In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released to the masses. It is regarded as being the first American movie to show a toilet on screen, and also the first American movie to feature the sounds of a flushing toilet, which was a big deal back in the day. The movie was also famously met with intervention by the censors who wanted Hitchcock to cut back on the violence shown during the attack on a naked woman in the shower, a scene in which you actually see no nudity and, crucially, no violence. Hitchcock left some blanks for your mind to fill in on its own.
ump forward three decades or so, and Paul Verhoeven releases Basic Instinct, a movie that many perceive to be his homage to Hitchcock. Once again, the censors got involved, requesting that Verhoeven remove some of the more intense and explicit images from the movie’s sex and violence scenes. This time however, there are no blanks to fill. Verhoeven has put it all up there on the screen for us to see. A lot had changed in cinema in those 30 years.
However, jump forward another three decades or so, and we’ve barely moved on at all. For a time in 2020, we witnessed what appeared to be a nationwide uproar around the sex scenes in the small-screen adaption of Sally Rooney’s hit novel, Normal People. There were a couple of weeks when it felt like Joe Duffy was getting even more attention than Paul Mescal, culminating in that wonderful caller who compared the scenes in Normal People to something you’d see in a porno movie. When Joe asked what would the scenes in a porno movie look like, the caller replied, “Well, I don’t know”.
Of course, we can’t look at Normal People in a vacuum, as it was released at a time in history quite unlike any other. We were enduring what felt like a worldwide ban on sex with new people. The lockdown had an immediate impact on anyone who was single, as, suddenly, sex with new people was forbidden fruit, and there was an increased need to live vicariously through these people on our screens. It is why Pornhub noted a worldwide increase of almost 25pc on daily visits during the lockdown. It is why a movie like 365 Days, a fundamentally terribly told story at the centre of a fundamentally terribly made movie, could end up being such a massive hit for Netflix, topping the ‘Most Viewed’ charts in Ireland for weeks on end. Would Normal People have stirred up such a fervent fan-base, as well as such a loud level of dissent, if we weren’t all cooped up at home with nothing else to do than watch attractive people having sex? It is impossible to say for certain, but it is worth noting that it received that kind of backlash at all.
As a society, Ireland does appear to have broken free from generations of tight-fisted religious rule, busting out as one of the more open-minded countries in the world. Public vote for marriage equality? You got it. The right to a legal abortion? Now a part of the Health Act. Openly gay government leader? Old news. And yet when people start having sex on our screens, it is as if part of that society is transported back to the 1960s, being aghast at that first flushing toilet all over again. What is the problem that part of Ireland seems to have with sex in movies and on TV that it doesn’t have with, say, violence?
It could be because, by and large, violence isn’t a part of our everyday lives. A recent study revealed that most people think about sex, on average, at least once an hour every day. It is something most people enjoy doing, and it is something we put a lot of thought into doing, and a lot of concern into whether we are doing it well or not. Seeing other people, usually far more attractive than us mere mortals, having apparently amazing sex is bound to generate a reaction.
Violence can be horrific and realistic, portraying the worst in humanity, from serial killers to the aftermath of war. Even if it is based on real events, we can still box it away in our minds as something separate to us, something terrible that has happened to someone else but unlikely to ever happen to us. It can be a reality that we want to turn into a fantasy. But sex in movies and TV is a fantasy we want to turn into a reality. Most likely the majority of the viewers who watched Normal People (or 365 Days, or whatever happens to be in your search history on Pornhub) knew what they were letting themselves in for: attractive people falling in love and having sex. There is a chance that some viewers went in blind, with no idea of how much sex would be involved in the show, and how realistically it would be depicted. If that was the case, unless the batteries suddenly died in their remote control, there was nothing stopping them from simply changing the channel once the sex scenes began and not returning to the show. But no, those sex scenes were “like something from a porno movie”, and they were watched through entirely, apparently just to fully fuel the tanks for the lazy ‘won’t somebody please think of the children?’ argument.
Those who are concerned about their children seeing those scenes, here is a question for you: which would you rather them see? A well-thought-out sex scene by an Oscar-nominated director, who brought on board an intimacy coordinator to make sure that the performers were as comfortable as humanly possible with those sex scenes? Or to see a sex scene in a porno movie, with no sense of context, and potentially creating an impossible standard for the rest of their sexual maturity? (Note: this is not a judgment against pornographic movies, or those who work in the sex industry. Merely a comment on the exposure of those movies to those maybe too young to view them correctly.)
It took a long time, but sexuality in Irish movies is slowly catching up with the times, with the likes of A Date for Mad Mary, Dating Amber, Handsome Devil, and even the documentary The Queen Of Ireland all proving to be hugely popular. However, it is worth noting that none of those movies feature anything approaching what might be considered an explicit sex scene. It seems like we’ve progressed in terms of acceptance, as long as all that sexy stuff is still done behind closed doors.
Irish TV shows took just as long, with The Late Late Show regularly regarded as one of the more risque things on TV, thanks to Gay Byrne’s forward-thinking approach to the subject of sex. It took until 2005, when a threesome scene featured in short-lived series Pure Mule, that sex in Irish TV caught the nation’s attention. In 2010, Love/Hate arrived and featured some ‘gritty’ sex scenes, but for some reason most audiences barely raised an eyebrow to most of that show’s naughtier bits.
So you have to wonder – is it because Normal People was too real? The characters were too lived-in, the acting was too natural, the writing and directing was too good, it blurred that line of fantasy and reality and made some of the viewers uncomfortable? We all know that the majority of the viewers of Normal People simply watched the show and then moved on with their lives, but what is it about sex scenes that gets people so worked up that their logical course of action is to ring up a nationwide radio talkshow and complain about it?
Normal People was a huge hit, becoming massively popular during its run. Anything that popular is usually because it is giving audiences exactly what they needed in that point in their lives, so on top of Normal People being a very well-made show, folks locked down by Covid-19 were all too willing to pick up what Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones were putting down. But we don’t want this to essentially represent a one-night stand of popularity. We want more sex in our movies and TV shows.
Sex is wrapped up eternally in desire. The majority of us fantasise about having the best sex with the best-looking people, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. TV and movies are where fantasy meets reality, where we can see some of our deepest desires brought to life, acted out in light and shadow, and enjoying those movies and TV shows is perfectly natural.
We have come so far as a country in terms of acceptance in sexuality, but one big thing left for Ireland to accept is that we love sex. As a country of writers, poets, film-makers, and artists, sex isn’t something that should feel like it is off-limits. Makers of movies and TV shows around the world have proven time and time again that sex can be beautiful, and emotional, and urgent, and necessary. Irish people love sex. Irish people love movies and TV. It is about time we let sex and movies and TV get together and just be allowed to do what comes naturally, without judgment.
Rory Cashin is a pop-culture journalist and co-host of sex and movies podcast ‘R & R Rated’
Five landmark sex scenes in mainstream culture
‘BASIC INSTINCT’ (1992)
Nominated for Oscars and making over $350m at the box office, this was when erotic thrillers went properly mainstream, with one of the world’s biggest stars at the time (Michael Douglas, above right) and one of the brightest up-and-coming talents (Sharon Stone, above left) engaging in some very risque sex scenes.
‘SEX and THE CITY’ (1998-2004)
By today’s standards, this TV show seems pretty tame and almost a little backwards, but don’t underestimate the impact it had at the time of its release. Charlotte, Carrie, Miranda and Samantha, all pictured, were modern women who enjoyed talking about sex, thinking about sex, writing about sex, and having sex. Lots of it.
‘WILD THINGS’ (1998)
In order to get attention in the world of erotic thrillers, you’ve got to push the envelope in some way, and that is exactly what Wild Things did. If you think of a movie that features a threesome scene, this is likely the movie you think of. Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell and Denise Richards embark on one night of three’s company,
and the rest is popular cinematic history.
‘QUEER AS FOLK’ (1999-2000)
Six years before Brokeback Mountain, and 18 years before Call Me By Your Name, this was the TV show that pushed LGBTQ+ sexuality into the mainstream, and introduced some sexual acts to the general public that many may not have ever heard of before.
‘FIFTY SHADES OF GREY’ (2015)
The trilogy made over $1.3bn at the box office, so obviously the appetite for raunchy movies is still as strong as ever, regardless of the quality of the movie itself. This is yet another mainstream boundary pusher, bringing the worlds of bondage, discipline, dominance, sadism and masochism to a wider audience.
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