A Brutally Real Experience
By Antonella Valente
Warning: this article contains spoilers and discusses sexual violence
When a friend asked me to watch How to Have Sex, a new film drama directed by Molly Manning Walker, I knew I would have to brace myself for the experience.
I had already looked up the plot of the film before she suggested the trip to the cinema, and I was equally intrigued and scared by the prospect of it. A quick Google search revealed that it was vaguely about partying, sex (obviously) and consent. Not knowing much more, I entered the theatre for an hour and thirty-eight minutes of intense emotion. With the moral support of my friend and a tub of strawberry lemonade ice cream from Baskin-Robbins, I was ready to be transported to sweaty, boozy Greece.
How to Have Sex follows Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake) who fly to a party resort in Crete to celebrate finishing their GCSEs. The goal of their holiday is very much to get drunk, high and laid. As somebody who could not identify less with the idea of ‘fun’ being promoted here, I felt second-hand embarrassment to see the three girls unapologetically fulfilling the loud-and-drunk-Brit-on-holiday stereotype within the first couple of scenes. First-time director Walker manages to portray this cliché incredibly well throughout the film, from sparkly make-up and tacky jewellery to an array of neon green mini-dresses and bikinis. To quickly paint the scene for you: the three young girls share a one-bedroom hotel room with views of the pool. They wake up to beach parties and go to sleep long after sunrise. They have alcohol and cigarettes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They share meaningful moments, like when they drunkenly promise to stay friends after high school, regardless of their grades and doubtful futures. They also share tense moments, like when Skye teasingly exposes Tara for being a virgin during a game of Never Have I Ever.
Tara, presumably sixteen, is seemingly the most innocent of the three girls. She is the perfect image of a sweet, pretty, slightly shy girly-girl. Her sexuality, specifically her lack of sexual experience, is widely thematised in the movie. It is a topic often brought up by Skye, who continually proves herself to be a pretty bad friend. While Skye subtly virgin-shames and not-so-subtly peer-pressures Tara into having sex with Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), Em shows genuine concern for Tara and embodies the role of the supportive friend.
How to Have Sex brilliantly incorporates rites of passage in British culture, queer representation and all too relatable experiences of sexual violence.
What made this film so special, in my opinion, was how real it all felt. It manages to demystify party holidays by showing its highs (having fun, bonding with friends, coming of age) and its lows (being hungover, body aches, friends disappearing). It also normalises queerness by incorporating queer characters without making a huge deal out of it. Most importantly, it gives the audience a realistic context in which sexual violence can happen, in a way that, sadly, has happened to many of us. Tara’s inability and unwillingness to talk about her experience is as heartbreaking as it is relatable. By showing the reality of sexual assault, and the shame and insecurities that can come with it, How to Have Sex also shows all the ways in which not to have sex.
I left the cinema with tears in my eyes and anguish to have felt Tara’s trauma. But I also left with hope that, thanks to films like these, other young girls will be able to recognise what consent should (and shouldn’t) look like and may feel encouraged to set boundaries and speak up.