Thank you for coming: Why 2020 was the year TV gave us a sex education

We might not have been getting any, but the sex lives of characters on the small screen are hotter than ever.

In the immortal words of Mousse T – we’re horny.

Like a bowl of spaghetti bolognese on a carb-free diet, we always seen to want what we can’t have; and with the UK’s repeated and confusing lockdowns putting a halt to Tinder hook-ups, one night stands and casual encounters, many of us are now feeling the effects of a coronavirus-led dry spell – with vibrator sales having buzzed up over 30 per cent since March.

But in a lip-bitingly teasing fashion, television in 2020 has been hotter than ever, with steamy sex scenes a staple in a number of the small screen’s hit shows.

One of the most prominent programmes that twinned sex with substance was BBC Three’s internationally acclaimed Normal People, with its tender and achingly beautiful depiction of Connell and Marianne’s love story tapping into the formative experiences of so many – and leaving fans emotionally drawn to the two young leads. The way Connell delicately informs Marianne that “they can stop if it hurts” was so beautifully endearing that it made Paul Mescal and his silver chain an instant fan favourite.

But the series also captured attention due to its numerous unflinchingly realistic and passionate sex scenes – with moments so steamy that the creators of the programme had to lobby Pornhub to remove parts of Normal People that had been uploaded onto the site.

Ita O’Brien, who worked on the programme as well as 18 other shows in the last 12 months, explained how her work as an intimacy co-ordinator has made sex on screen both more enjoyable, as well as more educational, for actors and viewers.

‘We are now watching intimate content where actors have consented and feel comfortable performing well-choreographed scenes,’ she explains.

‘We’re not squirming internally because the actors involved aren’t squirming internally. Now, the intimate content helps tell the story and can have a huge impact, as the actor is now being cared for and their needs aren’t being compromised during sex scenes.’

The actors feeling more comfortable expressing the sexuality of their characters may be partially why we’re seeing a greater increase of women experiencing pleasure on screen –

While female nudity is often abundant (and some may argue entirely unnecessary in some cases), women were posed to titillate rather than to receive pleasure – but 2020 has seen the tables turned, from the women in Industry being the beneficiaries of foreplay to Suzie Pickles’ masturbation marathon in Billie Piper and Lucy Prebbles’ I Hate Suzie (which is the longest solo sex scene in television history).

Suzie’s lengthy act of self-love was thrilling to see on screen – a woman seeking gratification for her own sake, and a realistic take on how women too can have the same shuddering sexual urges as their male counterparts. It wasn’t played for cheap laughs or for cheap thrills, but just as an open representation of how women masturbate aimed squarely at the women watching.

‘The characters reveal way more of themselves in their vulnerability and sexual expression, with these non-verbal encounters revealing way more than speech,’ Ita continues.

‘There’s also more women behind the scenes on TV shows. Women are able to tell their own stories and are now bringing that part of our existence for our own sexuality, rather than having our sexuality having to be in relation to someone else.’

Women are able to tell their own stories and are now bringing that part of our existence for our own sexuality, rather than having our sexuality having to be in relation to someone else

Women most certainly have been at the forefront of putting sex front and centre of television, with shows such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Laurie Nunn’s Sex Education and Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack all achieving huge success both critically and amongst fans.

But it was I May Destroy You – written, directed and starring Michaela Coel – which pushed the boundaries of what we know and understand about sex and consent, both on screen and in real life.

The plot centres around party-hard millennial author Arabella (Coel) who is spiked and raped after a night out, but also observes other instances where consent is muddied, stolen or simply not sought.

I May Destroy You doesn’t shy away from some of its most disturbing moments, making the punches it pulls all the more powerful for the viewer. The stealthing scene is the one Ita is most proud of – an act we see in its gruesome entirety when Zain (Karan Gill) takes off the condom during intercourse without Arabella’s consent.

While 32 per cent of women have experienced stealthing in their lifetime, far fewer people were aware that the act is categorised as rape under UK law.

It’s something that spoke deeply to myself and friends, where we were forced to reassess our previous encounters and whether one night stands from years gone by were entirely consensual.

‘Each beat had to be choreographed for that scene to work,’ she says. ‘We worked with the props team on how Karan could remove the condom while not showing his modesty pouch. Karan had to feel comfortable in performing for that scene to really carry that magnitude, and he told that story well.

‘Myself, Karan and Michaela also all noted how this is one of the only sex scenes between a Black woman and an Asian man, and we were all like, ‘really?’ This is bog-standard London. It was an honour to support a ground-breaking coupling and moment on screen.’

Another moment that was considered ground-breaking (although it really ought not to have been) in the 12 part series was the moment of intimacy between Biagio (Marouane Zotti) and Arabella, which is abruptly paused when he removes her bloodied tampon.

It’s a scene which can lead into a sharp intake of breath where period blood, so often euphemised, is proudly presented as a sharp red gash across our screens. It’s something women are always taught to keep hidden from the prying eyes of men, so to have it literally dangled in front of all of us was something to be applauded.

‘People who menstruate have to deal with period paraphernalia for one week of a month for around 40 years, but we don’t often see it in our storytelling,’ Ita says of the scene.

‘It’s so important and powerful as it debunks a myth! Of course we can engage in intercourse when we’re on our period!

‘And it helps us accept what is a natural process of our bodies. I loved how Biagio’s reaction isn’t one of revulsion or disgust. It’s of curiosity and acceptance, and it’s beautiful to see.’

Indeed, 2020 has shown sex on screen has come a long way since the beat-and-delete encounters of the Sex and the City era in favour of a more realistic and enriched portrayal of intimate moments – but we still have communities whose stories deserve to be told with greater accuracy and care.

‘An aspect I do feel is yet to be told, and yet to be embraced and really understood in their storytelling is the trans community,’ Ita says. ‘It’s so complex in all of its intricacies.

‘There’s a trans character in the new series of Sex Education and it’s really positive this is coming up. There’s a whole gamut of storytelling that needs to be understood and written about.’

But as we continue to endeavour to portray sex on screen in a realistic manner, it only further strengthens the stories we engage with, as well as the intimate relationships we enjoy in reality.

‘Sex on screen now has a degree of detail required,’ Ita says. ‘We’re seeing the moment of penetration and withdrawal. This physicality is important, because if it’s not right, I lose interest and I don’t believe the storytelling or the characters anymore.

‘What we’re watching might be make-believe, but the storylines have rippled into our real lives. I’ve had members of the Black queer community reach out to me after I May Destroy You, and secondary schools have contacted me to say the consent scene in Normal People has become part of their sex education curriculum.

‘That in itself is such an honour to support.’

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