On the Hotness of Not Getting Any

Edging, or extending the time leading up to an orgasm, is almost a character of its own in Normal People, Run, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It also has a lot to teach us about sexuality and consent.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2020 | 10 minutes (2,500 words)

Isolation is horny as fuck. Not for everyone, obviously, but if you’re single and you live alone. . . I mean, I have never thought this much about sex in my life. Not even in high school. Although this does kind of feel like high school: snacking, jerking off, sort-of working, snacking, jerking off. Or maybe we’re regressing to a point in history when we were exclusively driven by our basest instincts: horny, hungry, trying not to die. In between we binge-stream. And through this fogged up lockdown-induced lens, the horniness of what we are watching is compounded by our own.

Normal People is the big one. The Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s critically felated millennial romance is softcore for hipsters: an outcast girl and a sensitive jock, both of them equally brilliant (of course), having some messy, bildungsroman-style sex over the years (to Imogen Heap, in Malick-ian light) like that’s all the world is. The sex is hot, but everything that happens right before it is hotter. All that staring, all that sizzle — by the time they actually do it, it’s almost an afterthought. Almost. The same goes for Run, the HBO series by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s creative partner, Vicky Jones, about two ex-lovers fleeing their lives to the kind of loin-tingling wit that got us through the Hays Code. Here, once again, the foreplay is the sex. Then there’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the French period piece in which two women, with their eyes alone, strip, fuck, and share a cigarette before they physically do all three.

This is the kind of hot — leg-crossing, side-eying — where you don’t have to say it out loud, you feel it. The kind of hot spun by women from Europe, where sex doesn’t have the same moral implications it does in America. But more than that, it’s a hotness related to a wider move toward women reclaiming their own stories, their own sex. We all know by now that sex under the male gaze tends to objectify women — hotness, in the hands of men, is predominantly naked women getting fucked. Permission is neither here nor there. Under the female gaze, sure, naked women get fucked too, but there’s also enthusiastic consent. Great sex is not orgasm upon orgasm so much as agreement upon agreement, through looks and gestures and breaths and talk — the personification of ongoing accord, no permission slips or questions necessary. The point being that sex isn’t sexy unless it’s between people, not just their bodies; people who change their minds as well as their positions. In isolation, where you have nothing to do but wait for it, it only makes you hotter to watch not only the physical restraint and psychological tease, but every move, every look, every word that says “Yes!” before it’s screamed aloud.

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I have no idea where or when I first heard the term “edging,” but I think it was a couple of years ago. I recall being told that it came from teenagers who used it to describe holding off orgasm deliberately to make it that much stronger in the end, a kind of pleasure binge that seemed to fit that generation (if everything sucks, might as well overdose on suckage). Which is not to say that climax control is new; it goes back to Tantric and Taoist traditions, where it’s less about splooging as hard as you can and more about a kind of physical transcendence. But the idea of mindful sex, of really feeling everything — together — instead of just trying to get yourself off as quickly as possible, didn’t really hit conservative America until the sixties. Masters of Sex reintroduced us to William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the couple responsible for the huge human sexuality study published in 1966 that identified the four-stage sex response: excitement (arousal), plateau (pre-orgasm), orgasm, resolution (post-orgasm). Of course, it turned out that cycle was generally reserved for men, while women across the country were left dissatisfied (and often pregnant). But the sixties and seventies brought heightened awareness of women’s rights along with heightened awareness of sexuality.

Enter edging. “Understanding this new kind of orgasm can be especially difficult for men. When it comes to pleasure, women are the first in line.” This comes from the worryingly titled Extended Massive Orgasm by Vera and Steve Bodansky, a 2002 addition to a slew of slow masturbation and one-hour-orgasm how-to books, all of which fall under the rubric of edging. The Bodanskys emphasize being fully present — fully engaged with yourself and your partner — and aware that the mechanics of sex are not the sole source of pleasure. A human being has a psychological as well as a physical self, and sex also has both elements; eye contact, verbalizing, variations in touch, and breathing responsively aren’t requirements for ejaculation, but they definitely make it more agreeable. Which is why the Bodansky book, somewhat patronizingly, addresses men the way it does. Because sex has been generally dictated by men, it has generally served them and them alone. Putting women first doesn’t mean men are neglected, it means women aren’t.

But Hollywood is still predominantly run by men and men predominantly run it the old way when it comes to heat (erotic thrillers were a brief light at the end of the tunnel, but then the tunnel just kept going). Think of Game of Thrones or anything on Starz: what passes for hot, once again, is conventionally beautiful women with no clothes on being bent over. The physical part may be there, but the psychological part, not to mention the consent, is not. Which is why reality series like Too Hot to Handle (contestants win by not touching) and Love Is Blind (contestants get together before seeing each other) are not particularly orgasmic, though they are positioned as the perfect pandemic watch. The payoff of edging requires real chemistry and it helps to have some real stakes thrown in.

Which is not to say it can’t be fictional. There are nine sex scenes in Normal People. Actually, there are more than nine, but there are nine between the two superficially polar-opposite teens we follow from high school to college. (There are only 12 episodes). Try finding a story about Normal People that doesn’t mention its horniness. You can’t; horniness defines it. Obviously, being particularly susceptible in lockdown to anything related to the possibility of sex has affected how we respond to it, but this is also the kind of hotness that transcends pandemics. Let me explain, with Connell and his little chain.

Connell (Paul Mescal) isn’t just hot because he looks like an animated version of Michelangelo’s David, he’s hot because he looks like an animated version of Michelangelo’s David and is shy. He is hot because he is entirely uncomfortable in his own skin despite inhabiting skin in which he should be entirely comfortable — he is a super-smart, super-handsome, super-athletic white man; how much better can he have it? Connell is hot because despite all of that, he can’t stop staring at the guileless-verging-on-neurodivergent-poor-man’s-Anne-Hathaway Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) when Marcia Brady (that’s not her name, but does she ever look like her) can’t stop staring at him. He is hot because he is charmed as fuck when Marianne, during their second kiss, blurts out the “guy” question: “Now can we take our clothes off?” He is hot because he gives Marianne an out during her first time. He is hot because he takes Marianne’s advice about his future. He is hot because he is inconsolable when he realizes how badly he has treated her by keeping them secret. Connell is hot because as much as Marianne is at his mercy, he is even more at hers.

And the sex scenes in Normal People are hot because the director realizes all of this — that the hotness is as much in everyone’s heads as it is in their bodies. “In some movies, they treat sex scenes like they treat car chases or gun fights, like an opportunity to try a different form of filmmaking,” Lenny Abrahamson told the Irish magazine Hot Press. “How I shot, if we were moving from dialogue to sex, there’s no point where we enter a different dimension, it’s just a continuation of their interaction.” The way the show is filmed, the confined settings, the proximity of the camera to their faces, their eyes — all of it magnifies the intimacy. But it isn’t just in the shooting, it’s also in the choreography. With the help of intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, every frisson between Connell and Marianne — from every long gaze and every small touch to all that heavy breathing in flagrante — coalesces into an intoxicating six-hour expression of the fluid physical connection between two characters whose psychological connection (whose verbal agreement, even) came first. It’s like nothing else exists but them. These two are entirely in it with each other.

While Run is less about what’s in their heads than what’s coming out of their mouths, its not-so-brief encounter on a train has a similarly close-quartered intimacy. The HBO series stars Merritt Wever as Ruby, a wife and mom of two, and Domhnall Gleeson as Billy, a Jordan Peterson type. The two exes reunite after 15 years on a cross-country trip to escape their lives. She has her family to lose, he has his book deal. The stakes are slightly uneven, but their banter is not: their edgeplay is their wordplay. Like Normal People, the camera stays close to the two lovers who are already confined in their seats (and, later, “roomette”) shoulder to shoulder, face to face, almost mouth to mouth. Just like we do, they become so hot off each other’s proximity that they are forced to take breaks to secretly masturbate in the bathroom. Both of them. Separately.

But here again, as in Normal People, the woman ultimately has all the power. With a family back home, this is Ruby’s encounter to take or leave, not Billy’s. It is her thirst that fuels the ride, not his. “I turned up to have sex,” she says. And later, “I want to fuck you… now.” These exclamations are all the more pregnant for the person saying them — Wever herself has admitted she did not see herself as a lead in a rom-com (Gleeson had already done About Time). And yet here she is not only in one, but subverting it. A man admitting he wants to fuck a woman who might not want to fuck him isn’t transgressive, it’s a cliché. But a woman admitting she wants to fuck a man (more conventionally attractive than she is, more successful, more single) who might reject her? That’s hot. So will he say yes? Do we even need him to anymore? “Holding back on the sex was always something we knew we had to do,” creator Vicky Jones told Refinery29. “Because it’s not really a will-they-won’t-they, since they do. It’s, will they have sex and how?” But with foreplay this good, the sex can’t help but be an anti-climax.

That upending convention, that the woman dominates really, suggests why the queen of edging is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a queer love story by a queer filmmaker (Céline Sciamma) about a painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). There is no dilution here by the well-trod tropes of male sexuality, there is only a pair of  women drowning in each other. The female gaze turns in on itself as Marianne’s view of Héloïse becomes ours. The film’s title summons the slow burn of their relationship, with every new plateau advancing so achingly slowly — Marianne even seeks consent before repositioning Héloïse’s arm as she sits for her, which is the first time they touch — that every act, when it comes, is that much more extreme, the whole thing mimicking that aforementioned menacing “massive extended orgasm.” It takes 13 minutes for the heroines to meet, despite being in the same house, and even then, one of them is only introduced from behind in a black head-to-toe cloak, a funereal tease. This is no meet-cute; it’s the slowest reveal ever, with her cloak fluttering in the breeze until a mess of blond strands escape, which almost make you gasp despite yourself, before the whole hood falls to expose the back of a blond head. And then, suddenly, the faceless woman is running to her death, we think, until she stops right at the edge of a cliff and, abruptly, turns, her flushed face, her great blue eyes, downplaying the grand mort to a petit mort. “I’ve dreamt of that for years,” Héloïse says breathlessly, post-coitally. A pure distillation of the female apex, no wonder the French, their sexual legacy defined by males, thought the film wasn’t erotic enough.

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The hottest scene in Normal People, ergo the hottest scene of my isolation, doesn’t actually include an orgasm. And it, fittingly, takes a while, not arriving until near the end of the second half of the series, which was directed by Hettie Macdonald. Now in college, no longer dating, Connell and Marianne are sort-of-not-really watching some sports game in Connell’s hot, cramped childhood room in a haze of hormones. Everything is sweating. She stares at him. He stares at the screen. She pretends to sleep. He gets up. “Want some ice cream?” He goes, she stays. He returns. It’s not ice cream, it’s penis-shaped rocket popsicles. And the room is dripping in sex. When Marianne stretches out her bare feet to his end of the bed, I squeak. She says she wants him to kiss her. He says he does too — the pain on his face! — but they always end badly and he doesn’t want to lose her friendship. Fuck. She gets up to leave, telling him not to drop her off at home ‘cause he’ll miss the rest of the match. Olive branch: “I forgot there was a match on, to be honest.” Game on.

Even though the sex is ultimately abandoned (I won’t spoil it), it doesn’t matter. This prelude is more satisfying than 99 percent of the orgasms I’ve ever watched. Despite all the sexual tension, the woman still ultimately commands the room. Theirs and ours. In that Hot Press interview, director Lenny Abrahamson, who shot the first six episodes, laughed perversely about the show coming out during a worldwide pandemic. “You start to miss the human touch, people’s skin — and that is all over the show,” he said. “God help everybody!” But it wasn’t Abrahamson behind the episode I’m talking about, it was a woman. And while it’s true that thirst can hurt, it can also take the edge off, as that scene choreographed by three women — conceived of by Rooney, directed by Macdonald, managed by O’Brien — proves. No one finished, but it wasn’t about that. Because all the elements were there, all that want and all that permission. And that was enough for me, if for no one else. And what was that line again? “When it comes to pleasure, women are the first in line.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.