New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: ‘How to Have Sex’ is not a tutorial, sadly

Molly Manning Walker’s directorial debut is a raw examination of our youth’s troubling sexual culture.
(Courtesy of Mubi)

Content warning: This article contains discussions of sexual assault.

Asking your friends if they’d want to come see “How to Have Sex” with you is a surefire way to get a few raised eyebrows. The film’s searchable title, however, is somewhat of a misdirect. “How to Have Sex” teaches you the exact opposite — it’s a warning. Directed by Molly Manning Walker, the film is an uncomfortably honest examination of the current sex culture, especially when it comes to safety, consent and pressure.

In the summer right after A-level exams, three 16-year-old friends embark on a booze-filled trip to Malia, a town in Crete, Greece, renowned among British youth for its bustling nightlife. There’s Em (Enva Lewis), the studious friend who knows she’s headed to college in the fall, and Skye (Lara Peake), who falls prey to her own insecurities and constantly feels the need to bring down Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), a doe-eyed girl tormented by her sexual inexperience.

“If you don’t get laid on this holiday, then you never will,” Skye tells Tara right before the title card. Like many toxic friendships, Skye veils her jabs by claiming that they’re simply jokes. Her comments exacerbate the already-present pressure on Tara to lose her virginity, which, surely, can only lead to wacky hijinks as the trio embark on a trip that must be all about sexual liberation and hedonistic bliss.

When we watch films about these crazy post-exam summer holidays, what typically comes to mind are lighthearted stories about young men on their quest to “get laid” — think “The Inbetweeners Movie,” which, by no coincidence, also takes place in Malia. Walker’s film, however, stands out by highlighting the gender gap present in these early sexual experiences. By showing us what happens to Tara, Walker demonstrates how the pressures we place on young women when it comes to sex often lead to murky grounds of safety and consent.

After their first girls-only night, the three girls hit it off with another group of friends, including Badger (Shaun Thomas), a well-intentioned but somewhat dim man whom both Tara and Skye take a liking to, and Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), Badger’s cooler — but arrogant — friend.

During a neon-lit night of drunken clubbing and general debauchery, Paddy takes Tara to the beach to go skinny-dipping — an invitation she repeatedly says “no” to, which Paddy ignores. He calls her “uptight” when she becomes visibly upset at being soaked in the ocean water, remarking that he “thought [she] was the fun one.” She hesitates in discomfort when he leans in to kiss her, and when the two eventually have sex on the beach, the act is nothing more than compliance on Tara’s part.

Walker’s film addresses sexual misconduct in a nuanced way that acknowledges the current conversation around sexual encounters and assault. What the beach scene illustrates is how, on heteropatriarchal terms, women are taught to view sex as an obligatory act as a response to being perceived as desirable. Tara squeezes out a “yes” to Paddy’s advances simply because, at that moment, she believes it would be easier to comply rather than make a scene.

“How to Have Sex” authentically captures how common it is for women to be pressured into unwanted sexual acts, and how these experiences can even be celebrated. The next morning, Skye is pleased to hear about Tara’s night with Paddy, as it gives her room to make a move on Badger. Despite Tara’s discomfort, Skye and Em don’t catch on, egging Tara for more details, as the pressure to lose her virginity has finally been lifted. It’s heartbreaking to hear how subtly Tara alludes to the violence of the encounter when she describes Paddy as “strong,” and that he “knew what he was doing,” but neglects to explicitly describe it as assault in order to keep the party going.

As Tara begins processing her trauma, Walker also examines how normalized sexual misconduct is among male friends. Badger and Tara grow closer towards the end of the film, and though it is never outwardly discussed, he notes that something is awry between her and Paddy. 

“He’s a nightmare of a guy,” Badger tells Tara as the two sit together on a hotel balcony — but he follows up by saying that he and Paddy have known each other “since we were little,” and ultimately fails to hold his friend responsible for his actions.

The film includes tender moments between Badger and Tara that show Walker’s poor attempt of creating a romantic dynamic, one that feels unearned in the context of the film’s themes. There’s a scene scored by soft piano where Tara falls asleep and Badger carries her to bed, which appears weird and inappropriate given his complicity in Tara’s assault. 

It is only when the girls are at the airport, ready to go home, that Tara quietly reveals to Em the true nature of her sexual experience with Paddy. Em tells her that she “should have said something,” and that what happened to her was not okay despite Tara’s insistence that everything is “fine.” 

What is most striking about Walker’s film is how authentic and uncomfortably accurate it is — speak to any victim of sexual assault and they’ll likely relate to Tara’s struggle in calling out that kind of behavior. It is enabled by our toxic sexual culture, and is a brutally honest exploration of a young woman’s sexual coming-of-age. Walker’s film brilliantly examines and criticizes not how to have sex, but how we have learned to have sex by our society.

“How to Have Sex” is now showing in select theaters.


Contact Stephanie Wong at [email protected].

View comments (1)
About the Contributor
Stephanie Wong
Stephanie Wong, Arts Editor
Stephanie Wong is a junior double-majoring in Media, Culture and Communication and Journalism, with a minor in English Literature. In her spare time, she loves watching bad movies and curating esoteric Spotify playlists. You can find her at @_stephaniewong_ on Instagram, @normalstephanie on Spotify, and unfortunately, on Letterboxd as @emima.

Comments (1)

Comments that are deemed spam or hate speech by the moderators will be deleted.
All Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • A

    Alisia HoughtalingFeb 15, 2024 at 3:10 pm

    Thank you for such an awesome review! Now I might watch it looking through this interesting lens.