Normal People the series (BBC/Hulu) is being lauded for its positive depiction of sex. Having just read Sally Rooney’s source novel, there very little explicit sex in her text. It’s mostly a simple “we had sex”. There’s one count of “get on top of her”, implying missionary, and one of “touched her until she came” during a period, but otherwise, no guidance. So we have to assume that the details of the on-screen sex were left to the writers and directors.
What we do know is that one of the main characters is definitely a submissive. That drives some of the expected sexual positions. Her partners would need to play the dominant, and in fact Marianne instructs them to, saying “anything you want” and “you can do anything you want to me”. This is how the sex breaks down per episode.
Episode 1: None
Episode 2: (All Connell and Marianne)
First encounter: Missionary
Second encounter: Cowgirl into missionary
Third encounter (car): Missionary
Fourth encounter: Face-to-face
Episode 3: None
Episode 4: None
(Gareth and Marianne)
Before the Party: Missionary
(Connell and Marianne)
After the Party: Missionary into cowgirl
Episode 6: (Connell and Marianne)
Kitchen sink: Face-to-face
Episode 7: (Jamie and Marianne)
Rough sex: Doggy (with hair pulling)
Episode 8: None
(Connell and Helen)
Night: Face-to-face into cowgirl
(Lukas and Marianne)
Aftermath: (not sure what position caused those bruises)
Episode 10: None
Episode 11: (Connell and Marianne)
Episode 12: (Connell and Marianne)
Final: Missionary into cowgirl
While watching the series, I noticed that there wasn’t even a hint of oral sex at any point, which is unusual. Sure, we can assume that it happened off camera. Realistically though, the absence is notable.
On the whole, the viewer may feel that the series has a LOT of sex scenes over its course. But if we look at the spread over time, it’s in bursts reflecting Connell and Marianne’s on-again-off-again relationship. Episode 2 rightfully has the most encounters, four of them, each one different including the scene in the car. Then they break up and we don’t see them bed each other again until the very end of Episode 5, when they reconcile in Dublin. We get the second burst in Episode 6, three trysts, again each one different, including one when Marianne has her period. We need to refer to the novel to know that Connell brings her to orgasm with his fingers, blood and all. Then they break up for the second time, and have sexual encounters with very different partners and experiences. They’re not together in bed again until Episode 11, which ends prematurely. We get one final redeeming encounter in Episode 12.
Connell and Marianne predominantly are in missionary, often linked with cowgirl. This is an interesting choice, because a submissive like Marianne may not want to be on top unless ordered to by her partner. Regardless, this becomes the seminal “home” position for them, especially after the much-lauded first time scene of Marianne. We only see them in two other positions, face-to-face twice (the second time is a picturesque gimmick with Marianne sitting on the kitchen counter), and the ill-fated spoon in Episode 11. Perhaps the spoon was a choice to somewhat link to Marianne’s encounter with Jamie, the only other time she’s taken from behind, which would fit how that ended. Taken as a whole, it preserves the series theme of “it’s not like this with other people”. I would like to think that sex with Connell is the only time that Marianne has ever felt completely safe and fulfilled in bed with someone.
Connell’s only non-Marianne sex scene is with Helen (although we have to acknowledge that he says he’s been with both Rachel and Teresa, but all off-screen so it doesn’t count for the viewers), where they start face-to-face and segue into cowgirl, two positions he’s been in with Marianne. This underscores that Connell’s feelings for Helen are true, and he does love her, but ultimately she doesn’t fit him as well as Marianne, including sexually. I’ve written how Helen was given short shrift in the series compared to the novel.
Marianne’s on-screen non-Connell sex scenes are painful. There’s the throwaway four-second scene with Gareth, with her looking bored and unimpressed. It’s in missionary, an automatic comparison to her experience with Connell, which spells doom for Gareth once he reenters her life. She dumps him a few scenes later. We only see her in doggy once, and it’s the brief, disturbing look at Jamie roughly taking Marianne from behind, with him yanking on her hair. Her expression in those five seconds looks a lot more like real pain than ecstasy. It’s possible the writers allotted the position for this purpose, linking doggy with Marianne’s masochistic streak. (It’s unfair to doggy of course, which is a common, much-loved position.) Jamie, as Marianne’s sadism/masochism partner, is terrible, and it’s clear from what she says during the coffee date that he is not taking care of her at all. The submissive should dictate the rules, and the dominant should listen and facilitate the sub’s experience. As noted above, this later links into Marianne getting into the unfamiliar (to Connell) spoon position, surprising him (he isn’t sure how to proceed), and surfacing her submissive masochistic streak that leads to the termination of that encounter since Connell isn’t equipped to deal with it (and he knows it, good for him).
The two Sweden encounters of Marianne with Lukas are difficult to watch, because she hands control of her body over to a man that not only doesn’t have her best interests in mind, he has no idea how to handle it properly. As Marianne’s bondage/discipline partner, Lukas sucks. The game they play involves verbal and physical degradation. We see him taking her in missionary with Marianne’s hands bound – a perversion of her “home” position with Connell. We see some aftercare, in the shower. But the photo shoot is a disgrace. There’s no safe word, so he must take “no” and especially “I don’t want to do this” at face value, which he does not. As Connell tells her, she doesn’t always have a good radar for detecting psychopaths. She got lucky that he didn’t hurt her more than he already did.
In the novel, Connell says that he eventually learns how to make Marianne submit without hurting her, hopefully meaning he learns safe and proper dominant skills: trust, respect, honesty and clear communication, all with an open mind. The two struggle with clear communication over the course of the series, and the hope is that Connell learned how to support Marianne’s fetishes properly.