is not the only factor in Marianne’s and Connell’s transformation, but it is integral.

Next week, I think we’ll wrap up Normal People by looking more closely at the transformation and the end.

Till then.

(whiny voice—But I thought people in Ireland didn’t enjoy sex because they were too hung up).

No. Obviously.


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