• How to Have Sex is a compelling debut by Molly Manning Walker

  • A rites-of-passage drama that follows young Brits abroad on a mission to lose their virginity, psychotherapist Camilla Nicholls explores its themes of confusion and consent

How to Have Sex is the remarkable writer-director debut of British cinematographer Molly Manning Walker which she films in the same in-your-face style as its title. It follows Tara and a tight knit group of 16 year old friends planning to have the ‘best holiday ever’ in Malia, Crete as they await their exam results. This is not a trip of guide books and heritage sites but a rites-of-passage week of boozing, clubbing and hooking up. For Tara there is also the added aim of losing her virginity, something that maybe her friends seem more invested in than she is.

The central themes of the film are consent and confusion. In an atmosphere where anything and everything goes and a hotel’s programme of entertainment includes an unsubtle contest of which horny lad can get hard first in front of a hysterical sea of Love Island wannabes, Manning Walker and her gem of a lead, Mia McKenna-Bruce, manage to present compellingly nuanced insights into what it is to be young, up for it but also uncertain, frightened even, of your own power to attract.

Whilst we cheer on the girls in their highly sexualised (and uncomfortable) outfits to squeeze all the joy they can out of their new found freedom and their ability to be as cheeky as the lads, we watch with a growing feeling of disquiet about the level of understanding they have, or want to have given their alcohol intake, about what they might be getting themselves into.

There is no one as fiercely loyal as a teenage girlfriend, nor as given to jealous spite. It’s the jealousy that plays a pivotal role in Mia being coerced into finding a vain, cocky boy attractive when it’s really the boy with the best jokes and a moral compass with whom she wants to hang out and be herself. We feel the anguish when three become a crowd not a team. As the film progresses the club scenes become more hectic, the litter strewn streets become darker, and the prospect of falling foul of social, peer and male sexual pressure feels more dominant.

Through the thrillingly involved direction (apparently Manning Walker directed one lit up club scene whilst also spinning the discs and pumping the air) and brilliant acting we are taken on a wildly funny but uncomfortable journey of everyday club holiday debauchery where sex is debased into social currency rather an expression of agency and love gets pushed way out of the picture.

I found How to Have Sex utterly compelling, but it left me feeling queasy and sad for my younger self. In that mood I turned to Dr Emily Nagoski’s podcast Come As You Are and the excellent episode, Consent and ‘Enthusiastic Maybe.’ I wondered, as I listened, whether it was age, education or class that would likely prevent any of Manning Walker’s finely drawn characters to ever benefit from its non-judgmental wisdom.

Camilla Nicholls is a verified Welldoing therapist in North London

Further reading

What do teens today understand about sex and consent?

How parents can manage anxiety around teenagers becoming independent