Illustration by Ben Beechener
In the run-up to the release of her third novel, Beautiful World, Where are You?, I, like I expect many others, reread both of Sally Rooney’s previous novels – she is ‘the voice of a generation’ after all. What I particularly noticed this time was, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the subject matter of both books, the sex. Marianne’s wish to be submissive is a major plot point in Normal People whereas Frances in Conversations With Friends only briefly toys with it, but it’s there in both books, and it made me think.
The obvious difference between Marianne and Frances and actual, real, people is that the former two are characters in novels rather than three-dimensional humans. Their traits and behaviours are chosen and made significant by the author in order to create a full impression of them from just the words on the page. But, when it comes to female sexuality, especially of the non-vanilla variety, I wonder whether this practice of observers automatically imbuing sexual desires with a deeper significance reaches further into real life than it should.
Marianne’s kink is inextricably linked to her traumatic childhood; if her family hadn’t been abusive, she wouldn’t want to be hit during sex. Being submissive is, for some people, a healthy way to deal with trauma – although this is not at all what Marianne does. Equally, sometimes sexual desire is just that; it doesn’t always have to be meaningful. Yet our culture, obsessed with women’s bodies, seems equally invasive in its interest in how we choose to use them.
I talked to some of my friends in the process of writing this article. It was noticeable that the girls I asked practically wrote me essays, whereas the boys’ response is best summarised by a quote: ‘it’s just shagging, innit?’. It’s possible I’m reading far too much into this, but to be honest that’s typical of how women view sex and our own sexuality. We overthink it.
Female sexuality has always been observed and analysed, largely without invitation (think Freud). In the past, women couldn’t express any desire at all, and this is still the case for many worldwide. Now, even if some of us theoretically can articulate what we want, we constantly worry about what it might say about us. For girls, it’s generally much harder for it to be ‘just shagging’.
Speaking of just shagging, the wildly successful TV adaptation of Normal People was criticised in some quarters for basically being soft porn. A lot of this was the faintly hypocritical prudishness of right-wing tabloids, and to be honest shouldn’t have been particularly surprising as there is also a lot of sex in the novel. Fans quickly responded that it’s actually an accurate depiction of what, uh, normal people get up to.
In fact, the show was widely praised for its depictions of consensual sex and realistic representation of what really happens. Despite the high proportion of sex scenes, the show wasn’t plagued by the gratuitous female nudity which so often is an unwelcome visitor to our screens. Arguably, the biggest problem it highlighted was the overexcitement in the reception of Connell literally just asking for consent; surely it should be a given, not a reason to declare him the ‘internet’s new boyfriend’. Also I never saw the appeal of the chain.
After he refuses to hit Marianne, Connell reflects that he could easily convince an outsider that it was because he was too nice to do so.
It would be a complete disservice to Rooney to suggest that she’s making a puritanical comment about kinky sex being more depraved. It’s more complicated than that because what she does is produce an accurate representation of how many people would probably react upon hearing of what happened between the two characters. It’s more complicated than that; because in the book, as in life, women’s expression of their desires is imbued with a significance much more rarely accorded to men’s.
If the articulation of your desires leads to unwelcome assumptions about who you are, it becomes easier not to articulate them at all. One of my friends said people assumed she had (the infamous) daddy issues because she sometimes liked being tied up during sex – but she has a great relationship with her father. Bringing up parents in the bedroom is largely not conducive to getting it on. Similarly, there’s a plethora of internet articles about whether being sexually submissive makes a woman a bad feminist – but why should it?
The fact remains that a decent chunk of society would cheerfully advance the argument that the sort of porn a man chooses to watch says little about him as a person (although it’s worth acknowledging this is much less applicable to gay porn, as non-heterosexual desire undergoes a much greater degree of unwanted scrutiny). Real women are not accorded the same respect or privacy. Perhaps, by making her kinky girls damaged and not entirely in control of their sexuality, Rooney doesn’t help as much as she could – but then she herself has said she’s just trying to write about reality as she sees it.
Her depiction of sexuality is limited to her characters – most kinky girls aren’t like Marianne and she makes no claim that they are. Non-voyeuristic depiction of non-vanilla female sexuality in literature is so rare that it’s refreshing to see it at all, and in the main characters, who aren’t condemned for it by their author.
Back in the real world, women are, much more than men, socialised to overthink everything we do, from kinks to body counts. Even if we try not to, society overthinks it for us.
Real girls aren’t like characters in novels – sometimes, it would be nice for it to be just shagging; or at least for the amateur psychoanalysts to stay out of our bedrooms.