This sex and relationships guide to normal people is for fans of the show who want to think a bit more deeply about some of the issues it raises. I like the show a lot, but it’s not a review or a hot take.
If you’re old enough to watch Normal People then you’re old enough to read this website, but I would say that it’s aimed at over 16s? That’s who I’m aiming this article for anyway.
Normal People is a TV show and also a book by Sally Rooney. It’s about Marianne and Connell and their on / off romantic relationship and friendship. It’s also about dealing with abuse and bullying. Some of it is quite tough to watch, so be careful if this is something that might trigger you. It also contains some non-consensual behaviour, which I also chat a little about below.
I don’t want to spoil the show (or book, which I haven’t read), I don’t think there any spoilers below but there might be. I wrote this guide because a lot of the themes that come up are pretty relevant to the themes of this website. There’s a lot here and a lot that I haven’t covered because it’s already way too long. I’ve split it into ‘the relationship’, ‘the sex’, and ‘themselves.’ Just like this website, a guide to Sex, Love, and You. There are also links throughout to other articles on here to help you.
Although there are other relationships in Normal People, they don’t feature very strongly, so this section is mostly only about the relationship with Connell and Marianne. Shout out to Lorraine, Niall, and Peggy who are the characters I associated with the most.
Throughout the episodes go through the relationships graph and note down where you think Connell and Marianne are. Here’s what I was thinking at episode 6.
When is the shaded area the largest and when is it smallest? In which episodes would you say that they are happy together? Was being single ever an option for them? Could they be happy single?
How close were they at various points in the show and how much were they overlapping? How close did Connell and Marianne want to be at various points?
Their friends play bit parts in their lives and we don’t find out very much about them. Is that because romantic love stories are more interesting? Or is it because Marianne and Connell treated them like bit parts in their lives? What if they treated their friendships as seriously as their relationship?
Do Marianne and Connell love each other? What’s the difference between saying we love each other and loving each other? How might saying ‘I love you’ not always be such a great thing to say? Were there times when one person was loving at someone rather than with them?
On and off relationship
At Uni they were either ‘on’ or ‘off’ with their romantic relationship. Are there any other kinds of relationship models they could have tried? Ethical non monogamy, polyamory, relationship anarchy, friends with benefits, or a long distance relationship. What would have happened if they had sex with their friend Peggy? Why did they dismiss the idea so quickly?
When we have more power we have more freedom to do things (and vice versa) and their power and freedom changes throughout the show. At first Connell has loads of power and later on Marianne has more power.
Note how complex it is though and how some of it is obvious (Connell being popular at school and Marianne really not) and how some of it is subtle (Connell’s mum works for Marianne’s mum).
When one person has more freedom I think it’s on them to make sure that the people around them (and the world) have as much freedom as possible. In what ways to Marianne and Connell use their power to give each other power, and when don’t they?
Were they doing them, or each other
During the show notice whether each character is being the subject of their own life story, or a character in the other person’s. Notice the times when they were trying to be the ideal partner for each other and notice when they were trying to talk about what they wanted.
Were there times when it was too difficult for each of them to ask for what they want?
Is it better to be the ideal partner for someone else, or to be honest about what you want? Is it ever that realistic to be able to separate the two?
There was a lot of sex in the show. Some people say there was too much sex actually. So if you’re not into watching people having acted sex you might want to give this show a miss, which is fine. Because there really is quite a lot of shagging in it.
First time they had sex
The first time seemed to go pretty okay, how? What made it good? They didn’t seem to talk about what it is they might or might not have wanted to do, so was it luck? Vibes?
First time sex can be really great actually but it’s not just about ‘meeting the right person’ it’s also about working out what kind of sex you might want to have and how. It’s hard because you might not know what you do or don’t want, but having enough chat to work it out is important.
We can stop if it’s painful
Before they first have sex, Connell says (something like) ‘we can stop if it’s painful or whatever.’ In heterosexual sexual situations it can be hard for a woman to articulate whether it’s painful. This is because of crap sex education telling everyone that it’s normal for entry sex to hurt for the first time (as though it’s not preventable, which is totally is). It’s also harder for women to talk about what they do or don’t want because of very gendered messages about sex and how men and women are supposed to behave (men are supposed to be super into it, women are supposed to be into it but not too much).
Unless it’s meant to hurt (like slapping or biting), sex shouldn’t hurt. Particularly entry sex like penis in vagina or penis in anus. So did Connell know this? How did they prevent sex from being painful? How else could Connell have worded what he said?
Why they had sex
They had a lot of sex, so each sex scene is telling a story about their relationship at that point. Think of all the different reasons that people have sex and think about which of these applied to them. Here’s an article about the different reasons people have sex and here’s a graphic from that to help.
Is it consensual if people are having sex for very different reasons? Did the fact that they had so many reasons for having sex with each other affect the sex? Could they have found some other activities that could have given them those things?
I think if we are expecting an activity to do a lot of things for us then after a while we get less and less out of it. Despite us putting more and more time and effort into it.
The sexual script
Pretty much all the sex between Connell and Marianne seemed to be kissing, foreplay, and penis in vagina sex (not that we could see, but we might assume this from the positions they were in). This is known as the sexual script and is often thought of as ‘normal sex’ or what ‘normal people’ do. People often follow a script for sex so that they don’t have to talk about it. Why might the sexual script be a problem?
Is it just heterosexual couples that have a sexual script?
There was one clear violation of Marianne’s consent when she wanted to stop the photoshoot in Sweden and another one in the disco earlier on. Were there other times when characters were being treated non-consensually: either sexually or in other ways? Remember that for something to be consensual you have to choose to agree and be able to and free to make that choice. Notice where things happened at someone rather than with someone. You could think about:
- how Marianne was treated at school
- threats of violence (or actual violence)
- Connell meeting his ex teacher when he was drunk
If this is too difficult for you to do, perhaps because you have had experiences of this yourself, it’s okay for you not to go there.
The last time they had sex Marianne was wanting to have a different kind of sex than before. She wanted sex which was more kinky involving consensual pain and power exchange. She wanted to give Connell the power to do what he wanted to her. Was this new or a specific request to do something that had already been happening in their relationship? How could they have handled this conversation better?
Find out more about kink and how it can be done consensually and safely
You might be tempted to wonder whether Marianne’s interest in kink was caused by her abusive and violent relationship with her brother. But another way of thinking about this is what caused Connell to only be interested in gentle non-kinky sex? We should be careful about suggesting that certain kinds of sex are normal and okay and others aren’t. Consent is key and, interestingly, this scene seemed to be the only time when Marianne said out loud what kind of sex she actually wanted.
A more subtle power dynamic to think about with the sex is to what extent Marianne and Connell were topping and bottoming throughout. Who was more active? Who was taking charge?
Men and women receive very different messages about how to ‘do’ their gender. How did Connell and Marianne either conform to these, reject them, were ‘meh’ about them, or subvert them altogether?
How did Connell relate to being a man? What is and isn’t seen as ‘okay’ ways to be a man is policed by banter (often with homophobia) but were there opportunities for Connell to chat with his mates about his feelings? If he did, would it have changed things?
What was Marianne taught about being a woman? Did her mother offer any insight as to how to navigate being a women in a sexist world? Why was Marianne’s brother so awful to her? If Marianne had a sister for a sibling (or not a brother) would things have been the same?
When everyone goes out clubbing or partying, notice how dressed up the women are compared to the men. Not a question, just an observation! Why can’t men make more of an effort?
Connell being tall was mentioned a few times so it was clearly ‘a thing’. Why?
Without casting shade at the wonderful actors playing Marianne and Connell, their bodies definitely met the current ‘beauty standard’. Could they have cast actors that weren’t muscly and slim? What if Marianne was muscly and Connell was slim? Would it have made a difference to the story? Were the characters ever conscious about their bodies?
How to feel better about our bodies (and the BS that comes with it)
That’s it! I hope you found that useful and maybe it will spark some conversations off with your friends / partners. Perhaps it will also help you if you want to write about it (and if you’d like to review it and publish it here let me know).
If you want to discuss it in the comments please go ahead. I moderate them all before publishing.
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© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Find out more about Justin here