The penultimate episode of Normal People, the TV adaptation everyone’s talking about, is much like every other episode: writhing with sweaty, very real looking sex. On a sticky summer’s day, main characters Marianne and Connell, after months of being apart, drop their melting ice pops, turn off the football and start to have sex in Connell’s bedroom. Their breath is heaving; he tickles her back; his thumb dips into her mouth. But then she asks: “Will you hit me?” and the whole moment is ruined. “No,” he says, covering himself with a pillow. “I don’t think I want that. Sorry.” Ashamed for asking, Marianne runs home, where her brother smacks a door into her face. Her taste for sexual debasement is depicted as the result of a physically and emotionally abusive upbringing marred by physical and emotional abuse. And that taste is ultimately rejected.
Not everyone who likes rough sex is traumatised. Or as Savage Love columnist Dan Savage once put it: “BDSM is cops and robbers for grownups with your pants off … it’s not a cry for help.” And yet from Mary Gaitskill’s 1988 short story collection Bad Behaviour to Fifty Shades of Grey, masochistic sexual impulses are continually presented in fiction as deriving exclusively from previously painful experiences. Normal People goes a step further, showing those engaging in BDSM as violent and dismissive of boundaries, such as the kinky boyfriend who won’t let Marianne take a shower, even when it’s clear she’s not looking to roleplay. Throughout the book and series, a binary distinction is formed wherein “good” sex is that which is caring and romantic and “bad” sex involves anything experimental.
When Fifty Shades came out in cinemas in 2015, many members of the kink community were outraged by the way the film presented BDSM as the product of abusive behaviour. For those not included in the 125 million people who read EL James’s erotic trilogy, the story follows Christian Grey, a rich CEO who recruits shy virgin Ana Steele as his new submissive. He chains her, spanks her and clamps her – all because, it transpires, he was neglected as a child. “I like to whip little brown-haired girls like you because you all look like the crack whore – my birth mother,” Grey tells Steele in the book. He’s controlling, so much that when Ana says “leave me alone” he actually breaks into her house. Eventually, they get married and Grey decides he respects his wife too much to inflict pain on her. They have two kids and live happily ever after.
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After the #MeToo movement, more stories positioning sadomasochistic sex as a way of processing trauma were written. In Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut novel Conversations With Friends, the main character asks her love interest to choke her because she felt she was “a damaged person who deserved nothing”. You Know You Want This, Kristen Roupenian’s 2019 book, echoed this line of thought: one short story called “Death Wish” sees a woman who can only experience sexual gratification through brutalisation. “I want you to punch me in the face as hard as you can,” she says to a Tinder date who comes to her house. “After you’ve punched me, when I’ve fallen down, I want you to kick me in the stomach. And then we can have sex.” Roxane Gay’s 2017 short story collection Difficult Women, too: women are repeatedly bruised and battered in the bedroom, either because they think they deserve it, or because men in the past thought they deserved it.
Normal People, both the book and TV series, is a continuation of this tendency to only implicate rough sex when it comes from something traumatic. But it exceeds most examples in that Marianne doesn’t even seem to enjoy the rough sex when it is happening to her. When she’s studying abroad in Sweden, Marianne’s sexual partner Lukas forces her to pose for photos, naked and tied-up, the camera focusing on the yellowing bruises on her wrists. When she asks to leave he ignores her. “You asked for this,” he says, moving past her blatant lack of consent. In another scene we see her wincing as a boyfriend, self-proclaimed sadist Jamie, aggressively penetrates her from behind. She looks withdrawn, empty.
It’s suggested in Rooney’s novel that Connell’s virulent rejection of BDSM – when Marianne tells him about Jamie, he says recoiling, “sounds f***ing horrible” – comes from the fact he might actually enjoy it himself. In one passage he goes over and strokes a finger down her cheek and is concerned by a sudden desire he has to punch her in the face. “The idea frightens him so badly,” Rooney writes in the book, “that he pulls his chair back and stands up. His hands are shaking. He doesn’t know why he thought about it. Maybe he wants to do it. But it makes him feel sick.”
Rooney has dismissed that Normal People is a critique of masochistic sex. “I think some people have read this as me saying it’s bad to accommodate violence into sex,” Rooney told Esquire last year. “For me, it was that Connell doesn’t like BDSM, so people shouldn’t do things they don’t like… It’s about him coming to terms with the fact that actually he has, in many ways, been dominating her all along, without wanting to admit it in himself.”
Rooney’s right: people shouldn’t do what they don’t want to do. Except that in some ways it sounds like Connell is into the idea of BDSM, or could be. Ultimately, though Rooney decides that Connell doesn’t need to hurt Marianne because he dominates her already in their everyday relationship; their love is such that she feels subjugated by it just by being in it. “He knew how to give her what she wanted,” she writes in the book. “To leave her open, weak, powerless, sometimes crying. He understood that it wasn’t necessary to hurt her: he could let her submit willingly, without violence. This all seemed to happen on the deepest possible level of her personality.”
Despite that, the way that Normal People reconciles Marianne’s desire for submission and Connell’s desire for domination feels like a disappointment. In this passage and in the way it appears on the screen, through loving gazes and bending bodies, Normal People represses the potential for a consensual exploration and/or subversion of these power dynamics in favour of something more vanilla, less complex. Normal People rules out the possibility that guilty pleasures could be explored without guilt; that to take and be taken over through pain can be a kindness. In one scene in both versions of Normal People when exploring a derelict house, Marianne tells Connell: “I would lie on the ground and let you walk all over me if you wanted. you know that right?” He laughs it off nervously. She craves the feeling of annihilation; he could let her have it.
Members of the kink community continually emphasise the importance of communication, safe words, consent, honesty, boundaries. But again and again, those who indulge in BDSM are depicted as flawed people who don’t know their own boundaries. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if it was the guy with the whip and the chain that saved the day, rather than the one with the innocent smile? Or that the woman with her wrists tied up in knots finds greater freedom with her hands bound together? Marianne didn’t need to be given wounds to draw her to BDSM, nor did Connell have to save her from it. But then, they are normal people.
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