‘How to Have Sex’: A movie made to get audiences talking about consent

Like lots of British teens, writer-director Molly Manning Walker spent her school holidays taking cheap, parent-free flights with friends to Greek and Spanish party resort towns like Malia and Ibiza, trying to live out their “Love Island” fantasies amid a cocktail of raging hormones, endless inebriation and peer pressure. It might sound familiar to anyone who has been a U.S. college kid on spring break in places like Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Cancún, Mexico. Take a wet T-shirt contest, add grain alcohol and stir.

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Those drunken, libidinous holidays became the setting, but not the subject, of Manning Walker’s debut feature, “How to Have Sex,” which won the prestigious Un Certain Regard Prize, typically focused on newer filmmakers, at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Manning Walker started as a cinematographer (“Scrapper”), and her intimate lens in her directorial debut follows 16-year-old Tara (breakout talent Mia McKenna-Bruce, 26, who just won best lead performance at the British Independent Film Awards for this role), through sweaty clubs and comically terrible hangovers on her quest to lose her virginity during a trip to Crete with her two best friends.

The film isn’t a female version of raunchy teen comedies “Porky’s” or “Superbad,” as its title suggests, but rather a dark look into the casual nature of sexual assault, and how hard it can be to recognize or talk about when you have no positive reference points. The Washington Post spoke with Manning Walker and McKenna-Bruce on the eve of the film’s U.S. release (it came out in the Britain in November) about their sex educations and the surprising reactions they’ve gotten while screening it at British high schools.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m most interested in talking about the issues that the movie brings up about gray areas of consent. What was the inspiration?

Molly Manning Walker: I went on lots of these holidays as a teenager, and it was based on how we taught each other how to have sex with no idea of ourselves and following this blueprint that we kind of made up.

Mia McKenna-Bruce: I don’t know if it’s different [from the U.S.], but I definitely remember being at school and there being a bit of a goal [for] people to lose their virginity before they were 16.

What do you remember about your own sex education in school?

Manning Walker: It was trash.

McKenna-Bruce: You don’t learn anything about consent.

Manning Walker: But even female pleasure, you don’t learn any of that. We put a condom on a banana. And we watched a woman give birth for 45 minutes.

McKenna-Bruce: I think we learned about periods. But they only took the girls to learn about the periods. It was taboo, like, “Don’t tell the boys that periods exist.” And then we had a textbook with a picture of the man on top of a woman, and [it] was kind of like, “That’s it. That’s sex. Do what you will with that.” Literally. Figure it out.

Did your parents talk about it, or did your friends’ parents?

Manning Walker: My parents were pretty liberal about it. But they still didn’t talk about what sex was. They were like, “If you’re going to have sex, have it in the house.” But they weren’t going into depth. There was still shame around it.

McKenna-Bruce: I don’t think it was ever a conversation in our house.

McKenna-Bruce: That’s why I was so fascinated to see how my mom and dad would react when they saw it. Even when I said that I was doing a film called “How To Have Sex,” that in itself was like, “Whoa, what is going on?” And [now] we’ve been having these conversations that we never would have had. And I’ve got two younger sisters. So it’s brilliant that they’re now having open conversations around sex without feeling embarrassed. And that’s literally because of this film.

I mean, my parents were hippies, but I think I got my idea of what sex is from movies.

Manning Walker: I was watching a film the other day and it was so ridiculous that might be taken seriously. In the scene, there’s no foreplay. Just straight into having sex. I’m like, “Of course people have no clue what’s going on!”

In the movie “Cat Person” [now available on Hulu] there’s a montage of Harrison Ford’s sex scenes in films and it’s all him, like, throwing a woman up against a wall, or not taking her resistance seriously.

Manning Walker: Yeah, the expectation on men of what they’re supposed to do in these situations [is] very aggressive. If she’s saying “no,” she doesn’t mean really mean it. She’s still into you.

Did you notice a change around the way consent was talked about during #MeToo?

Manning Walker: I felt like even though #MeToo was amazing and everyone was like, “This has also happened to me,” it didn’t help the shame around the dialogue. We still weren’t talking about, “What is good sex?” Especially in Britain. We love to not talk about things in Britain.

There was a big conversation during #MeToo about gray areas of consent, where the sex is just bad or the power dynamics are off but the woman doesn’t say “no.” Do you consider what happens in the movie more clear-cut than that?

Manning Walker: I feel like we have to redefine [consent]. [Tara] said “no” three times in the film, but that wasn’t taken as a final thing. And when she says “yes,” with obvious discomfort on her face while he’s over her, that’s taken as final. But it really comes down to two people having a good time and recognizing that they’re both having a good time.

McKenna-Bruce: Either everyone involved is enjoying it, or they’re not, then stop. Don’t proceed.

Manning Walker: If you’re having a conversation and someone checks out of the conversation, you’re like, “Oh, are you okay?” For some reason, when you’re having sex with someone, that isn’t taken into account.

Especially if you’re in the middle of it. Not everyone has caught up to the idea that consent can change at any time.

McKenna-Bruce: Exactly. They think that just because you’ve said “yes” at some point you have to [keep going like] that’s your answer throughout.

In the movie, Tara feels obliged to act like she really enjoyed herself and her friends don’t clock it. What were you trying to say about friendships in these scenarios?

McKenna-Bruce: You see the pressures are coming from the friends, as well, and it’s almost competition vibes. So she’s also trying to put on this front to the people that she should be able to be honest with, which is another thing that you’re trying to deal with at that age.

How have women in audiences reacted and how have younger men reacted?

McKenna-Bruce: A lot of women have just said how seen they feel by this movie and how it’s given them the capacity to talk about situations that they’ve experienced or friends have experienced. A lot of older women were like, “I went through these situations when I was younger that I didn’t even realize were a problem. And they obviously made me feel some kind of way. And I’ve just ignored that for years.”

Manning Walker: We’re taking [the film] into high schools to teach consent, and we had this crazy experience at quite a rough high school. There was a back line of kids that were like throwing [stuff] at the teachers and climbing on the chairs. And these two other kids were like, “It’s not assault because …” They had all these reasons why it wasn’t assault. And these two kind of rough boys at the back of the class were like, “Listen man, it is assault because …” And they started teaching the other kids in the class. To me that was super emotional because [maybe this film] gives the language for young people to discuss it. They could dissociate from it and talk about what [the characters] did.

And does it bring up conversations about the drinking culture as well?

Manning Walker: Yeah, I think I definitely learned to drink wrong. Like, we loved to get trashed. But I think it’s important that [the movie] was set in this space [a party island], because it shouldn’t matter what she’s wearing or how much she’s drunk or how much he’s drunk. In Cannes interviews, I got a lot of questions from people who were like, “But he’s drunk. How does he know what he’s doing?” And you’re like, “But if you murdered someone when you were drunk, you wouldn’t be like, ‘They were drunk! I was drunk!’” For some reason, [sex] makes it murky when it really shouldn’t.


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