‘Good’ girlhood: ‘How to Have Sex’ is about the before and after 

Content warning: This article contains references to sexual violence.

This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

There are communication dynamics that are infuriating once you notice them. One rhetorical tactic that annoys me is when people hear me say “no” to a request and understand this as the start of a negotiation.  

Writer and director Molly Manning Walker’s provocatively-titled feature film debut, “How to Have Sex,” explores this dynamic in great detail. It is a film about obtaining sexual experience, but more importantly, about how non-romantic relationship dynamics shape how girls conduct themselves with romantic partners. The story centers on three 16-year-old British girls, Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis), and their vacation to a budget resort in Malia, Greece. They are awaiting the results of their university entrance exams, GSCEs, and adhere to a strict regimen of clubbing, libations, french fries (aka “chips”) and debauchery. Em suggests that whoever gets laid the most earns the main bedroom. Skye teases Tara about still being a virgin, which gives Tara an extra incentive to score.

An encounter with a group of slightly older British tourists one balcony over, Badger (Shaun Thomas), Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and Paige (Laura Ambler), turns their trio into a sextet and adds stakes to the competition. The girls use the superlative to declare themselves best friends on the best vacation ever, in a room with the best view. The power of positive thinking, perhaps, but Tara is pretending she is having a good time when she is not. 

Walker’s script establishes the dynamic among the girls from the outset. Em is the smart friend, but Tara has the people skills. When Em tries to obtain a room with a pool view, the receptionist tells her that none are available. Tara skips to the counter and uses her charm and a series of outlandish lies to secure their desired room. Hearing “no” as the start of a negotiation during a business transaction foreshadows the later theme of ignoring consent. Skye witnesses this interaction, but provides no help. 

Although the trip appears to be the trio’s first outing sans parents, it is also a last holiday. During drunken revelries they vacillate between childish horseplay, teasing and revealing anxieties about needing to cross the threshold over into adulthood. During a conversation about what to study in college, Tara declares: “I think maybe I’ll just do business ‘cause everything is business now. Every day, just like all the time.”

McKenna-Bruce gives a tour de force performance. There are flashes of consternation on her face and she uses closed body language to indicate discomfort. She often looks at the ground as if there is a reminder at her feet to act like she’s having fun. Feeling one way and acting another is fine in most circumstances, but it has devastating consequences in the arena of sexual intimacy. 

Once the girls link up with the men, there are the requisite machinations to match everyone with a suitable partner. There are courtship rituals that take place while pregaming on resort balconies littered with alcohol bottles and in nightclubs saturated with blue light and propulsive, bass-heavy dance music. In a pivotal beach scene, one guy negotiates his way into sexual activity with Tara. She doesn’t want to go to the beach, but he insists they go together, alone. She doesn’t want to go into the water, but he throws her into the waves. While she calls him out on his attempted negging, she is unable to resist his physically aggressive overtures. 

Although the film is called “How to Have Sex,” everything that comes before and after sex is more important than the event itself. It sensitively depicts the sexual-violence spectrum and shows how an encounter can go from half-hearted consent to unwanted sex to rape. Walker is an experienced cinematographer, and her sharp direction underscores the narrative action. From the shaky camera work in the club scenes to the slow, still, close-ups of the girls waking up after a night out, she induces the ominous feeling that something bad has happened, but we’re not quite sure how to label it.

The wardrobe choices in the film are similarly instructive. Early in the film, Tara gives Skye the shirt off her back when Skye is indecisive about what to wear. Skye dresses Tara during subsequent scenes, but the garments she gives to Tara are uncomfortable (and green, the color that represents envy). Tara wears the outfits when Em confirms how great she looks, a further habituation into enduring discomfort. 

There is an interesting commentary on men’s behavior when one male character who suspects his friend has harmed Tara admits that his friend is a “nightmare of a guy.” He goes on to explain why they remain friends — reputation laundering under the guise of vulnerability. Nightmare guys are made by those willing to enable them.

Beyond the lesson about the sexual violence continuum, there are two additional takeaways from this film. If friends are making jokes at your expense, they’re likely not your friends. “Yes means yes” and “No means no” are simple phrases to consent to or decline sexual activity, but communication and relationship dynamics are complicated. Learning how to have to sex means learning to recognize when “no’s” are going unheard, and friendship may be the place to practice these skills.  

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